Mayhem In Mumbai, The Antithesis Of A Smart City

Bad urban planning, pollution, corruption, the Indian megapolis offers lessons on exactly how not to run your city.

A slum in Mumbai
A slum in Mumbai
Patrick de Jacquelot

MUMBAI — Malik Abdullah is an industrialist from the slums. Installed in two rooms of Dharavi, a blighted neighborhood in the heart of Mumbai, his company collects used plastic and grinds it before selling it to a recycling factory. Seated on the armchair that doubles as his desk in the middle of the muddy alley that leads to his workshop, the 52-year-old is growing worried.

Like all of the 700,000 to 800,000 residents of Dharavi, Malik is concerned about a planned renovation project for the slum. To take maximum advantage of the enormous area, authorities are planning to build social housing to relocate residents for free and to use part of the remaining land for offices and luxury housing.

"What will become of my company?" Abdullah asks. "There's no plan to give me temporary premises while they're working on the site. And for my apartment, they're offering me 25 square meters, but I want 42."

The prospect of seeing his small business shuttered because of this development doesn't scare him too much, though. Such projects have come and gone over the years, but invariably nothing, or close to nothing, actually happens. The money at stake in renovating such an area in the center of India's financial capital is such that the parties involved — from politicians, developers and local communities to mafia organizations — always find reasons to oppose it.

According to activist Jockin Arputham, the people of Dharavi do want decent accommodations. But he thinks that nothing will materialize "as long as they're not directly involved in the project's development." Abdullah doesn't believe this can happen. "The only thing that officials are interested in is cheating," he says.

It would be a mistake to write off Abdullah, with his microbusiness and his squalid living conditions, as a negligible quantity. He and his peers hold one of the keys to Mumbai's development. Like all important cities in the country, it will be facing formidable challenges in the years to come. With 12.5 million residents in the city proper and 22 million in the wider metropolitan region, Mumbai is one of the world's megacities.

Mumbai cityscape — Photo: Tawheed Manzoor

Everything there is chaotic and extreme, which led writer Suketu Mehta to nickname it "Maximum City," a moniker that has stuck. In a space constrained by geography, the houses of most of India's billionaires rise up in the middle of the slums that are home to more than half of the city's inhabitants. As India's financial capital, Mumbai is an astounding wealth creation center.

According to the consultancy firm McKinsey & Co., the city represented 5% of India's GDP in 2014, with a per capita GDP three times higher than the national figure. Mumbai is also home to Bollywood's cinema industry. At the same time, it's a city that was devastated by the riots between communities in the early 1990s. Hidden, though poorly, behind the sumptuous Victorian Gothic facades of the colonial era buildings are "very traditional power structures that associate mafias, politicians and bureaucrats," explains urbanist Prasad Shetty.

With a population packed on a peninsula that seeks to expand on the sea, Mumbai's density reached a record-high 270 people per acre in 2011, compared with just 65 in Hong Kong and 104 in New York. And it's about to get worse. McKinsey's forecasts show that the city will reach 26.2 million inhabitants by 2025. Which raises the inevitable question: Will Mumbai still be livable in 20 years?

Pricing people out

The first challenge is housing. There is the surrealistic juxtaposition of ever-higher luxury apartment towers surrounded by slums creeping in the cracks, including in the city center. Over the years, politicians have created policies that have fueled speculation and trafficking. To slow the population's growth, they have imposed very restrictive building norms, but pressured by growing needs, they've introduced many exceptions. "They've created restrictions, and then incentives to circumvent the restrictions," says Champaka, the urbanist.

Photo: Neenad Arul

The fact that developers have been given transferable building rights has allowed for large-scale sleight of hand — for example, the renovation of a slum in a poor suburb "in compensation" for the construction of a luxury tower on the coast, without real control. As a result, "accommodation here is more expensive than in Central Park, New York," says Narinder Nayar, chairman of Mumbai First, an organization created by large companies to consider the city's future. "There's lots of unoccupied apartments, but they're unaffordable."

Among the disasters caused by this housing policy are the "vertical slums," 10- and 15-story buildings developed to relocate people from the slums. Built with the cheapest materials, these buildings deteriorate very quickly with elevators that cease to function and no running water. Which explains why Abdullah and his neighbors in Dharavi are circumspect about the latest project.

Decrepit byways

Infrastructure represents the second biggest challenge. Already dozens of years old, roads and railroads are gridlocked. "When the traffic is blocked somewhere, they build an overpass," Nayar says. "But nobody wonders what impact this will have on the traffic one kilometer further."

The Sea Link is a typical example. A 5.6-kilometer-long bridge with eight lanes, it was built to drastically shorten north-south journeys. But it ends up at a right angle on a small divided highway, which means that the flow of cars arriving south first have to drive back until they reach a roundabout before they can continue in the right direction. Nobody bothered to plan or build an interchange at the exit of this massive and beautiful construction.

As for public transport, the suburban trains immortalized in the 2013 movie Lunchbox are bogged down by traffic. Last year saw the opening of the city's first subway line, years later than initially planned. But this first line will only make sense when the network develops.

Mumbai's subway — Photo: Rajarshi MITRA

While the line 2 project is currently at a standstill, the one for line 3 is coming along. There are plans for other ambitious projects, including a $2 billion project for a huge bridge connecting Mumbai's historical center, to the south, and Navi Mumbai, the new Mumbai, on the other side of the bay.

Pipe dreams

Electricity is not a major problem, but the same can't be said about water. The city's 7,500 kilometers of pipes are afflicted by leaks, which results in losing more than 30% of the water, and the system has pressure only for a few hours every day, which damages the pipes further.

McKinsey estimates that Mumbai will need $180 billion worth of infrastructure improvements over the next 15 to 20 years. One-third of that sum needs to be allocated for housing, another third for transportation, and the rest for issues such as water and sanitization.

Mumbai waterfront — Photo: Sarah Jamerson

The main difficulty isn't the financing. "The city's biggest problem is how it's governed," says Sunali Rohra, an urbanism specialist at McKinsey. "Mumbai is managed by 17 independent agencies with no coordination mechanism. They need a high official with authority over the whole town at the office of the Chief Minister of Maharashtra," the state where Mumbai is the capital.

On the other hand, many believe that the infrastructure problems are surmountable. Urbanist Prasad Shetty is one of those, but he's more concerned with other issues that are not heard in the public debate. "The aging population, the growing polarization between rich and poor, the environmental risks, the city's economic prosperity," he says, rattling off the challenges. "Nobody reflects on the issues we'll face in 25 years. Those in charge are only interested in infrastructure because this means construction contracts in the bargain."

Among those challenges, another one looms, that of Mumbai's power of economic attraction. The lack of space and the exorbitant real estate prices are driving companies to settle instead in the neighboring city of Pune for industry, or in Delhi for major headquarters. "Even advertising companies are starting to move to Delhi," says Naresh Fernandez, author of City Adrift, A Short Biography of Bombay.

Mumbai's future could well end up being decided outside its narrow borders, in the areas that are still partially rural on the other side of the bay. The new town of Navi Mumbai "is developing with a competent plan," says a French observer, noting that it is expected to develop an international airport and a subway. Even better, a "new new town," Naina, is expected to be built just a little further away with a capacity for 10 million residents.

João Cravinho, the European Union's ambassador to Delhi, established a partnership between Europe and the city to help provide the Old Continent's expertise in urbanism. "The planning of these satellite cities is key," he says. "If they manage to set up a multipolar Mumbai with centers that complement one another and create jobs, the city could have a bright future."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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