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Time to rethink the Mumbai Metropolitan Region

April 28, 2010 14:58 IST

The metropolitan regions of Mumbai generally depend on the core city for its identity and economy. It could be differently designed and developed so the metropolitan region has a better economic activity and help depopulate Mumbai, writes Mahesh Vijapurkar.

A new report on the projected pace of urbanisation of India by McKinsey Global Institute, India's Urban Awakening is, to say the least, frightening. It says that by 2030, some 590 million people will be living in Indian cities, which would be twice the present population of the United States. As many as 68 cities will have populations above one million while all of Europe accounts for only 35 such cities. It is actually a wake-up call.

Why is this report frightening? Indian cities have not yet learnt how to cope with their present problems which have, without exception, reached crisis state. Roads, tall buildings, innumerable cars on the streets do not make for a city because facilities -- water, sanitation, health, commutes by public transport -- are woefully lacking. These cities continue to grow anyway, regardless of the consequences despite the discomfort of living there.

Let us take Mumbai and its urban agglomeration, known as the Mumbai metropolitan area. It is ten times the size of Mumbai, a tightly packed, bursting-at-the-seams city. Though it is nine times the Mumbai area of some 440 sq kms, it houses only a third of all the population of the MMR, including Mumbai. One would think that there is lot of space that can be colonised.

That is an illusion, for the MMR is poorly managed, as is Mumbai. That Mumbai is expanding in terms of population is beyond dispute. That to serve the economy of Mumbai, the metropolitan region too is hosting more people than ever before, is also true. The several cities of the Mumbai metropolitan region are relentlessly expanding geographically is a fact because they are the dormitories for Mumbai's job market.

How would this city and the region be in the next 20 years? Frankly, we do not know though the periodic development plans are drawn up but only implemented in patches, in fits and starts. That makes any projection, any visualisation of the future quite a gamble. The optimist would say that it would be the biggest urban agglomeration; the pessimist would say it would be that, but not a grand place.

Haphazard

I belong to the pessimist camp. Because, history has shown us that the cities in the region -- Mira-Bhayandar, Thane, Vasai-Virar, Navi Mumbai, Ulhasnagar, Kalyan-Dombivli, Bhiwandi-Nizampur -- and several towns like Badlapur etc have not grown the way they should have. They are not planned, the builders have taken charge and civic authorities are complicit or mute witnesses to the haphazard nature of the growth.

If that trend continued, then the entire region is in trouble. If that happened, and Mumbai remains woefully inadequate to deal with the day-time populations coming to work there, the core of the metropolitan region would be rotten and the entire region become shabby, unworkable, in a gridlock. I see that happening because changes, if any, are coming in only slowly.

Pro-Mumbai

The metropolitan regions generally depend on the core city for its identity and economy but it need not be in the manner it is now: dormitory supplying the slaves for the daytime work. It could be differently designed and developed so the metropolitan region has a better economic activity and help depopulate Mumbai. It helps both Mumbai and the other cities. It can't be that nine-tenths of the region should be housing one-third the population and subserve only Mumbai's purpose.

This causes tremendous strain on the population, detracting from their efficiencies. They spend hours strapping in sweaty, over-crowded train coaches, do not have enough time for families or even socialising, and end up as robots. It is putting the human capital to needless agony when they can be better used if only the populations are better managed.

The region cannot and should not survive by merely suckling at the breast of the mother city and be content with its dormitory status. They are merely stretching the linear status of the MMR while it need not be so and throw tremendous pressure on the conveyor belt called the local commuter trains. They operate at sub-minimal capacity if you consider the trains returning near empty to take fresh batches to work. And when taking them to work, they are working at beyond their capacity.

GDP forecast

The McKinsey report sees a population equal to about 80 per cent of Mumbai added to the region by 2030 -- that is just two decades away from now -- and have a GDP larger than many countries', Denmark, Thailand, Columbia and Malaysia, at $265 billion (about 11.8 lakh crore). The biggest for any region in the country and be the biggest city region too. The population then could be 33 million. To ensure that such growth in economy and cope with that population size would need a whopping investment $220 billion (about 983,900 crore).

That is a huge bill to foot and such resources are hard to come by. It is good that the Maharashtra government has chosen to set up a MMR fund to help the progress along though this could have been done long ago. As of now, according to the estimates offered by the McKinsey's report, the MMR Development Authority expects to spend, from its resources raised by capitalising land and via the public-private participation route some $ 22 billion (about 98,390 crore) in the next five years.

Poor governance

That is not even a tenth of the total required to be spent in the next two decades and there is no idea how this gap between the requirement and the funding ability would be bridged. But bridged it would have to be or else the MMR would be in a disastrous situation.

Especially since these towns and cities can't even run a proper bus service for its population for want of funds. The JNRUM (Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission) is of course a helpful thing but you should look at the quality of some of the buses bought -- poor. The MMR cities may be in serious trouble for two reasons: poor governance and low funds.

I have been advocating that Mumbai city cease investing in its future needs and be content with meeting the backlog of demands. That would be an incentive for the people and work to move over to the satellite cities. The measure would be disincentive further overcrowding and a push towards managing the population dispersal better. 

The only such example of such development on its own into a workable place has been Navi Mumbai where CIDCO studies have revealed that 60 per cent of the population finds employment within its precincts and does not go to Mumbai for jobs.

Supplying only Mumbai

That cannot be said of the other cities. These cities have fewer jobs than they should have, the intra-MMR connectivity is poor and all linkages are relatively stronger only in favour of supplying manpower to Mumbai. The others have complained that Mumbai's BEST has been encroaching into their cities and taking away business away though it was their fault that by their poor management of transport, the BEST invited itself. This also exposes a glaring flaw: there is no unified approach to problem identification and problem resolution.

That is because each city thinks it is independent and does not dovetail its plan into the larger metropolitan regional context and look only to Mumbai. Instead, they could instead seek a larger democratic for a council of all mayors of all the towns and rearrange their thinking to help develop a better metropolitan region. But petty politics that can thrive in isolated pockets, where fiefdoms can evolve and sustain plays havoc with the region's future.

One hopes that things change. There already are enough signals of the worsening situation. If Mumbai has about 60 per cent of the population in slums, the rest of MMR has about 40 per cent of them in the hovels. That is no measure of development, inclusive development. A fresh approach is called for, without wasting further time.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator

Mahesh Vijapurkar