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Why Mumbai needs to look outwards

By Mahesh Vijapurkar
September 04, 2009 16:29 IST
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Mumbai's problems are of its own making, and they are enormous indeed.

They are overcrowding, poor facilities not commensurate to the population's requirements and its huge per capita income hides several warts -- disparities in incomes, poverty and abysmal facilities. They are so humungous that any amount of investments would not make a dent unless people opt to live elsewhere.

That way, the solutions to these Mumbai's problems lie outside the teeming metropolis. By making the cities in its periphery which look to Mumbai for everything, to live up to their responsibilities.

They cannot be mere dormitories to the migrant populations and feed off Mumbai.

There are ways to change all that.

Of course, curbing the tendency to migrate at the very source, by bettering the livelihood opportunities there itself, is one thing but that is not within the means of Mumbai. The other is to reduce the burden on the city by reducing the impact of the increasing population.

Managing migration

The population of any city grows in two ways. One is by natural accretion to the resident mass, when children are born, and two, by migration into the city. The key to this is by managing the migration better.

Managing the population does not mean curbing the legitimate right of a citizen to move anywhere in the country and take up residence. It has constitutional backing that cannot ever be taken away. Managing the populations implies ensuring that people who come to depend on Mumbai for livelihoods can find it just outside of Mumbai, in the vast Mumbai Metropolitan Region which is nine times the size of Mumbai, but hosts about half of the population that Mumbai has.

Look to other cities

It can be argued that most of the population migration in the past years, especially in the past two decades, has been increasingly absorbed by the cities and towns on the periphery of Mumbai, in the seven cities run by municipal corporations and 13 towns run by municipal councils. However, there is an element to this phenomenon that has not been fully appreciated.

Except for Navi Mumbai which is cheek-by-jowl to Mumbai to its south, and to an extent Bhiwandi perhaps, all the other cities house populations which are by and large dependent on Mumbai for employment. These cities and towns -- the cities being Kalyan, Dombivli, Ulhasnagar, Thane, Mira-Bhayandar and others -- send hordes every day to Mumbai in crowded trains which do not, during peak hours, even enable easy breathing. They all flock to Mumbai for their livelihood.

Dormitory economy

Of course, Mumbai's economy, being the largest in terms of per capita income, at about twice the national average, is so big that it attracts people and offers them sustenance. Often it is presumed that by talking about the facilities which are in short supply for Mumbai, we are talking about all the population that is dependent on Mumbai. That is not the case.

The cities beyond Mumbai in what is called 'rest of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region' which encompasses the area north of Mumbai up to Virar, Karjat and Alibag, are in conditions poorer than the stretched Mumbai city. It needs a major upgrade in terms of both quality of facilities and economic growth so that the cities change from their present dormitory status to vibrant cities on their own right, with its dependence on Mumbai vastly reduced.

Nudge up

A lot needs to be done in these cities and towns. If Mumbai has to continue to invest in infrastructure to catch up with the lag, these other urban habitats, in comparison, have not even started to get any attention, so to speak. If the trick can be turned, lives here and in Mumbai would improve. Of course, Mumbai would remain at the centre of it all -- vibrant, a huge sustainer of the entire MMR. Mumbai's importance would not be reduced but render it comfortable.

Going by Greater Mumbai's experience, with it emphasis on infrastructure, the supply of which is always behind the demand curve, but an unremitting shortfalls in the social sector arrangements -- like education, health services -- there is a lot to learn and correct with regard to urban management in on its periphery but in the MMR. Despite the higher per capita income, whose rise despite, and perhaps because of migrants, Greater Mumbai is a very face of urban poverty and low on human development.

Social capital

With its existing social capital that remains unused by these cities towns, they fortunately are at a point in their development where they can still be possibly manageable. However, any delay in coping with the existing issues and bettering them would take them on a rapid decline than Mumbai went through because the social, political and civic leadership has been weak.

A business plan of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority does concede that four decades ago it was recognised that growth impulses would cross Mumbai's municipal limits into a larger region. But the planning for, and the management of, that growth has been haphazard, perhaps even mindless.

One assumption is that these cities would help the rest of MMR retain their multi-nodal aspect for a considerable time into the future but it is a fact that each area is being administered differently, given the quality of civic leadership according to each city's genius.


Not only is there a vast asymmetry between Mumbai and rest of the MMR in everything, be it education, from health services, and a host of other arrangements like water, sanitation and solid waste management. The social sectors, which are a local government's critical responsibility, are poor but ill served.

Not only for jobs but for higher education and health requirements, people from these parts have to flock to Mumbai and suffer higher out-of-pocket expenses than a resident of Mumbai would. Thus, they burden Mumbai but at a personal cost and Mumbai too suffers by having to accommodate others when it is ill placed to service its own population.

The wisdom lies in shifting the investments to rest of Mumbai, and restrict the Mumbai-centric investments to fill the gaps, catch up with the graph and not for the future. The investment in Mumbai later should be only towards maintenance.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator and senior journalist.

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