It would be difficult to find a city where the administration has so brazenly destroyed its public bus transport system and at the same time gone out of the way to promote the motor car and builder lobbies. This is Mumbai. It has a reputation for its excellent old bus and suburban rail system which was valid some years ago. Now, the city administration is in a tearing hurry to build a Metro railway system and torn open most of the city. You have to cut open the underbelly of the city to construct, said Ashwini Bhide, the IAS officer doing a brave and unpopular job building a new system that has caused dislocation all over the metropolis for the last couple of years. And this is just the beginning.
It is fine to create a super infrastructure and the cut underbelly will be repaired. But what about the damage done to the existing bus infrastructure?
Can one think of another city which has wrecked its city bus depots, handed them over to builders for such fancy residential projects named Hollywood and Miami, and humiliated bus commuters by making them stand outside on the road for a long wait for a bus amidst rain and heat? This was done to bring in some money under the excuse to fund the bus undertaking which was systematically starved over the years of funds, with the supply of funds cut from the parent body the municipal corporation, the richest civic body in the country.
So this has proved suicidal and bankrupt in more ways than one. Not only have no funds come, but the builders have also failed to pay nearly Rs. 380 crores which they had promised to pay for the land, but now the public land has also been lost in six depots. There are 23 more depots with a lot of lands which corrupt politicians are eyeing greedily and unless there is strong public resistance, these will be sold and there will be an irreparable crisis in Mumbai. I have personally seen the damage done to four of the existing depots. Unfortunately, there is shameful public apathy, the same apathy which resulted in greedy politicians and builders commercially exploiting textile mill land and robbing common people of this land in a city where the poor have little access to public space.
A lot of revenue for public transport can be raised through various means including stiff parking fees on motor cars. But even rich motorists all over the world do not like to pay for parking That is bad enough. What is alarming is that in India this insistence on the right to park free, grab public space is now posing a serious threat to the lives of others and making cities unlivable.
Let this fire which killed five residents of Sargam a redeveloped building in Tilak Nagar, Chembur, Mumbai last month. be a warning.
The fire brigade simply could not reach the building in time because of double parking on the approach road.
Tilak Nagar was a nice low-rise, quiet housing board colony till a few years ago. Then a redevelopment mania, fueled by the builder lobby, gangsters, corrupt official machinery, led to the construction of high rise buildings in their place without any safeguards.
The number of cars grew many times without parking space so they are parked all over on the road. That they are usurping precious urban, rare space robbing common people of space to walk is bad enough. But now this sort of development is becoming a death trap.
The car mania is ruining urban life. Lewis Mumford, a great thinker of urban issues, now sadly neglected, warned way back in 1961 that insisting on having more cars and parking them as a right meant a right to destroy the city. That is exactly what the planners, the car lobby and car lovers are contributing to.
If this sounds a bit extreme, this is not a biased view. We need to turn for this analysis from none other than the foremost expert on car parking, Donald Shoup, former professor of the University of California and author of two acclaimed books on the subject. One of these is The high cost of free parking. This is a damning indictment of free parking in the West. Unfortunately, we are following the same foolish Western model while ignoring sane voices who have been warning against this model.
Let me give two quotes.
“The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.”
—Lewis Mumford, “The Highway and the City” (1964)
It is no doubt ironic that the motorcar, superstar of the capitalist system, expects to live rent-free.
As for the insistence of the super-rich on free parking on the road, there could be no more damning example than Altamont road, perhaps the most expensive real estate area in India with a high concentration of the wealthy.
As is known, it was on this road in Antilla building took place the very questionably lavish wedding of Isha, daughter of Mukesh Ambani. The residents who refuse to pay for parking on the road meekly moved their cars far away for the convenience of guests for the wedding who all arrived in cars.
On upper class, Napean Sea road outside the sprawling art deco Kilachand Mansion the municipal corporation has taken care to put up a board saying there is free parking here. It does not bother about providing basic amenities to common people but goes out of its way to announce free parking in an affluent area where people can afford to pay and should pay stiff parking fees as in any civilized city.
Donald Shoup calls free parking a fertility drug for cars which means more and more public space is turned into sterile, unproductive space, depriving others of much more creative use. Eminent geographer Ronald Horvath calls it machine space. It is growing rapidly in Mumbai while human space is dwindling sharply. So we have a deeply undemocratic urban form.
Yet, the civic body goes out a way not only to provide a free hand-outs to the wealthy but announces them. One is seldom likely to see any signage for amenities for ordinary people, of course, few such facilities are there in the first place. Opposite the mansion is the Ruia estate of another big moneybag.
Some of the wealthiest people in the city are actually a drag on the society as they pay a pittance for the huge land they occupy, leased to them by a government which is very benevolent to them. Some of these leases have expired but these are not renewed, so the rich continue to pay a pittance.
And then the government goes out of its way to give giant subsidies for building car parks. Here again, there is something very suspicious happening. Activists like Zoru Bathena have exposed this. They point out that there is no need for building more expensive car parks. Existing car parks are not being used by motorists, they want to park free on roads and several malls and other establishments have converted their car parks into commercial spaces. Such is the scandal about car parking. The trouble is it is now going to cost us our precious lives and utterly destroy civic life. With more and high rise buildings coming up, more cars flooding the streets, parking free, robbing citizens of space to walk on, a nightmarish scenario is in the offing. Stiff resistance from citizens is the need of the hour. The main demand should be to restrict the number of cars as is being done in the West. Pampering the car lobby is suicidal.
Eminent thinker David Harvey emphasizes the need for ordinary people to assert their right to the city, not only to live in the city but also have the right to decide how it should develop. The poor are currently being subjugated, barely managing to survive. But the rich are far more vocal and aggressive in asserting their own dominance over the poor. Seldom was life so lavish for such a large number of rich people and never so miserable for the poor.