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The Future of Mumbai

Sudhin photoSudhin Thanawala (’07)
Special to Covering Asia

MUMBAI – In his first visit as Indian prime minister to this crowded, chaotic city on the Arabian Sea two years ago, Manmohan Singh promised a grand future.Brimming with India’s newfound confidence as an emerging economic power, Singh predicted Mumbai – nicknamed “Slumbai” for the shanties that line seemingly all its streets – would become Asia’s most talked about city, surpassing its Chinese rival Shanghai as a model of development and modernization in only five years. Mumbai, according to the mantra taken up by the city’s elite, would become a “world-class city.” The estimated cost: $40 billion.

Two years later, India’s financial capital and most populous city is inching towards Singh’s vision. Mumbai, called Bombay until a name change in 1995, is building a major new bridge connecting the western suburbs to the island city and expanding its overcrowded commuter rail service. New apartment towers and office complexes dot the landscape, as the city competes to become a global, high-tech service center. But the new construction – and implicitly, the drive to be the next Shanghai – has no shortage of critics, who complain that developers are ignoring the city’s large underclass and building with no regard for the environment or the city’s infrastructure.

They point to Mumbai’s textile mills as a prime example. Formerly the backbone of Mumbai’s manufacturing economy, the mills are being turned into pricy apartments and high-end retail stores that are too expensive for most of the city’s residents, over 50 percent of whom live in slums. A Supreme Court decision in March settling a dispute over the mill lands, which occupy roughly 600 acres in the heart of the city, is expected to bring more gentrification.

“There is a focus on the upper classes with no corresponding provision for housing middle and lower income groups,” said Shirish Patel, a prominent architect and newspaper columnist.

Critics like Patel have sparked a renewed debate about the future of this city, which is predicted to add 5 million new residents and become the world’s second largest urban agglomeration with a population of 23 million by 2015. In its quest to become “world-class,” will Mumbai leave its underprivileged behind? “You can’t make this city a global commercial and financial center overnight and forget about the people who worked in the industries,” said Neera Adarkar, an architect and activist. “Where will they go?”

Adarkar is part of a group opposed to the way the mill lands are being developed.

Mumbai’s cotton textile mills were once the city’s top employers, absorbing rural migrants who flooded Mumbai in search of jobs. Today, their tall, blackened chimneys stand forlorn. Although most of the mills closed years ago in the face of labor unrest and a shift to the informal sector, how to use their lands spawned a fierce debate.

Environmentalists and advocates for the poor said mill owners should give-up two-thirds of all the land for open space and low-income housing in accordance with a redevelopment option the state gave them in 1991. But in March, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of mill owners, upholding a revision of the state’s 1991 option that allows them to sell most of the land to private developers.

“The Supreme Court has ruled that the rights of mill owners are more important than the rights of Mumbai’s residents,” said Debi Goenka, a member of the Bombay Environmental Action Group, which challenged the revised law. “We are going ahead recklessly with new construction in this city without investing enough to allow our roads, power supply and other infrastructure to catch up.” Goenka said the city – choked by air pollution – was desperate for green space. The court argued that mill owners needed an incentive to redevelop the industry. Owners are supposed to use the money from the land sale to modernize their companies, reviving the dying industry.

On a recent afternoon in an area of the city called “Lal Bag,” or “Red Park,” union leaders and former textile workers gathered to protest the Supreme Court’s decision. Demonstrators distributed fliers that depicted residents of Mumbai being crushed by a new shopping mall – complete with McDonald’s – and held paper signs that read in Marathi, “The mill land belongs to the people of Mumbai, not the builders.” “We’re not against development, but we’re against development like this that caters only to the upper class of society,” Rajan Dalvi, leader of a mill worker’s union, told the crowd. “With all these malls being built in the neighborhood, our small shop owners will go out of business.”

Vijay Lale and his wife Mahalaxmi used to work at the city’s mills, earning 5000 rupees (about $111) each a month. Lale, 60, said he is now the sole earner in his family and makes 2000 rupees a month from a phone booth he operates. His income supports his wife and three daughters.

“Now nothing is remaining in this city for poor people,” Lale said. “They are not redeveloping Mumbai for us.” Just a short distance away, the new, redeveloped Mumbai is on display. The Phoenix Mills mall – site of the former Phoenix Mills – includes a bowling alley, Western fast food restaurants and fancy nightlife. This is the Bombay of the growing middle and upper classes.

At Ra, a nightclub on the second floor of the Phoenix Mills mall, entrance on a recent Friday night was 750 rupees per person (about $15), couples only. By 11:30, the dance floor was full. Dowdy men with paunches mixed with suave 20-somethings, dancing to Eminem.

Anand Desai, 30, who waited to get into Ra, said the number of nightclubs in Mumbai has mushroomed since the mid-90s. Desai’s company, Upaj Motors, is the exclusive dealer for Bentley in Maharashtra, the state in which Mumbai is located. South Mumbai needs more places like Phoenix Mills, where families can spend a full day eating and shopping, Desai said.

“Real estate prices are such that you cannot buy land in the heart of the city and develop it for the lower middle class and middle class,” he said during a telephone interview. “It has to be for the upper class because the land is so expensive.” Although the upper class benefits first from the new construction, advantages will eventually flow to all the city’s residents, said Niranjan Hiranandani, managing director of Hiranandani Constructions Pvt. Ltd., one of the city’s leading builders.

“Whenever you start making additions to a segment, whether it’s shopping malls, whether it’s food, whether it’s clothing, whether it’s telecom, it’s always the top segment that starts getting fed in the early stages,” he said. Hiranandani predicted the city would soon see surpluses in housing, which would address Mumbai’s most serious and persistent concern.

More than 50 percent of the city’s 12 million residents live in slums, unable to afford real estate prices. An influx of migrants and laws limiting new housing construction and rental properties have led to Mumbai’s woes. In the densely packed alleyways of Dharavi, the largest and oldest slum in Mumbai, Shah Jahan Begum, 40, attached decorative strings to a skirt, part of a sewing business she operates from her one-room home. Begum said it was getting more expensive to live in Mumbai.

“Things will get better if the cost of living goes down,” she said. “Only when you can save money can you move ahead.”

Her family of six earns 8,000 to 9,000 rupees a month (about $178 to $200), part of which supports her husband’s parents.

Asked about the redevelopment of the city, Begum said she did not expect much benefit for the poor. But she had a message for the government: if it wants to make a city like Shanghai, she said, it should do something about the high cost of living and pay attention to people like her.

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