Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray'slatest demand for 80 per cent reservation for Maharashtrians in private sector is even more outrageous than his earlier demand of driving out north-Indians from Mumbai. The threat which came in the wake of the latest demand about having his own way of implementing the reservation policy for Maharashtrians cocks a snook at the existing law and order system. The ruling Congress-NCP state government in Maharashtra proved to be impotent in handling his earlier tirade and subsequent violence against north-Indians in the city. Political circles were rife with rumours that Congress was itself responsible for Raj Thackeray'saction. Many Mumbaikars recollect how in the 1960s and 70s Shiv Sena goons would beat up railway recruitment officials in public places while the police would control the onlooking crowd. History could well be repeated again.
Why have the two Senas been able to rake up the issue of sons-of-the-soil time and again in Mumbai, though much water has flowed through Mithi river since Balasaheb Thackeray'smovement against south Indian ?lungiwalas?. The main reason for the growing anger and frustration of local people lie in the fact that infrastructure in the city is fast crumbling. The state governments and the Centre have done nothing to improve the situation all through these years. And that'scriminal, looking at the way Mumbaikars have to put up with over-stretched infrastructure.
For instance, even in the 1970s the local train services, which form the lifeline of the city, were overly crowded. Yet, in spite of the burgeoning crowd and increasing inflow of people into the city, the Central and Western Railways have done almost nothing to add capacity. During the early 90s, this reporter used to write extensively on the new plans to connect the Western, Central and Harbour Line railways in Mumbai and the consequent projected reduction in passengers per bogie in suburban trains. Twenty years have passed and the state and central governments are still twiddling their thumbs over metro rail, monorail, skybus and what have you. Most of the illegal construction in public spaces have been legalised over long periods of time that, as reported by Organiser earlier, acquisition of land has become an impossible task.
Today, there is an unwritten code suburban railway passengers have to follow in Mumbai ? in fast trains (trains that stop at fewer stations) no passenger is allowed to alight within one hour of the commencement of his journey. They would even get beaten up if they try to. That is because the trains are so crowded that people staying far away from their workplace find it impossible to even board a train, leave alone travelling comfortably. This situation has become a fertile ground for spawning parochialism, xenophobia and racism. You can find many takers for Raj Thackeray'sson-of-the-soil cause. Worse still, people suggest that women should not be allowed to work in the city as they deplete existing transport capacity! Raj Thackeray might well try that idea next.
The delays in implementing projects have led to another big problem. At several places in Mumbai one can see half-build railway bridges, flyovers and new roads which end nowhere because of the problem of acquiring land from illegal encroachers. The airport modernisation plan is also caught in this vortex.
Instead of resolving these long pending issues on a war-footing political parties and governments try to take the easy way out, ie. to blame ?outsiders? for their own incompetency. Worse, common people get carried away by the rhetoric. Mumbai is faced with a strange situation when it comes to development issues. The question that begs an answer is: why have utilities in this mega city failed so miserably that redemption seems difficult. Not one utility service, be it power, water supply or other infrastructural facilities, in Mumbai is anywhere near world-class standards.
?Today, the mobile telephone services are getting jammed because of the large number of subscribers and rapid growth in new connections. But will the service provider companies throw out the existing customers on the basis of their domicility or language spoken to improve service?, explained Satish Porwal, a chemical engineer in Mumbai while adding that, just as the Mumbai municipality, the cell phone service providers make record profits from the ever-growing subscriber base. The attempt is always at improving mobile services, not intimidating existing and prospective subscribers. Mumbai Mahanagar Palika (municipality) today is the richest local body in India, with an annual budgeted revenue bigger than that of states like Kerala. But are the services provided by the municipality in Mumbai commensurate with the money paid by its citizens?
Electricity charges paid by Mumbaikars are the highest in the world. Yet, today, just as in the rest of the country Mumbaikars have to endure daily power cuts which last at least two hours. At some of the large industrial areas near Mumbai like Thane-Belapur, production is shut down for two days every week owing to power shortage and load-shedding.
In a front-paged report in a newspaper a few months ago, water supplied to a building in the plush upmarket area of Bandra was certified as unfit for human consumption. Incidentally, the building in question had the residence of film star Hrithik Roshan, and the flat owners in the same building had called the press to tell that the water supplied by the municipality was dirty. They showed the mediapersons the bottles filled with dark liquid with lot of suspended matter as proof of the pudding. That in itself is not surprising to the citizens of this city.
A few years ago, the Times of India carried a banner headline story on the front page about how drinking water samples taken from all over the city had intolerable levels of faecal matter. This essentially meant that the drainage water was getting mixed with drinking water supply all over the city. More than a decade ago an Australian engineer had taken pictures of broken drainage pipes and drinking water pipes in Mumbai to show how water from the two got exchanged. The Times report succintly pointed out that a decade ago only certain pockets in Mumbai, like Dharavi and Chunnabhatti had this problem of water from drainage pipes getting mixed with drinking water supply. But now this is seen all over the city.
The standard of infrastructure and environment provided by the municipality in the city was made amply clear by the neighbours of another Hindi film actress Shilpa Shetty. When Shilpa Shetty was derogatively called a ?slum dweller? by Jade Goody in the celebrated television show Big Brother in the UK, her neighbours in Mumbai called the press to say how right Goody was. Shilpa Shetty'sbuilding, again in a plush upmarket locality, is surrounded by slums.
The policy-makers in this country have to learn a few lessons from countries like the UK and Singapore before they go on an over-drive about making Mumbai a financial hub of the world, if not another Shanghai or Singapore. All this hemming and hawing over infrastructure development has to stop, because what Mumbai has to offer will be compared with the best in the world, be they transport services, water supply, power or even the work culture of the people.
All financial centres in the world have some basic pre-requisites. One, drinking water as supplied by the municipality or the local administration in these cities/ countries, be it in South-East Asia, West Europe or the US, is what it is supposed to be: potable. People in these countries don'thesitate to drink water straight from the faucet. No wonder, the multinational mineral water companies have the highest growth rate in India. Mumbai municipality often issue advertisements warning citizens that water has to be boiled for 20 minutes before consumption. The US has a regulation (which is followed all over that country) which says that drinking water supply should be so pure that it should contain zero faecal matter, though UN stipulation is not so stringent.
Also, any Indian visitor to these countries would notice the absence of any kind of water storage systems in individual houses or office buildings. The municipality ensures the quality and quantity of the water supply. Trains and public transport systems meet the demand and run on time, so much so that you can set your watch by it. The power supply is cheap, good quality and reliable. Not incidentally, almost all these utilities are private sector companies. These are the fundamental makings of a financial hub of the world.
(The first part of this piece was published on April 27, 2008.)