Sucheta Dalal :Serve Mumbai's spirit by tackling the rot
Sucheta Dalal

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Serve Mumbai's spirit by tackling the rot  

Jul 17, 2006

Four days after the deadly blasts that rocked Mumbai, I am hugely relieved to find that thousands of Mumbaikars, like me, are tired of the paeans sung to the astonishing spirit of Mumbai. The praise about our resilience is beginning to grate, because it allows city officials and politicians to remain corrupt, slothful, inefficient and confident that Mumbai pauses only long enough to get people back on their feet and marches on.


Let us stop the rush to normalcy and examine why we have allowed Mumbai to be crippled by a venal administration and resolve to fight the rot with the same single-minded efficiency that lets us bounce back after every calamity. Today, the Right to Information Act and the judiciary’s support to public interest litigation (PIL) have saved Mumbai from greater degradation.


If Mumbaikars join mass campaigns or public interest petitions with the same zeal they showed in their rescue work after the blasts, we can transform this city. Here are few things that must be achieved by re-directing that famous Mumbai spirit.


The root cause of sloth and evil is, invariably, corruption. Mumbai is not called the ‘maya nagari’ (city of magic) only because paupers are able to make their fortunes in business or in tinsel town. It is also maya nagari for corrupt officials. That is why many top posts in the police, vigilance agencies, customs and income tax are auctioned off and captured by corrupt officials. The biggest bribe-mela is usually associated with municipal jobs and contracts.


This does not mean that there are no honest people in government offices— there are, and in fact they desperately need public support systems to help them stand up to corrupt colleagues. We need all those who were out on the streets donating blood or helping people 2 a.m. on Wednesday to join a ‘zero tolerance for corruption’ campaign.


Mumbai’s second big problem is the land mafia. In collusion with politicians, they have kept Mumbai so cramped that every precious inch of land costs a bomb and 60% of the population lives in expensive slums. Today, institutional investors are driving prices even higher through speculation. Let us stop listening to bleeding-heart statements from industrialists; when it comes to land grabbing they are either active participants or silent spectators in the process of corrupting the system, changing rules and gobbling up public property.


We have already lost the battle for a legitimate share of the mill lands that were gifted to industrialists at discounted rates a century ago. Today they are private goldmines that continue to break development control rules. For obviously reasons, politicians are happy to release bus stations, Expressways and public sector dairy’s for development by the private sector, but how about asking public sector monoliths sitting on vast tracts of land gifted to them by the government to donate some of it for public amenities?


The Bombay Port Trust, Mumbai’s biggest land owner, must be asked to part with a track of land that will reduce traffic congestion by opening up another artery to the suburbs and will allow uniform development of the city. Last week, I was stunned to discover how much of excess land is owned by the Nehru Science Centre that runs parallel to the numbingly-crowded E. Moses Road extending from Worli to the race course. This is public land gifted at some point of time to the Centre.


How about reclaiming a part of it to broaden roads leading to newly developed shopping and office centres in Lower Parel; or to rehabilitate the clutter of slums and garages that block precious road space; or to build a much needed parking block? If Mumbaikars contribute their personal time and money during calamities, why can’t public sector companies do their bit by donating a little land to let the city breathe more easily? The next time leaders from Delhi come here to shed crocodile tears at our plight, let us make specific demands and monitor the progress.


Now look at the Mumbai police. Once known for efficiency, it now makes news for corruption, inefficiency or raping hapless citizens. But we are equally guilty of ignoring obvious evidence of the stress that they work under. Remember the constable at the airport who killed his superior out of frustration? Or the several cases of suicide by depressed cops that get no more than a couple of paragraphs in the newspapers? So many of them are saddled with the frustrating, dead-end job of protecting corrupt politicians. Surely nobody joins the police force to do that. Can we expect them not to turn cynical?


Home Minister R.R. Patil kept the police so busy shutting down dance bars that had no time to worry about public security. All he has done is to push bar girls into full scale prostitution and also endangered the city. He must now be asked to ruthlessly withdraw superfluous security cover to politicians who use the posse of policeman as a status symbol.


Let us also persuade Raj Thackarey and former police commissioner M.N. Singh to set an example by voluntarily giving up State security. The former can afford private security and show he is different and the latter was trained to protect others.


Finally, let us look at the Railways. It has been a decade-long demand of Mumbaikars that the local railway route must be spun off into a separate undertaking so that special attention can be focussed on its needs.


A combination of corruption, apathy and lack of accountability has ensued that land along the railways track is dangerously blocked by encroachments that are supported by politicians, the entrance to railways stations is choked with illegal shops and commuters are forced to dodge hundreds of hawkers who occupy every footbridge. A senior journalist discovered that local stations do not even have basic first air or a stretcher to deal with emergencies even though 6.5 million people commute everyday.


These are just a few things that can help transform Mumbai if propelled by the indomitable spirit of its people.




-- Sucheta Dalal