Published 21 March 2014
Associate Professor and regular Mumbai visitor, Bill Pritchard, reflects on the urban evolution of India’s most populous city.
Mumbai never ceases to surprise. I’m a regular visitor. Over the past decade I’ve passed through the city more than a dozen times. I usually bide my time around the campus of the University which provides the raison d’etre for my visits. It’s in a quiet nook of the city (well, as quiet as Mumbai ever gets) that I’ve come to know reasonably well. But every time I to-and-fro to this city, something new strikes my eye. A clutch of new skyscrapers on the horizon. A shopping mall thrown up amidst tumbled down street fronts. Jackhammers pushing through the concrete in aid of new city infrastructure.
But inured though I am to the fact this ‘maximum city’ cannot sit still, my most recent visit left me open jawed. July 2013 was my previous visit. I spent a week hiding from the torrent of the monsoon. This most recent visit was in February 2014, when the weather was cool, comfortable and dry. In the brief six months between trips, the city had seemed to reinvent itself.
I needed to travel downtown from the university campus, to fix up some overdue paperwork for my entry visa. As usual, just to the right of the university gates a line of green and yellow taxis were parked, waiting for the regular business that comes from campus Faculty and visitors. I hired one to take me downtown, to the Foreign Registration Office just nearby to Mumbai’s main train terminus. Whenever I’d done this trip before, it was all stop-starts and potholes. A crunchingly slow trip which offered a steady, window-side panorama of Mumbai’s street ecology.
This time, the taxi turned left from the main road, up a ramp, and onto the newly constructed Eastern Freeway. Within a minute, he floored the accelerator and the spluttering engine revved to 90km/hour. We were on the open road, cruising seemingly in the air above the mangroves of Mumbai’s inner bay on our left side, and staring into the fifth-storey living quarters of early-aged cement apartment blocks on our right. A few kilometres into our ride, we approached Mumbai’s new monorail track, which cut across the Freeway’s path, ten metres further above us. A monorail full of passengers whizzed above us. I was immersed in a futuristic transport landscape.
Racing along a Freeway many metres above ground alters perspectives and perceptions of a city. The big-ticket items of urban infrastructure gain focus while the quotidian drop out of view. To see Mumbai from the Eastern Freeway is to see a stagger of tall apartment blocks punctuating the horizon. They rise like outcrops above the dust soiled greenery of tree tops, and the corrugated iron and tarpaulin of slums. The daily landscapes of people in those slums remains hidden from view. Whereas in my previous trips to downtown Mumbai I passed through those landscapes, I now, God-like, pass over them. I know I’m in Mumbai, but for the first time ever in all my visits to that city, I feel I could equally be in Bangkok or Jakarta, in a nowhere-land of urban modernity, disconnected from the city’s essence.
Of course, who am I to whine at this disembodying of the city’s personality? I enjoy observing the energy of Mumbai’s street life, but I wouldn’t want to live in a slum. If the narrative of modern India is about anything, it is about a battle for upwards mobility. The Eastern Freeway dramatically reduces car travel time in a city otherwise clogged by honking congestion. If this brings investment and economic activity to this place, and hence improves the livelihood prospects of Mumbai’s millions of slum-dwellers, I am not qualified to criticise in the slightest.
And yet, as I rush through this city far above the bustle of its streets, I can’t help but wonder what this means for how the city is seen and understood. In a place like Mumbai there are obvious false economies around a freeway-anchored city. A putative Los Angeles-isation of India’s chief metropolis is a scary thought. But viewed from the freeway itself, the future is revealed and idealized differently. As geographers are want to emphasise, in order to see something, you must already be somewhere. In this case, as the decision-makers and planners of the city become increasingly prone to living out their astral projections above the seething masses below, the way they think about and envision the city will inevitably mutate. Problems become redefined as one vision becomes hidden and another comes into view. And so, the Eastern Freeway becomes a political stage from which a reimagined cityscape is born. It’s still the case that Mumbai never ceases to surprise, but now, I’m not sure which Mumbai I’m looking at anymore.
Bill Pritchard is a Professor in Human Geography specialising in agriculture, food and rural places. He is also an executive member of SEI heading up the Food, People and the Planet node. You can read more of Bill’s writings on India in his latest book, ‘Feeding India’.