Mumbai’s Skewed Urban Structure Needs Fixing And The Covid-19 Calamity Gives An Opportunity To Do That
Covid-19 has taught us Metropolitans one thing — that social distancing makes sense only when development is distributive, not epicentral.
If Mumbai had adequate economic hubs around its periphery, mass transport will not be so crowded and the virus could have been reined in.
In case of India, Mumbai has nearly 10 per cent of the total reported cases as of 5 April 2020 (361 of 3,730 as per covid19india.org).
The first part of the challenge these cities will be facing is to contain the spread of the virus. The challenge is enhanced by the fact that these cities are engines of the national economy.
Lockdown and social distancing have severely affected the economy of these cities and country. In case of India, a national lockdown, which was in place from 25 March, is likely to end on the 21st day that is 14 April 2020.
But for Mumbai, the lockdown is unlikely to end on 14 April. Mumbai is one of the 10 hotspots of Covid-19 in India. With the rising fear of community transmission, Mumbai is likely to see continuance of lockdown even after the national lockdown ends.
But a lockdown cannot be enforced for long. A developing country like India cannot afford to paralyse a key financial centre like Mumbai for long.
But certain peculiarities in Mumbai might make the exit from lockdown a difficult task. One area which will prove a bottleneck in achieving the dual objective of keeping Covid-19 in check and getting the city back on track is mass transport, especially local trains.
The separation of businesses and residence is at the heart of cities and that makes commuting an inevitable aspect of cities. Often, mass transit, generally the cheapest mode of commuting, is often the most crowded one too. This characteristic of the city will prove to be the constraint in easing the lockdown from the cities once the Covid curve tapers off.
The bigger the magnitude of this separation and role of mass transit, the more will be the difficulty in exiting the lockdown. Unfortunately, for Mumbai, both the separation and dependence on mass transit are high.
As per the 2011 census, around 2 million workers are in Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), which is nearly one-third of ‘other main workers’ who commute, use trains.
‘Other main workers’ is a census term for regularly employed individuals outside agriculture and household industry.
Train commutes are considerably longer for those who travel from peripheral towns in Thane district. Again, as per the census 2011, train using workers in Thane have a one-way commute of around 30 km, spending around 50 minutes on track.
For someone in Mumbai district, which is the geographical core of MMR, a train commute of 14 km, taking around 34 minutes is the norm.
The time spent in trains is also in very close proximity to other commuters. During peak times (7 am to 11 am and 4 pm to 8 pm), a typical local train with a seating capacity of around 1,100 commuters carries around 4,000 (Willbour Smith report 2012).
This high level of crowding in the most dominant transport mode is the key challenge in achieving the controlled spread of Covid-19. Even if all commuters are wearing masks, the high probability of transmission will persist for local trains, since masks are not a 100 per cent insurance against the escape of droplets carrying the virus.
The extremely crowded nature of these trains reflects the imbalance in development of MMR. Nearly 40 per cent of the MMR population lives outside the boundary of Greater Mumbai, mainly in towns in Thane district. But these outer towns account for only 30 per cent of the employment generation.
Especially, if we consider the typical middle and high-income employments in financial and IT services, towns outside the Greater Mumbai boundary account for only 20 per cent of such employment generation.
These statistics are from the population census 2011 and economic census 2013.
It is very likely that as of 2020, the imbalance has become even more skewed.
A short-term measure will be incentivising work from home for as many establishments as possible and providing alternative commuting modes to local trains.
But there is a limit to these short-term measures, especially alternative commuting modes.
Alternative commuting modes will be road-based, most likely buses, which can add to already congested and slow-moving roads, even accounting for lesser congestion in the early stages of exit from the lockdown.
Unprecedented dark times have a silver lining: they can lead to a policy-making, which is difficult during normal times.
For long, decongestion of Mumbai and development of alternative business districts have been on the cards of policymakers. But achievements on both objectives have fallen behind the growth and spread of population. A Covid-19-induced lockdown provides a window of opportunity to address this lag.
Firms can be incentivised to go peripheral to reduce the requirement of train travel for employees. Incentives can be in the form of urban planning as well as increasing the costs of railway travel.
It must be noted that local train travel is ridiculously inexpensive and price rationalization is warranted even in normal times.
A bolder measure will be to start the construction of Kalyan-Dombivali complex, on the lines of Bandra-Kurla complex (BKC). Firms often like to locate where other firms are or going to be.
The ‘infrastructure project’, within social distance constraints, can address the slack in employment as well as imbalance in urban structure of MMR.
Peripheral location of firms is more of a norm and less of an anecdote. Barring Mumbai, all metros in India have strong peripheral business centres, like Gurgaon in Delhi and Magarpatta in Pune.
As we committedly fight the Covid-19 epidemic, we should try to use the calamity to address some long-standing anomalies like the urban structure of MMR.
It will be a travesty of common sense and human intelligence if a worker in a post-Covid-19 MMR is forced to hurl himself back into those crowded local trains, scarred by the epidemic, which made him wary of the crowds in the first place.
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