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Metro, Mumbai and the middle class

The buildout of a new Metro system in Mumbai is many things to many people. To the government at the Centre, it is the modernisation of India and a strategic partnership with infrastructure funder Japan. For the city, it is an urgent and modern transportation line. For project-affected residents and environmentalists mourning the loss of trees, congestion, road closures and increased noise and air pollution, it is a nuisance and an unnecessary enterprise. For Mumbai’s youth, it is the symbol of a city catching up with the rest of the world.

However, the most meaningful value of the Metro is an invisible, social one: the first-time active participation of the city’s middle class with the government.

How has an infrastructure project revived an urban social compact that had been absent for 30 years? The last time the middle class participated in Mumbai’s welfare was in 1991 when the mill lands were allowed to be developed and the city’s professionals dreamed of a new, equal urban space. Builders’ greed took over and that vision was shattered.

Now, there is another big move: an underground metro which is the city’s first massive mobility project since independence. Unlike the mill lands located in working-class Mumbai, the Metro runs through the heart of middleclass neighbourhoods and commercial areas of south Mumbai, through Girgaum, Dadar, Santa Cruz, Bandra, Kurla, Andheri and Aarey. It is disrupting normal life and neighbourhoods, forcing residents to step out and become citizens for the first time in decades.

All to the good. India lags behind many countries because its cities and towns have stayed stunted. Successive governments focused on societal and political mobility rather than liveability. Over time, as socialism wore off and the private sector began to thrive, the middle class bought its way out of any dependence on government. It turned to the private sector for everything. Only in the city’s administration, roads and public transport did the government intrude — though rudely with shoddy delivery.

That changed in 2014 with the Devendra Fadnavis government’s determination to thrust modern infrastructure on Mumbai and its future generations. The middle class, which rhapsodised over Singapore-style streets and subways at nukkads and dinner parties, was shocked to find that having the same would cost them their slumber and their apathy.

The government, too, was in for a shock. The Indian state is accustomed to interacting with only two types of citizens: the very rich for business licences and political funding, and the poor, who are completely dependent on the government. The middle class floated somewhere around, looking after its privatised, bourgeois self.

What the government forgot was that the middle class was an articulate accumulation of skills and knowledge.Infrastructure in particular is the domain of the engineer, lawyer, architect, financier — the same professionals who build and purpose a modern city and its transport. The initial reaction of the government — in the case of Mumbai Metro it was Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (MMRCL) — was to ignore the residents. Metro 3 was a particular case in point. Starting from Colaba Woods garden in Cuffe Parade and running 33.5 km through to the export zone in Bandra, it planned a rail car shed in Aarey Colony, one of Mumbai’s last remaining green sprawls.

When the middle class started protesting against destruction of green spaces and environment, the state was caught off guard, unable to believe the ‘mombattimarch manoos’ could activate and sustain. An early meeting to explain the wonders of Metro’s engineering was called in 2015 by MMRDA. Residents of Cuffe Parade, JN Tata Road, PM Road, Kalbadevi and Aarey were unimpressed. They were more worried about the green cover.

What a very middle class concern! But the same concern resonated with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which is providing substantial funding for the Metro — Rs 13,235 crore (57 per cent of the total cost).

Understanding the importance of environment to the Japanese and distressed by the state’s disregard for it, residents formed informal associations to discuss issues and file RTI petitions. Structural engineers in the groups drew diagrams showing soil delicacy and dangers of erosion; greens showed environmental disruption; activists showed how students, especially from slums, benefitted from studying in a verdant setting; lawyers provided legal support; youths used social media to amplify the message. All this was addressed directly to JICA. It worked.

In September 2015, appraisers at JICA objected to MMRCL’s plan of using Colaba Woods as an equipment-storing site. A month earlier, the National Green Tribunal in Pune had asked the government to maintain status quo on Aarey and not build a car shed. The state agreed and Aarey and some gardens were spared at the time.

It was a moment of joy for Mumbaikars — but also a realisation that their participation cannot be just this once, that it must be a long-term effort if our metropolis is to develop with sensitivity, care and beauty. The state also understood it cannot railroad through its projects. That middle class is a determined force, whose many talents can be helpful if not treated as disruptive.

Over the past one year, the Metro work has started in earnest across Mumbai. Congestion, noise and pollution are at extreme levels, but there is less grumbling from residents and government, and more adjust-maari, more alignment. Ironically, the current citizen-project adversity is the private contractors of the Metro — companies which are known for completing projects in authoritarian countries, but which are less experienced in working in India’s vocal communities.

Resident groups are again in ‘orientation’ role for these contractors, reminding them that for every structural engineer at a construction site, there are six of star quality in the nearby buildings. For every shoddy environmental study conducted by consultants, there are five good ones done by residents. For every rule flouted or ignored, there are watchful citizens to take them to task.

Life as Mumbai’s middle class knew it for 30 years is over. But they are hopeful that a new era is beginning, one where the government and citizens can be equal partners, pooling in their talent and ambition to make Mumbai not Singapore, Shanghai or Dubai, but a developing metropolis with a mindful middle class matrix.

This article was originally published by Mumbai Mirror.

Manjeet Kripalani is Executive Director, Gateway House.

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