A seminar on the city by diverse practitioners
The story of Mumbai is one of continual transition and multi-dimensional layered experiences adding to the city’s ever-evolving narrative. How does one better understand the many transitions the city has undergone, is experiencing, and is likely to encounter in the times ahead? To engage on these, Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) in partnership with St Xavier’s College, Department of Public Policy, Mumbai, organised Equipolis 2.0, a seminar to engage on the city with diverse practitioners.
The seminar aimed to:
- Encourage discussion and exchange among diverse, intersectoral and interdisciplinary practitioners, academics and thinkers
- Unpack variations in approach and move beyond immediate differences towards finding common ground, and
- Build on ideas from Equipolis 2018 — engaging with dissent to facilitate equitable transformation.
Accordingly, the seminar had two major panels focused on:
- A city in transition — changes and contemporary challenges in Mumbai
- People’s responses to the transitioning city
Roshni Nuggehalli, Executive Director, introduced the seminar within the larger festival ComplexCity — ‘a festival to celebrate differences in the city and find ways to address it, curating platforms and experiences to freely engage with one another, and try and understand how we can take forward these discussions towards positive outcomes’.
Panel I. A City in Transition
The first speaker RA Rajeev, Metropolitan Commissioner, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), focused on Mumbai’s transport oriented development planning, and how the multiple metro line network of the city aims to address congestion issues. ‘Mumbai currently has 12 persons travelling per sq.m. in local trains, making it a challenging experience for commuters’, he said. With the extended metro network and the availability of more public transport options for commuters, he opined that the city would be able to move towards an ‘equipolis’.
Lina Mathias, Executive Editor, Economic and Political Weekly, spoke next. She focused on the shrinking of protest spaces and the spirit of protest in Mumbai. ‘Azad Maidan is no longer vibrant, and Hutatma Chowk is not accessible for protestors anymore. By “protest”, I am not advocating for violence, but talking of genuine citizen protest’, she said, referring to how incidents such as the collapse of the foot-over bridge at Elphinstone Road station or the Kamala Mills fire had not attracted strong citizen protest.
Mathias also spoke about what has made the city of Mumbai — migration. From the seventeenth century, when migrants needed to be cajoled to come to the city, she spoke of increasing migration, and how the nature of migration itself has undergone a change over the years, especially with a large number of single women migrants. ‘Whether it is aspirational or distress migration, many of the women I speak to don’t want to go back as they find the spirit of the city conducive to their needs’, she said, mentioning this as a positive sign.
Mathias also referred to the changing face of Lower Parel as a case of Mumbai transitioning, and not for the better. She highlighted how this has been a case of poor planning efforts, terming this local neighbourhood ‘nightmarish’ for residents and commuters alike.
Sidharth Bhatia, Editor, The Wire, spoke about the transitioning city. ‘Walking around the city, you see how it is not just transitioning but being pulled into development’, he said, adding that the city’s lack of an organised history of the mills reflects the problematic institutional memory loss, even though this is about hundreds of thousands of people, and today our relationship with mills is based on malls that we frequent.
Such transitions are not just limited to this city but happening worldwide, he added, referring to the case of New York also and the question of ‘engineering the city for the elite’ via rezoning and rebranding efforts that are wiping out what the area originally was (parallels with New Cuffe Parade and Upper Worli). He asked, is gentrification organic, imposed, or driven by laws, leaving people with no option? ‘We are not getting a sense that we are being taken along — there is not enough open communication’, he said.
Awanish Kumar, St Xavier’s College, the moderator for the panel, summed up the discussions which had focused on the city’s infrastructure changes; the question of public spaces, especially protest spaces and the spirit of protest; the need for conversations between citizens and planners; relationships citizens forge with the city; how can citizens take ownership of the city and related questions of history and memory; and how do we want to preserve and negotiate the relationship with the city.
In the question and answer session, the themes touched upon included— the question of pedestrianisation and Mumbai’s street economy services; the problem of housing in the city; the case of Lower Parel as a blunder in city management; keeping the city’s protest space alive; power structures and policy implementation based on convenience, and implementation challenges.
Panel II. A City in Transition
Prachi Merchant, Urban Planner, (All India Institute of Local Self Governance) AIILSG, took forward the discussion by talking about her experiences to include social amenities in Mumbai’s Development Plan through a participatory planning process. She explained how the team derived the rationale, how reservation was moved to actual implementation, and how the process was formalised. She spoke of the participation of Humara Shehar Mumbai Abhiyan to ensure that this remained a people’s plan and that the views of different stakeholders were taken into account, keeping in mind the limitations of law.
Merchant explained how the suggestions-objections process usually takes place after the plan is in place, but they ensured that this was incorporated from the start. ‘In Mumbai, the workforce participation of women is 16 per cent — we need to bring that up, give facilities to the women’, she said, explaining how efforts were taken towards working women’s housing, market areas with vending zones for women, and so on. As no standards were available, the team had to derive it, in context of Mumbai’s space availability
Merchant asked some important questions — The law does not include participation while the planning process is going on, so how can we make this process mandatory? How can the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act be implemented to ensure the same?
Independent researcher Sandeep Pendse spoke about the economic and political disenfranchisement taking place in the city over the years, rendering not only many unemployed but unemployable. He spoke about the textile industry collapse and how it resulted in thousands being unemployed and unemployable and the trade unions being unable to realise what was happening at such a rapid pace.
Pendse spoke about the rapid growth of the informal sector in Mumbai in a manner that defies definitions. ‘There is a near total parallel economy in the city for almost all goods you can talk of’, he said, adding how the city as a whole has probably turned its back on these people. In pockets of the city, he mentioned how the day population is 16 times the night population — this is where the next faultlines will be, he opined.
Professor Girija Gupte associated with the Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST campaign, spoke of transport as people’s right. The BEST bus service has been running into losses, and she explained the process that has led to this erosion. The Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi Best campaign has studied how privatisation will cost the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) far more that what it takes to run it now. ‘Privatisation has never been and will never be the solution’, she emphasised.
Gupte mentioned how the BEST staff that has retired has not been replenished. ‘Today there are 1,500 driver and conductor jobs vacant each, and the ridership of BEST has gone down from 42 lakh in 2010 to 28 lakh’, she said. While there were 4,700 buses in 2012, there are only about 2,800 now and 750 buses are detained everyday due to lack of staff.
The campaign suggests merging budgets of BEST with BMC as transport is people’s right. Private transport should be discouraged for sustainable city development. BEST buses take up only 2.2 per cent space in the city, and with reduced fares and increased frequency of buses, more people will opt for this transport. ‘A collective struggle can only bring about the change. We have a right to our city’, she said, summing up her words.
Marina Joseph, Associate Director, YUVA, summed up the discussions asking, ‘Are we as citizens groups, and young people in the city limited in our demands? Are we asking the right questions to say something wrong is happening? Can we ask more radical questions?’.
Panel III. People’s Responses to the Transitioning City
Ajit Dayal, Founder Quantum Advisors/Quantum Mutual Fund, spoke about how two initiatives that he has started, the Natural Streets for Performing Arts (NSPA) and Big Happy City have contributed towards building a momentum for culture in city spaces.
Salma Ansari, Founder-Member Parcham, described how the organisation was initiated to work towards communal harmony in Mumbra, which has an 80 per cent Muslim population. She described how girls’ efforts to play football were initially resisted, and eventually how the girls were able to reclaim this space for play. ‘Breaking boundaries has not been easy, but now we have teams in Mankhurd, Bandra and Nerul that play too!’ said Salma. As citizens, we should not shy away from placing our demands before authorities, she said
Himanshu Burte, Assistant Professor, TISS, reflected on the city’s trajectory at a macro level and also from a bottom-up perspective. With the transformation of the physical space, who gets to enjoy the benefits of this and who pays the cost, he asked? The areas of concentrated disadvantage created are linked to concentrated areas of privilege, he added, asking ‘What is the nature of structural change of this city? Who is driving it? What is it being driven towards? What are people’s responses?’ There are certain fronts at which the struggle is going on which should not be missed as they can lead to big breakthroughs, he said, referring to initiatives such as those taken up by Parcham.
Questions at the end of the session focused on how the city’s history is rapidly changing, and it is important to question what we see around us and to consider whose history we are preserving, often at the cost of another.
The seminar offered a good opportunity for diverse practitioners to share their ideas on the transitioning city of Mumbai. The conversations that started will be taken ahead in the coming weeks, to work towards a more inclusive and sustainable city.