Will Mumbai’s infra boom make the city more liveable?

The Dharavi slum project, awarded to the Adani Group, is finally seeing movement.
Representative Image.
Representative Image.Express illustration | Sourav Roy

Mumbai, our financial capital, long neglected, is experiencing a renewed infrastructure boom. After frenetic construction activity, the city has just seen the inauguration of the coastal road. Built at a huge cost of Rs 13,000 crore, the part-underground, 11-kilometre channel connects the extreme south of the island city to midtown Worli, and then onwards to suburban Bandra via the sea-link. This allows car traffic to bypass the worst snarls during peak hours.

The Dharavi slum project, awarded to the Adani Group, is finally seeing movement. If it goes through, the 640-acre slum sprawl will be the city’s new Manhattan with high-rise commercial buildings, and residences for over 60,000 families. The Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL), now christened ‘Atal Setu’, India’s longest 22-km sea bridge, is commissioned, while dozens of glitzy flyovers are promising to make life easier in the megalopolis.

There is stout opposition too. Planners and environmental activists point to lopsided development favouring the top 10% car-using, creamy layer. For the average Mumbaikar, the living densities, the shrinking open spaces and the worsening public transport, has made things more difficult.

Development trigger

A recent brainstorming session led by newly appointed Municipal Commissioner, Bhushan Gagrani, along with retired IAS officer who helmed the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, R.C. Sinha, and architect-activist P K Das, generated important pointers.

Making a presentation at the Mumbai Press Club, Bhushan Gagrani said the slew of infrastructure projects taking off in the city not only aid urban mobility but over time will trigger a socio-economic transformation. What would have happened had the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, built in the teeth of opposition in 2002, not been constructed? he questioned. Today, because of its connectivity, Pune has transformed into a hub for IT, R&D and the auto industry.

Drawing a similar parallel, Gagrani predicted the Coastal Road and the MTHL would “transform the real estate market over the next five to ten years, bringing equilibrium to both residential and commercial sectors.” The bureaucrat was arguing by connecting the island city to its hinterland, the city’s footprint would expand, thereby cooling high real estate prices that are currently riding on the shortage of buildable land.

On the other hand, the approach of another panelist at the discussion, retired IAS officer R C Sinha, was of the hard-nosed bureaucrat. His focus was entirely on project completion, with little stomach for considering social costs or environmental damage. While leading the charge for early completion of the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, he revealed how the Dukes Hotel in the Khandala Hills tried to block the work by moving the Bombay High Court against the blasting endangering the hotel structure.

“In reply, I gave the hotel notice that we would acquire the hotel property under the Land Acquisition Act, Sinha said. “The hotel owner was on his knees apologizing; and he withdrew his petition.”

Sustainable growth

This brainstorming reflects the continuing, sharp debate between development and sustainable growth. Providing more and wider channels for movement of passenger cars does not reduce traffic snarls. It only ensures more cars come on the road, at the expense of public transport. The coastal road, and the burgeoning number of flyovers are examples of supporting increasing private transportation at the expense of buses and train traffic that carry 20 times the passenger load.

P K Das, planner and architect, underlined that in a time of heightened climate change, Mumbai was hurtling towards disaster. The unbridled construction and high density of buildings had turned Mumbai into a ‘heat island’ significantly lowering the quality of life of ordinary people. The current philosophy was to “build more …and more”, a mania that seemed to think that the more you build, the faster will the city solve its problems of housing and crowding.

This has led to planning and development entirely focused on the 240 sq km of high-density, buildable areas. What is neglected is the city’s ecological infrastructure. The failure to integratethe 140 sq kms of waterfronts, mangrove outcrops, and other wetlands and creeks into urban planning “could lead to a bleak future and existential crisis for both the people and the city.”

Among the many debates that followed, the big one was on the ‘slow death’ of the municipalized bus service run by the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply & Transport Undertaking (BEST). Once the lifeline of Mumbai, the BEST provided efficient and cost effective last-line connectivity to commuters between home and train junctions, and then finally to their place of work. At peak it had a fleet of nearly 5,000 buses, but over time, and quite deliberately, it is being fazed out. It’s bus depots are being sold to builders and the fleet now is barely left with about 3,000 buses.

Someone from the audience quoted Gustava Petro, the Mayor of Bogota in 2013: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.” In Mumbai though, for the votaries of public transport and public spaces,it’s still a losing battle.

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