Only emotionless robots would have failed to feel a strong tug at the heart by the sight of millions of migrant workers trying to walk back to their villages from urban areas in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown. Thankfully, both Centre and states are now waking up to their responsibilities in this area.
However, how is it that we fail to feel any kind of guilt over the daily travails of Greater Mumbai’s internal migrations between work and home?
Picture the millions of commuters living in the distant suburbs travelling to and fro for anywhere between three to five hours a day in suburban trains and buses packed like goats being led to slaughter.
Picture also the millions living in slums, packed five to a single room, or two generations in the same family living in a one-BHK flat in the back of beyonds?
Our collective failure to see the evil in Mumbai’s internal transport and housing dynamics is what has made India’s commercial capital a Covid-infested hub today. The call for physical distancing is a joke in Mumbai. It just can’t be done.
At last count, Maharashtra accounted for a third of the country’s Covid-19 cases (27,524), and Mumbai alone accounted for nearly a fifth (16,738). One little virus has laid bare Mumbai’s huge vulnerabilities.
Even if, by some stroke of luck, Covid-19 decides to leave Mumbai for greener pastures in the hinterland, India’s urbs prima cannot — rather, should not — get back to normal. Nor should there be a 'new normal', a phrase much in vogue in a post-Covid-19 world, for what Mumbai and some of the other urban megalopolises are tolerating is an extreme abnormal. A 'new abnormal', where humans live like cattle, cannot be something to look forward to.
Mumbai deserves something infinitely better, and that something cannot be a tweak here or there. The city, with its high work ethic, excellent entrepreneurial spirit, and its ability to attract capital and talent needs to be reinvented as a charter city — a city driven by new charter of laws and a hands-off policy from the state where it is located.
Mumbai has been ruined by rapacious politicians, bureaucrats, builders, and its criminal gangs who feed on its miseries. Politicians think of the city as the kamadhenu that must be milked dry as soon as possible.
Whether it is building and zoning regulations or investment in urban infrastructure and public transport, these are held hostage to the interests of the above cabal, which derives its power by creating artificial scarcities in land, delaying building permissions, and preventing infrastructure from being built till they can cash monopoly profits from benami land and property ownership.
A trans-harbour bridge that would have connected central Mumbai to the mainland (where land was available in plenty) has been scuttled for decades purely in order to let property sharks in central Mumbai sell textile mill land at exorbitant premiums.
The 3-4 BHK flats built on them at usurious prices of Rs 4-8 crore each lack basic external infrastructure (like easy connectivity to major roads), and unsold inventories continue to pile up. Even crorepatis live miserable lives in polluted and congested localities.
It is interesting that Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray chose to keep the urban development portfolio with the Shiv Sena and gave up control of crucial departments like home, finance and public works to his allies, the Nationalist Congress Party and Congress. Obviously, the Sena still sees itself as an urban party, which can control the riches of Mumbai and its satellite city of Thane.
Thackeray, who has struggled with Covid-19, has a historic opportunity to do justice to Mumbai and other urban areas in his state. Entry 5 in the state list of the Constitution makes states the arbiters of the destinies of urban centres like Mumbai. He could do the following:
One, declare Mumbai a special economic zone with special powers. It should have an elected mayor who would function as its chief executive, with complete executive authority over the city administration and finances. Even the Chief Minister should not be able to over-rule him or her. In future, ambitious politicians should want to become mayors of Mumbai and not the Chief Minister of the state.
Two, immediately cut the discretionary powers of ministers and babus on land and infrastructure issues, and create an independent urban development council that will help crash the prices of land in the city by raising supply, allowing vertical building, and dramatically creating more public spaces, roads and water and sanitation facilities.
Three, expand the bus fleet by a factor of five immediately, and aggressively build the metro and expand the suburban network. The metro should be built underground in future, not overground, where it takes up too much space in a city starved of space. The goal should be travel where no commuter has to jostle for space. Seated commuting should be the end-goal of public transport policy.
Four, public transport expansion should be partially financed by taxing cars and two-wheelers heavily, with annual renewal fees and congestion surcharges being imposed.
In short, Thackeray should want to become mayor of Mumbai rather than the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Maharashtra’s future depends on allowing Mumbai to become its true driver of growth. A stunted and disease-infested city is in no one’s interest.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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