(The New York Times - May 17, 2005)
Dispute Tears at Mumbai: House the Rich, or the Poor?
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
Published: May 17, 2005
MUMBAI, India - In the belly of this island city, the textile mills are overrun by weeds and their chimneys point at the sky like so many sooty elephant snouts. A glassy new high-rise glistens incongruously nearby. A construction crane peers over a giant crater where a mill has been demolished to make way for four luxury apartment towers.
Scott Eells for The New York Times
In striving to become a modern commercial center, "a city of the future," Mumbai has leveled many slums.
Paul Hilton/Bloomberg News
Where slums and abandoned textile factories once stood, high rises, office buildings and expensive shopping malls are going up in Mumbai.
For over a century this neighborhood, known as the Mill Lands, drew migrants from the countryside, fostered a politically powerful trade union movement and turned what was once a cluster of fishing villages into India's buzzing commercial capital.
Today the mills are dead, the lots on which they stand are among the few patches of property available in a bursting city, and the debate over what to do with the land goes to the heart of what kind of city Mumbai expects to become.
City officials, citizens groups and, lately, the courts are fiercely wrangling over questions like how much land will be set aside for parks and affordable housing, what will happen to the mill workers, who are central to Mumbai's creation myth, and whether developers should be allowed to turn the old factories into nightclubs and luxury apartments.
What is at stake is the future of the city's past.
Already, a 29-story luxury hotel has sprung up in the Mill Lands, as well as several new office blocks and an exclusive shopping mall.
Environmental groups have gone to court in an effort to set aside a chunk of the remaining 600 acres for public use. In April, a Mumbai court put a temporary halt on development.
[In a reversal in early May, the Indian Supreme Court gave its blessings for construction to continue, initially on seven large parcels.]
The wrangling comes at a time when Mumbai, or Bombay, as the name was spelled for centuries, a city that is as alluring as it is frustrating to the roughly 14 million residents, is engaged in a larger debate about identity.
Will it remain a magnet for strivers from the countryside? Will it be able to draw foreign investment? Will it stand out as India's global city?
"Bombay is a city of the past," declared Narendra Nayar, an industrialist and the chairman of a business lobby called Bombay First. "It must be a city of the future."
Mr. Nayar's group is in large part responsible for setting off the spat over Mumbai's future. Armed with a report prepared by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, it called over a year ago for a radical $40 billion makeover of the city: clearing slums, and building a new subway, public toilets and an airport tarmac without shanties on the margins. Titled Vision Mumbai, the report dangled the prospect of transforming the city into a Shanghai on the Arabian Sea.
The dispute that Vision Mumbai unleashed served to demonstrate amply why Mumbai is not Shanghai now, and won't be anytime soon.
"Now, you can't straightaway say we want a world-class city and we don't want anything ugly," said Neera Adarkar, an architect and a passionate foe of Bombay First's notion of the city. "Just because you don't want to see them, they're not going to suddenly disappear."
The government's efforts to demolish slums earlier this year caused such a ruckus that it stopped after two months, and prompted the state's chief minister to be summoned to New Delhi for a talking-to. (The Congress Party-led coalition that governs India, after all, owes its victory largely to the poor.)
Citizens groups have gone to court in an effort to save the Mill Lands for public space. Weekend tours of demolished slums have been organized to show solidarity with the displaced. Freedom-of-information requests have been filed to reveal which properties are actually publicly owned. Citizens have quarreled endlessly over Vision Mumbai.
"I hate that word," complained Charles Correa, Mumbai's most acclaimed architect and urban planner. "There's very little vision. No one really knows. They're more like hallucinations."
Vision or hallucination, the charged debate points as much to the city's vitality as to its desperation. More than half its citizens live in slums. Railroad tracks serve as toilets because there are none for those who do not have proper homes. The sardine-can nature of living means the rich simply cannot ignore the poor, as they can in many other cities. To commute every morning from the fancy northern suburbs is to drive past thousands of shanty dwellers, brushing their teeth in the streets.
"Bombay is where India meets the world," declared Gerson D'Cunha, a retired advertising executive who founded an influential citizens lobby called Agni Mumbai. "That's what has made people say, enough is enough, we've got to do something."
The paucity of land in Mumbai - what Mr. D'Cunha calls "a famine for land" - makes the fate of the Mill Lands a highly charged debate.
From his milk stand across the street, a former mill worker named Ganpath Shankar Gorgaonkar, 65, threw a rueful look at the up-market High Street Phoenix mall, where the famed Phoenix Mills once stood. In the fading light, the silhouettes of construction workers could be seen erecting another high-rise tower.
"When I see this, I feel very sad," he said. "No middle-class people can stay here."
In the back room behind his shop, his son, Sunil, a commercial photographer, edited digital photos on his desktop computer. Never, he said, had he considered following his father into the mills. Occasionally, he hung out with friends at the Barista Cafe inside the mall. He understood, nonetheless, why men like his father felt out of place here: "He's from the old times."
He understood, too, he said, how times had changed for the working men of Mumbai. In his father's day, a mill worker could feed his entire family. Today, he said, entire families work to feed themselves.
The textile factories flourished for 150 years before they were finally killed by industrial strikes in the 1980's. Over the next two decades, the mill owners converted their properties into lucrative ventures and managed, in 2001, to tweak an older municipal law that required them to set aside a third of the land for public use. In the end, the law stipulated that only a small fraction be set aside.
[The latest Supreme Court ruling has given mill owners and developers a shot in the arm. "It is a wonderful judgment," said Niranjan Hiranandani, one of India's largest developers. "This will add a lot of area for development, which is very much needed in Mumbai."]
Of the nearly 60 mills that once operated here, more than a dozen have been converted into office towers, shops and apartments. About 40 are left.
For the city's developers, it is like manna from a real estate heaven. For urban planners, it is a bounty with which to resuscitate the cramped city center. For those who live there, it is a scary prospect of change.
"There's a great deal of money to be made, and everybody is struggling with their greasy fingers," Mr. D'Cunha said. "The question is, which political view will prevail?"