Monday, May 24, 2010

Maximum City - an urban nightmare

Mondays in Mumbai
Annoying horns, crackling firecrackers, the annoying digging noise of a digger somewhere, dust flying all over the place. Seems like a scene straight out of a day in Mumbai? Yes. What happens when you try to fill a water balloon and keep pouring water in beyond what the balloon can carry? That is exactly what is happening to Mumbai. Maximum city is bursting at its seams. Despite being a Mumbaiphile, despite how much it hurts me to write this piece, it is the truth!

To keep up with the urbanization spree, the infrastructure needs to grow. So everyone needs bigger roads and more buildings. And now, India is a growth story with Mumbai as one of its central characters. So, people are getting more affluent. As the standard of living increases, people grow aware of heretofore unknown entities like status symbols and so on. So, in a new phenomenon that is gripping Mumbai, people buy 4 cars per household! 2 small cars, and 2 SUVs, all for a family of maybe 4! Given the affluence, people hire a driver for a small sum a month and absolve themselves of the sorrows of driving in Mumbai. The result - the ever burgeoning need for more flyovers and even bigger roads! As the number of rich people grows, room at the bottom and the middle of the pyramid is let up and more poor people migrate into the city. This puts a pressure on public transport, the buses and trains in Mumbai, which till date have been hailed as the best in India! But even these have a set capacity which cannot be overshot.

The result - the balloon bursts. Crowds have become unimaginably huge such that traveling by public transport is literally painful. Augmented crowds lead to discomfort and whole lot of rage in an already stressed out city! Fine, so one could choose to travel in his own vehicle. But what will you do when someone chooses to take his SUV through rush hour traffic? He probably wouldn't realize the agony he is causing by choking up an arterial road in peak traffic, since he is perhaps being driven! And everybody else on the road has to put up with the ordeal of having to traverse a 20 minute distance in 2 hours. Add to the mess the pain of incessant honking, which adds on to the noise and unbeknownst to us augments our stress levels. Another major problem is the noise pollution that people in houses need to bear. An arterial road goes past their apartment building and they have to bear the noise of vehicles, sirens and honks all day and all night. This is a slow poison which has the capacity to increase stress levels and cause a whole slew of physiological as well as psychological problems!

What can be done? Well thankfully, a lot. In terms of urbanization, Mumbai is not the pioneer, nor is India, for that matter. So we have loads of precedents to fall back on. So, for the public transport infrastructure, decidedly we need wider roads, although not at the expense of trees and mangroves. We need more trains and more buses, or even more double decker buses! As far as road congestion goes, we can adopt rationing on the basis of number plates, as has been done in Brazil, which has the world's worst traffic congestion record. Or even adopt a penalty system for vehicles with single occupancy during peak hours, as has been done in Singapore. Another idea could be imposition of a prohibitively high tax on the third vehicle entering a household - a modification of the high purchase tax regime of Hong Kong. And as for the noise, well, putting up sound barriers or noise absorbent boards along arterial roads and expressways is a practice followed all over the developed world, to shield residential areas from road traffic noise. Surprisingly that mechanism is totally absent in India. Provincial parks and anointed green zones are essential in Mumbai, to check pollution levels as well.

All in all, strong and immediate steps need to be taken to preserve Mumbai's sanity. Or the very things that attract people to Mumbai and keep them there could turn to haunt them and perhaps even shoo them away!


Abhay (Cyclops) said...

Though proving post!

Guru said...

I perfectly agree . could be done.. but hte question remains will it be done? ...