Over the last two days hundreds of people have died in Mumbai and across Maharashtra as the South-West monsoon lashes the state. 37.1 inches fell in one day -- the highest ever in the country. About 150,000 people were stranded in railway stations, tens of thousands of others on the road or in buses as commuter services were shut down. Electricity and phone links were cut in the city, some 76,000 farm animals have been killed and 1.7 million acres of crops have been destroyed. Tens of thousands of homes, along with roads, railway tracks, and bridges have been washed away.
It's a story well-rehearsed in other parts of India, like Gujarat, also hit hard by the monsoons this summer. Just the familiar story of third world countries too poor to defend themselves against Mother Nature's psychotic abuse.
Or something else?
Mumbai's commuter trains, which are considered its lifeline, pack over 700 people to a coach in rush hour though the international standard is 200. At least one or two passengers die or are injured every day. There are traffic jams a kilometer long on all major arteries, leaving people dangerously vulnerable in an emergency. Water easily floods badly paved roads without drainage. 55-60% of the population lives in the slums in flimsy huts that are easily washed away by heavy rains. Six million Mumbaiites without running water or sewage facilities and with inadequate health care easily fall prey to Mother Nature's fits.
Place part of the blame for such disasters then on politicians who've repeatedly failed to do something about the massive inadequacy of public services in this teeming city.
Why that's so and what's to be done about it varies with who's doing the telling. It turns out that Mumbai is a city of two tales.
For some Mumbaiwallahs, it's a question of private investment needing to step in and streamline the socialist public sector. According to McKinsey & Co., a global management consultancy and Bombay First, ostensibly a citizen's initiative, residents and businesses pay about $10 billion in taxes, 20% of India's overall tax revenue, but the government annually reinvests only $220 million of that into improvements in city infrastructure. Mumbai, India's business capital and a city of around 18 million people, is a congested megapolis of slums, pot-holed roads, inadequate transportation, and deteriorating buildings, the result of years of neglect combined with helter-skelter growth. Now for the last few years, the growth has declined but the rot continues.
"No new industry wants to come here, no one wants to live here," moans Deepak Parekh, chairman of Housing Development Finance Corp., India's leading housing-mortgage firm, who also sits on committees pledged to the city's renewal.
The solution? Vision Mumbai, released September, 2003, the ambitious brainchild of Bombay First and McKinsey, which plans for Mumbai to grow at about 8-10% rather than its recent 2.4%. It's not the first time Mumbai has worked with McKinsey, which has a high profile in such Asian cities as Bangkok, Shanghai, and Singapore. A decade ago, Bombay First hired it to advise Mumbaiites on "Positioning Maharashtra for leadership in the economic liberalization era. McKinsey's recommendations for turning Mumbai into a "world-class city" by 2013 include scrapping the coastal regulation zone rules, developing new industries in Mumbai's hinterland, reducing city taxes, and expanding public and private transportation.
That's expected to lure investors and professionals back to the city.
Jockin Arputham, Mumbai slum dweller, former urban guerilla and Magasaysay Award winner has a different take on things. "It's the whole serving class that has made Mumbai a world-class city, not the middle class," he says. For Jockin, it's slum dwellers that do the building and cleaning of homes and offices, who look after the children, wash the clothes, drive the rickshaws and taxis, and work as coolies. They deserve the same chance as everyone else.
There's plenty of land, he insists, pointing to the hundreds of acres of fallow land held by corporations like Godrej or given out generously to builders. He has a point.
Bombay First might be a citizen's initiative but it includes representatives of multinationals. And behind Vision Mumbai's rosy proposals lies a problematic reality skewered in favor of business and elites. The unrestricted development of the coast envisioned in the plan dangerously undermines natural defenses against floods and tides. Coastal development that destroyed mangroves was one of the reasons why the tsunami last year wreaked such devastation. Developing new industries in the hinterland on the back of high-tech skills does nothing for Mumbai's illiterate slum dwellers that comprise half its population. In a city where motorized transport makes up only around 8% of traffic (but contributes 60% of pollution), reducing motor taxes while simultaneously planning on constructing enormously expensive expressways linking to the hinterland profits the car-driving elite at public expense. And with the state government in debt to the tune of some Rs.93,000-crore, dumping a quarter of the cost of this Rs. 200,000 plan on the public seems crass to say the least. Especially as public services have increasingly been cut back. In fact, any funding for public transport in the plan is from the World Bank.
It turns out that while the developer/city mafia is desperate trying to attract the investing class back to the city, migrant labor from the villages is being turned back. Or as Vijay Kalam-Patil, a demolitions officer proclaims, " We want to put the fear of the consequences of migration into these people. We have to restrain them from coming to Mumbai."
Consequently, part of the neoliberal Vision of Mumbai involves razing the slums and resettling the slum dwellers. So far, the first part has been accomplished quite efficiently. Some 90,000 plus huts have been demolished and over 400,000 people made homeless in blunt violation of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights. The monsoons have proved so disastrous precisely because a good part of the population, already forced to live in makeshift housing, has been deprived even of that.
It's true that many slum-dwellers live illegally on public property, but it's also true that the coalition Congress government whom they were instrumental in electing to power promised to regularize their huts and has reneged on that promise. And while foreign citizens -- Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) -- are being breathlessly considered for dual citizenship and thus voting rights, the City Municipal Corporation, hand-in-glove with elites, is pressing to wipe dispossessed slum dwellers off the voting rolls altogether. Send them back to the villages is the cry.
But there's no going home for these urban poor. Agriculture in India is reeling everywhere from the dire impact of multinationals. Everywhere, commercialization has displaced small and marginal farmers while mechanization has displaced landless agricultural laborers. Industries all over India have been claiming enormous portions of scarce ground and surface water for their permanent use, leaving citizens and communities unable to enunciate or defend their rights to water, even drinking water. The result - millions flee to the cities and feed the metastasis of fragile, unsanitary tenements.
NOR ANY DROP TO DRINK.....
Death from excess of water it turns out is not unrelated to death from shortage of water. Only it's not caused by the consumption of the slum dwellers, as the McKinsey Report and the pro-demolition crowd suggest. The state's own report shows that only about 6% of the city's land area is occupied by slums and that only little over 5% of slum-dwellers even have access to individual water taps. It's not the benefits of the city that are pulling in the migrant workers but the drawbacks of the countryside that are pushing them out. Independent NGOs and environmentalists point out that if the Rs. 10,000 crores targeted for Mumbai's car-drivers were instead put into irrigation in the countryside, most of the migration to the cities would stop. But water, like every other public necessity in India, has been turned into a market commodity and a weapon in the corporate war on communities.
For instance, Maharashtra's Water Resources Regulatory Authority Bill of May 2005, taking its cue from Vision Mumbai, puts into practice plans that the World Bank has had for Indian water ever since 1998. The Bill follows the Andhra Pradesh model in setting up “Water Users Associations” with user fees. In Hyderabad, Andhra's capital and the showcase of the neoliberal project, similar associations sold treated water to soft drinks companies at 25 paise a liter while most areas of the city were getting water for half an hour once every two days.
But the new Maharashtra Bill does the Hyderabad model one better. Not only does it plan to raise rates drastically and immediately, it premises access to irrigation on the adoption of drip or sprinkler irrigation, both of which add tens of thousands of rupees per acre to farmers' costs. This in areas which have already seen countless suicides from bankrupted farmers. It takes no genius to figure out where the next raft of ruined farmers and their families will end up. In 1993 there was one bus a week taking migrant workers from a depot in Andhra Pradesh to Mumbai. Today there are 34.
So while Mother Nature must take a good deal of the blame for her excesses in Mumbai right now, let's not forget what's exacerbated the problem. Let's remember that the part of the population that is suffering the most from the deluge today was put squarely in the way of harm by a completely unnecessary man-made shortage of water.
Lila Rajiva is a free-lance writer in Baltimore and the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, September 2005). She can be reached at: email@example.com. Copyright (c) 2005 by Lila Rajiva
* George Monbiot, "This Is What We Paid
For," The Guardian, May 18, 2004.
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