Monday, January 12, 2009

The Dickensian divide: The physical and social grid in Mumbai

Mumbai in India is a linear city: It was formed by stitching together seven islands into an appendage that hangs off from the main land pointing to the south much like an empty garden hose which is now devoid of water.

This spit of land is one of the most densely populated area in the entire world. Two main highways traverse the length of this land from North to South; roughly parallel to each other: One is the Western Express Highway and the other; the Eastern. In the usual mayhem of a developing country called India; these two highways are punctuated by various traffic intersections serviced using traffic lights that many do not follow, if the cops were not looking. These intersections serve busy collector roads that divert people into the local train stations or other business and residential areas. All the roads, including the highways, are criss-crossed by pedestrians who were never really catered to when the city was planned. It is no surprise that traffic accidents are high. Fortunately; all the obstacles such as the afore mentioned intersections -- however haphazardly managed and followed, do slow down the traffic. Hopefully that reduction in speed should have reduced the severity of at least some of the accidents.

With the rise of the economy in India, one saw the rise of the automobile. Where we once had exactly two kinds of cars to choose from (something akin to Henry Ford's old joke: You could choose any colour as long as it is black) we now have  a large variety to choose from. The lip-smacking auto industry has come into India wanting to occupy suitable positions in the Indians' minds.

Hmmm... so where does this story evolve? 

Somewhere down the line; there was this sudden spurt of flyovers all over Mumbai. Let us not get into the political and economic interests behind the infrastructure changes because those motivations can be quite easily guessed and left at that.  The idea of these flyovers were to simply fly over traffic intersections so that those with the new cars can now get an uninterrupted passage from North to South (or vice-versa) of Mumbai.

When these flyovers were being constructed, I got a funny sensation at the pit of my stomach: Not only because of the obvious effects the automobile would have on the environment; but also other attendant problems they would bring in. I was afraid that now that the pedestrians did not have any "interrupted" points in the traffic flow; the severity of traffic accidents would be much higher. 

Sure enough; after the flyovers were commissioned and the rich started zooming up and down these two highways using a new-found freedom to press on the accelerator, really horrendous accidents started happening at both ends of the the flyovers ...where the speed is usually the highest and the motorist accelerates the most in order to get into or out of the flyover. Obviously there was a hue and cry about these accidents and the "lack of civic sense" by oh-these-terrible-pedestrians. 

And the solution was effective but equally thoughtless: Take these black ribbons of the highways and lift them up a bit at both the ends of each flyover and neatly tuck in a pedestrian subway underneath. The accidents may have got reduced (well, I have no statistics to confirm that but I can assume that they have been reduced because one does not hear of such accidents in the media) but now the society has got nicely stratified and gridded as per the economic class.

The rich zoom up and down the highways and the poor pedestrians scurry around like rats through Dickensenian sub-ways; criss-crossing the rich at ninety degrees. One cannot possibly get a more ironic  and symbolic statement about the class divide than this. 

If any of us were to visit these sub-ways, you will see a whole different life there: Peddlers selling all kinds of goods including rotten potatoes and tomatoes and suchlike. So much for the "evolved" planning of Mumbai. Though I agree in parts on the progress made by India, I often reflect on the social aspect which is neglected because not everyone are equally uplifted or can participate in the economy. Many are pushed under the carpet. Often literally.

1 comment:

sameer said...

Unfortunately, the sexiness of the megapolis has gotten our planners across cities hook, line and sinker. The model encourages sprawl and soon enough people start driving longer and longer distances and the same wider roads and flyovers are clogged again. Nothing achieved, over a 3-5 year period - and trees lost, pedestrians and cyclists inconvenienced forever and congestion and pollution made a permanent part of the landscape.
Smaller, networked sub-cities will promote local acco/work, walking,cycling and use of public transport for getting to the "next city" when the need arises (make sure there's a wood in between the two!)
Everything is focused on improving infrastructure for private motorized transport - and thats a scary future.