The problem

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THE city of hope, of dreams, of opportunity – this is how Bombay appears to the migrant. All large cities have their repertoire of rags to riches stories. But it is only Bombay that has immortalized the metamorphosis in numerous cinematic representations. Just think of Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar.

For close to two centuries, in particular after the setting up of the textile mills and then the railways, Bombay remained the favoured destination of anyone who wanted to seek his fortune. In the early days, land was not in short supply. Equally, the industrialists, unlike in many other urban centres actually set up infrastructure for the growing industrial workforce, the chawls of Dadar and Parel. The migrants both created wealth and enriched the culture of the city. No surprise that at the time of independence, Bombay was our most vibrant, multicultural and welcoming city. It was also republican, the generation of wealth modulated by a respect for labour, helped no doubt by the communist control of the textile unions. In short, it created a work ethic.

Unlike many of our traditional cities which grew around religious complexes and princely courts or were colonial creations which thrived on the exercise of power, Bombay has remained quintessentially capitalist – modern, forward looking, intent on getting the work done. Of course, the wealthy enjoyed a lifestyle of privilege, even ostentation. But again, unlike most other centres in the country, they evolved a culture of giving back to the city, the lead being taken by the Parsi elite. The other rich – the Gujarati and Marwari businessmen, the Khoja and Bohra Muslims, even the professional elite – did not lag behind. The many institutions in the city – from hospital and colleges to art galleries and museums – are testimony to both a civic consciousness and pride.

It is unclear what role geography played in the evolution of the city. The port was the connection to worlds afar, the railway network to the hinterland. Connecting the island to the mainland led to a linear growth, the first to be ably serviced by a suburban system. Constraints of space forced people to build upwards, giving the country its first skyscrapers. Managing densities has rarely been an Indian skill, but most impartial observers will agree that Bombay was for long our best managed urban space. It worked, in fact had to, for there is little margin for error.

Modern business requires both discipline and order, qualities that Bombay has demonstrated in abundance. Unlike Delhi and Calcutta, the two other early megalopolis’, the city spends least time in peripheral politicking. Fewer people are interested in those who wield political power, the pride of place being reserved for businessmen and increasingly now film stars. Not that the city was ever apolitical. Prior to Delhi hegemonising all political space, the locus of nationalist, anti-colonial activity was Bombay and Calcutta.

It is not clear when this model of urban living started unravelling. May be it started with the Samyukta Maharashtra movement for creating Maharashtra as a separate state with Bombay as its capital. Possibly there was a reaction to a consistent under representation of the local Marathi speaking populace in the power structure. What is undeniable was also the reaction to the glaring inequalities of wealth and income.

With over half the city’s population living in slums and on pavements, or squeezed out into the far peripheries, the climate was ripe for a variety of populist and revanchist movements. Led by Bal Thackeray, cartoonist and demagogue, the Shiv Sena sought to buttress Marathi pride and renegotiate the placement of the ‘natives’ in the power structure by first targeting the Tamils. Now, of course, the favourite whipping boys are provided by the Muslim community. The party first secured control of the municipal corporation, subsequently expanding to seize the reins of power of the state.

It is not as if the ‘decline’ of Bombay, now Mumbai – the growth of crime and resultant insecurity; an increasing ghettoisation of different communities, what sociologist Narendra Panjwani once described as a city of trenches; the erosion of its once-famed tolerance and welcoming spirit – can be traced only or primarily to the rise of the Shiv Sena. Many other factors – demographic, economic and political – have come together to transform this metropolis, possibly for the worse.

Take first, the size and the rapidity with which the city has grown in the last five decades, straining its infrastructure beyond endurance. Crime there always was. But the transformation of petty smuggling occasioned by a regime of shortages, helped by the fact of Bombay as a port, to organized mafia gangs into construction and extortion is a more recent phenomenon. But, what irretrievably changed the city was the demise of the textile industry. Why this happened – policy, lack of investment in technology, labour militancy particularly under the late Datta Samant – is debatable. Just read the brilliant study by Darryl D’Monte. What is clearer are the consequences – large number of workers forced into the informal sector adding to the foot-soldiers in crime and the release of prime urban space for speculation. More than anything else, the politics of the city is now fuelled by fights over control of the erstwhile mill land.

How Bombay has changed. For a start it is no longer an industrial city; wealth generation is now accounted for by finance, trade, services and entertainment. This requires a transformed infrastructure and a different, white collar workforce. In all likelihood this process has further marginalized the ‘natives’, less equipped to break into the high value, high returns sectors. There is also the sediment of decades of communal and sectarian politics. No longer is this a city where citizens can freely walk around late at night and since the law rarely favours the weak, security is sought by relying on and living with one’s own.

There is also the less noticed relationship with the hinterland. The city may well generate over half the state domestic product and taxes. It also guzzles up a disproportionate share of public goods – particularly water and electricity. With little symbiosis and complimentarity between the metropole and the countryside, anger with the city and its residents has grown. They, including those in ill-serviced slums or pavements, are seen by the rest as privileged. Consequently, subsidies by the state to maintain and upgrade the infrastructure necessary for a large megalopolis have shrunk, generating further pressure. It is symptomatic that the municipal corporation of Mumbai, once the richest in the country, has for the last decade been in the red.

Accompanying this is the flight of the elite, at least metaphorically. They now remain cocooned in their enclaves – from the gracious mansions of Malabar Hill to the aesthetic monstrosities of a Hafeez Contractor, cut off from the ordinary citizenry. Surely it is difficult to deny that unlike the colonial times, the rich have created few institutions of consequence in the last five decades.

Nevertheless, the city retains a vibrancy. Be it the famed dabbawallas whose operations are now studied in all leading business schools or the numerous civic groups and associations – the city continues to fight back. To retain and nurture its legacy, to maintain its openness to outsiders and to migrants. It is this that has helped it survive and grow and it is this which unthinking proposals of introducing a city permit and throwing out ‘outsiders’ threatens. This issue of Seminar is an ode to our first city, a city of hope.