S G Kale
By: S G Kale
MUMBAI: Amid the Covid-19 crisis, the state government has initiated steps like ‘Magnetic Maharashtra’ to attract fresh industrial investment.
The question as we look at the future is: Should we try to recreate Mumbai as it was before Covid-19? Is our earlier ‘model’ of urban development worthy of recreation? In bare essence, it amounted to fuel investment in urban areas in the form of modern modes of transport, multi-storeyed towers and malls, while attracting a huge number of skilled and unskilled labourers from across the country who are then left to live in a most congested manner without basic civic infrastructure or health facilities on a suitable scale.
The reverse rush of migrant labour to their villages has exposed the hollowness of the ‘model’. We were unconcerned about their health and the sub-human conditions in which they lived as long as it did not impinge on us. The urban elite did not care for the dehumanizing condition of labourers, packed like sardines in unhygienic conditions. Policymakers and the ruling class paid no attention to plug loopholes in health infrastructure as long as its consequences were concealed deeply in the underbelly of slums. We woke up to the dichotomy of demography when Dharavi and similar areas started throwing up hundreds of Covid-19 patients daily.
There are reports that with relaxation of restrictions, builders in cities are planning to bring back the carpenters from the north. These are knee-jerk reactions without long-term thinking. Is it not possible to create a body of local skilled labour without again falling back on the formula of calling in migrants and forcing them to live in very poor conditions?
Urban development is a complex process, and there have been errors of judgement in the earlier pattern which are now manifestly clear. There was a tacit assumption that ‘infrastructure for the poor’ will be poor. This was an inherent anti-poor bias which can’t be allowed to continue. It is necessary to rethink several features of the earlier ‘model’.
For instance, greater priority for bus transport and bicycles. Secondly, people from farflung suburbs may be required to work from home instead of crowding the transport network. We have an opportunity to rework the paradigm, doing away with the anti-poor bias and fascination for expensive construction and swanky cars.
There can be a second look at development control rules, which should give greater emphasis to health, hygiene and educational infrastructure. This is something which economists like Amartya Sen have been pressing for.
One way of preventing neglect of public utilities and infra is to ensure patronage of ruling elite. Y B Chavan, when he was CM, used to go to the staterun St George Hospital for treatment. When VVIPs start availing of public hospitals and public transport, there will be a quantum jump in quality of services.
(S G Kale was Mumbai civic commissioner in the 1990s)