We always talk about Mumbai being the country’s financial hub and the need for it to be slum-free in order to be a top-class city. But at the same time, the reality is that we’ve got nearly 52% of the city’s population living in slums. In one way or another, outdoors, at homes or in hospitals, this population contributes in a big way to the machinery and economy of Mumbai.
Therefore it’s important that we talk about slums in a more humane manner. We often look at them as dirty structures that should be removed, and not as places where human beings live. Obviously, rehabilitation is important. We need to alleviate their poverty and elevate them at least to a class that is higher than their current economic means.
I’m very hopeful about this happening because I see great change in the form of growing aspiration among the people living there. Slum-dwelling children now go to school and colleges, they see successful people on television and other media and want to be like them. It is therefore important that we give them the opportunity to improve their lives.
Somebody once commented that they found it funny that I spend all my MPLADS (Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) money on building toilets at slums. I don’t think it’s funny for people who use those toilets. In this day and age, for women to still go out in the open to defecate is undignifying. I do provide a lot of my money to improve sanitation among people who don’t have it and I will continue to do so.
If we want Mumbai to become a first class city, we need to improve the infrastructure, traffic conditions and also work on rehabilitation of slums.
The constituency I represent in the Parliament is very diverse. It has people who live in slums as well as those who live in apartment buildings. Constantly improving roads, creating footpaths and open spaces, maintenance of the seaside promenades and beautifying them is also important. Recently, we in association with the police installed road CCTV cameras along Bandra, Santacruz and Khar on an experimental basis. Our focus is on providing safety and comfort to people in the highly urban belts as well.
In the last five years, Mumbai has changed in such ways that one can’t say anymore that it has been neglected in comparison to New Delhi. At the outset, Mumbai is a little disadvantaged compared to Delhi due to the fact that it is a little island which does not allow much by way of expansion. But projects such as the Bandra-Worli Sealink have eliminated the woes of commuters who previously had only one arterial road to reach South Mumbai. Similarly the Santacruz-Chembur Link Road, which will open in April 2014, will be superb for reducing travel time between the Eastern and Western Express Highways. Then there is also the Milan flyover and the elevated Sahar Road which have eased the way for traffic going to the city’s airports. Not to mention the Jogeshwari-Vikhroli Link Road, the Monorail and the Metro. Yes, Mumbai still has problems today, but look at where Mumbai was and how far we’ve come in these 10 years.
There have to be systemic changes in fast-tracking infrastructure projects. It takes forever to get one file shifted from one desk to another and further. Projects in Mumbai do get stalled because we have to deal with structures that need to go to make way, including slums. One has to give them compensation or rehabilitation. Many times people go into litigation and get stay orders against removal of the impeding structure. They don’t agree to the package offered by the government. These are the technical hurdles that delay many projects.
But a city cannot improve beyond a point without the cooperation of its people. I always tell people that if they wish to see something improved, they have to come together and I will facilitate anything they need. But they should come up with ideas. This approach has worked wonders in places such as Union Park in Bandra, where the people converted a patch of area that was a complete dump into a Eco Park that uses only solar panels for lighting and implements rainwater harvesting. It has become a boon for the people who live around it. In the same fashion, we had also set up a community radio for Bandra, Khar and Santacruz residents.
People should realise that if we need to bring in change, all of us have to be prepared for it. Once a year, we promote a car-free day on Carter Road where we request people not to bring vehicles. Despite us cordoning off the road from both ends, people still bring their cars and park it right where the barricades are placed, creating huge congestion there.
In Barcelona, there are narrow roads for cars on both sides of a wide footpath meant for walking. It’s beautiful to see people cycling, skating and walking on such spaces. But if we were to do that here in Mumbai, the car-owners would throw a fit. We tried constructing a bicycle lane at Bandra Kurla Complex but it didn’t work. In no time there were cars parked all over the bicycle tracks. They tried a specialised bus lane in Delhi and it didn’t work.
I find that there is a lack of feeling among people about what they are giving to the city. Look at the Times Square in New York City, where no cars are allowed. People sit there on the street and enjoy the sights and the sounds and listen to music. You can only do something like that when people cooperate with it. You can’t expect the government to do everything. It’s important that people realise that Mumbai is their city too. There has to be a sense of ownership and belonging and only then will the city change.