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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.

[rebelmouse-image 27088759 alt="""" original_size="1024x509" expand=1]
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.

[rebelmouse-image 27088761 alt="""" original_size="1024x576" expand=1]

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.

[rebelmouse-image 27088763 alt="""" original_size="1024x685" expand=1]

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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Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Noel, a Cuban engineer who had to emigrate to the faraway island of Saint Lucia, tells about the Cuban government's systematic intimidation techniques and coercion of its professionals abroad. He now knows he can never go back to his native island — lest he should never be allowed to leave Cuba again.

Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Next stop, Saint Lucia

Laura Rique Valero

Daniela* was just one year old when she last played with her father. In a video her mother recorded, the two can be seen lying on the floor, making each other laugh.

Three years have passed since then. Daniela's sister, Dunia*, was born — but she has never met her father in person, only connecting through video calls. Indeed, between 2019 and 2023, the family changed more than the two little girls could understand.

"Dad, are you here yet? I'm crazy excited to talk to you."

"Dad, I want you to call today and I'm going to send you a kiss."

"Dad, I want you to come for a long time. I want you to call me; call me, dad."

Three voice messages which Daniela has left her father, one after the other, on WhatsApp this Saturday. His image appears on the phone screen, and the two both light up.

The girls can’t explain what their father looks like in real life: how tall or short or thin he is, how he smells or how his voice sounds — the real one, not what comes out of the speaker. Their version of their dad is limited to a rectangular, digital image. There is nothing else, only distance, and problems that their mother may never share with them.

In 2020, Noel*, the girls' father, was offered a two-to-three-year employment contract on a volcanic island in the Caribbean, some 2,000 kilometers from Cuba. The family needed the money. What came next was never in the plans.

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