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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Maximum City

As anyone who has been to Mumbai for even a brief while knows, the city is bursting at the seams. Well that has been the case for decades, but I think the current phase of ‘growth’ is going to bring India’s financial capital to its knees soon. Let’s have a look at the symptoms.

WaterThe city has been growing at an unbelievably fast pace since forever, yet water supply was never much of a problem (at least for non-slum dwellers). Today that invincible foe is snapping at even this city’s heels. This city, whose annual rainfall comes to 300cm (that means over a few rainy months, clouds blanket three meters of water over every square inch of the city. Imagine that). This city, which has dozens of huge freshwater lakes close by and at higher altitudes, meaning it’s amongst the best placed world over to easily procure fresh water for its denizens. And yet, today a bleak future stares the city in its face: water shortage is a reality even Mumbai will have to live with in the future.

TrafficWe have flyovers popping up dime a dozen, there is a new ‘Sealink’ skirting the Western coast, and the Eastern Express highway is being elevated right across Central Bombay from Byculla to Matunga. And yet the traffic woes don’t seem to end, do they? The Sealink takes 5 minutes to cross, but the snarls at either end take 30 to negotiate. Each flyover that is built only seems to be postponing the inevitable. The Western Express Highway already sees crawling traffic even on the flyovers!

SlumsWell slums are all over the place now, but they have been around for a long time now. So doesn’t really qualify. Naah enough about the symptoms, let’s move on. So basically I think the main problems with Mumbai are Overcrowding and Transportation. I am going to deal with Overcrowding in this blog, and talk about Transportation in the next. And if you thought I mean all those slum-dwellers when I talk about overcrowding, you are dead wrong. I mean it’s all the hot-shot uber-cool tower-residing people in South and Central Mumbai who are overcrowding the city.

New demography

Historically South Mumbai was the CBD (Central Business District) and most folk lived in the Eastern/Western suburbs, commuting to work and back on the locals. Central Mumbai was full of self-sufficient mills, in the sense workers lived there and worked there so there wasn’t massive people movement out of there. Cut to today, the mills are gone – most of them shut down or sick units. Even for the healthy ones, how can you have your factories in some of the most prime real estate locations in the world? Is it not more feasible to sell out, make a pile and rebuild your mill somewhere else (if interested)?

So Kaboom, Central Mumbai is shorn of all its mills, and we see hundreds of skyscrapers coming up instead. This puts a huge strain on the city’s roads because the guys living here won’t use the locals – they want to take a cab/car down to work. In fact it’s the same even with non-mill locations like Worli and Prabhadevi. You just have these gargantuan 50-storey towers popping up everywhere. If you think the skyline right now is cool, wait for what it will look like in the next 5 years. Every other plot is being converted into a huge tower. And all of these chaps will drive down to work, not use public transport.

What’s the big deal you say. It’s a free market isn’t it? The city’s infrastructure will have to be expanded, aur kya? Doesn’t every other city on the face of Earth cope up with growth? Well it’s time to discuss some FSI fundas. Each zone in a city has certain FSI (floor space index) limits. An FSI limit of say, 4.5 means means that if you have a plot of say, 1000 sq.yards in that zone, you can’t build a property with more than 4500 sq.yards of built-up area on it. All floors combined. It’s your choice whether you want to build a large house covering almost the entire area, and with only 3 floors, or whether you would like to leave large open spaces and thus build a property with a smaller footprint, but going upto 5 or 6 floors. This concept of FSI exists everywhere, even in skyscraper crazy cities like NY and Chicago. No amount of roads or flyovers would be able to service zones which have super-high FSIs. It’s simply not possible (can you imagine a zone where 70% of all area is road? That’s what would probably be necessary if you want balanced traffic in areas with skyscraper-permitting FSIs). So how do NY and Chicago have less traffic problems than Mumbai? The simple answer is that the zones over there are sustained by Public Transport. Make that Rapid public transport (usually a Metro network). Even NY would fall to its knees if it gave out high FSI limits all over the place, with only roads to take care of transportation needs. Which is what is happening in Mumbai. For example, have you seen what happened in Hiranandani Powai? Such a nice idyllic location it was, until Hiranandani went crazy starting about 2000. Today the area has far too many towers, leading to the irritating fact that there are huuge jams within a 'planned' colony! Talk about killing the golden goose..

So we have shoddy, nay, corrupt urban planners who are giving out skyscraper permits to all builders ready to grease their palms. But we have no coherent plans for rapid transport, and the current Metro/Monorail projects don’t really solve this particular problem (more on that in the next blog). So what we will see in the next few years is that South and Central Mumbai will have hundreds of towers, all filled with residents too snooty to take the local, and thus we will reach a situation where the roads will be in a constant state of gridlock. This illegal (speaking from a civic sense) mass of skyscrapers is also the reason the city’s water supply is getting stretched. Most towers have private swimming pools. Can you guess the water required? Swimming pools apart, the rich have a much higher per capita consumption of water even otherwise.
So this is why I think the city’s infrastructure will find it impossible to cope with the current phase of growth. We are simply not giving it a chance! What is that you say? Water will always be available to the rich? Hmm you are right of course. It’s the Dombivlis and Mulunds of the world that will see shortages, the Mahalaxmis and Prabhadevis needn’t worry too much. But what you gonna do about the traffic? Thousands of cars all over the place, and none can move an inch. It will cost you 60 minutes even to get away from your place onto the liberating SeaLink. What you gonna do then?

So next time you admire Mumbai for beginning to look like NY, realize instead, that behind the shiny new fa├žade is a dying, decaying city which will soon screw everybody’s happiness.

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