The reality of living in Mumbai
A conspiracy theorist would find it easy to believe that the Maharashtra government is working as hard as it can to make Mumbai India’s most unliveable city. Sounds extreme? Try this: the new property tax laws seem to have been computed on an inflated premise and are sending shivers through bank balances at the middle and top sections of the city.
At the same time, the state government is hell-bent on ignoring the Supreme Court and the Centre by making life a living hell for street hawkers and vendors in the city. You cannot buy a flat in Mumbai any more on any reasonable or even reasonably high salary without selling your soul and that of your grandchildren to a bank. And even then you’re looking at a distant suburb. But is life easier as a slum dweller? Think again. One room in Khar Danda costs about Rs 3,500 a month to rent. And there’s every chance that all the slums will be bulldozed to allow a builder to make some fancy-shmancy flats at Rs 30,000 a sq ft so that all the poor people can be shifted to Mankhurd or perhaps to some neighbouring state.
Go back to the top of the spectrum. You cannot eat in a restaurant without paying some exorbitant tax. Alcohol is taxed at 60 to 70 per cent over the manufacturer’s price. If you import a motorcycle, you are taxed just a little less than what you paid. Your car registration is more expensive than anywhere else. You move your personal belongings into Mumbai, you are taxed for that as well. And what do you get for your pains and money? Fabulous life style opportunities filled with nightclubs, musical performances, fine dining, theatre, art and culture? Or cops like Vasant Dhoble harassing citizens with arcane provisions of outdated laws and mofussil ideas of morality?
Go back to the bottom. You cannot hawk your wares on the streets because it upsets car owners. You cannot buy from street hawkers because they upset car owners. You cannot afford to enter fancy shops. You cannot afford autos at 15 bucks a pop in the suburbs but you have to go to the market to be able to eat however little it is lugging your purchases...
And if you live in the middle? You can be squished to death in a train or wait for years for a bus, get fleeced by an auto or cab to get to work on time. If you think a little above yourself and dream of a car then there’s the ever-rising over-taxed petrol or diesel, there’s the problem of parking and of traffic itself.
We have been promised that all the long-pending transport infrastructure projects are going to be finished miraculously this year. Something magical about 2013 apparently; the cynic in me says approaching elections. This is excellent news for those who want to get from Versova to Ghatkopar or Jacob’s Circle to Chembur. Not quite so for the millions who travel by sardine can from Churchgate to Virar.
And for all of us, up, down, middle, there’s more in store. We are blessed with air we cannot breathe, pavements we cannot walk on, garbage we must learn to love and live with closely, water we cannot have (I notice those mysterious Upper, Middle and Lower Vaitarna projects are only occasionally mentioned...), buildings we cannot afford to live in, roads we cannot drive on, food we have to scrounge to find...
It’s when you remove the government from the equation — whether it’s the state government or the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation — that you find the city you want to live in, the Urbs Prima in Indis. The Bhau Daji Lad museum at the zoo finely encapsulates the best of Mumbai’s mercantile past and the great effort its citizens used to put into making this city great. Look around you. We can’t leave it to the bloodsuckers and moneygrubbers we’ve put in charge!
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona