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The silly search for aesthetics in Mumbai's facades

January 13, 2010 15:08 IST

It is not always that a government, any government, amuses me.

But last week, Maharashtra's rulers made me laugh, and laugh aloud at that.

The provocation came from a policy direction that the civic body of Mumbai which is in disrepair itself, should henceforth ensure that the fronts of all buildings that face the streets presentable. Their facades should be neat.

No clothes should be hung outside for drying the windows because they make the buildings appear dowdy. Apparently, somebody's sense of aesthetics was affected by the ungainly sights of that kind in Mumbai.

Directive

Of course, there are other elements to this directive on how to make the facades more presentable, like keeping them painted etc. That most buildings do not have their exteriors painted simply because they are occupied under the protection of rent control laws, the landlord gets less than a pittance, and that he does not give a damn because occupants of cheap housing spend lakhs only on the interiors.

No harm in promoting aesthetics in a city like Mumbai where apart from the skyscrapers, the colonial buildings, a handful of government structures, a few precincts like the DN Road, the Marine Drive, are sores.

Insensitive

What got the cake was that the civic body which is being mandated to execute this task to please the eye is the very same entity which wanted to charge the organisers of the annual winter international marathon that is run on the city's arterial roads.

This charge was of course something the organisers had agreed to pay, some Rs 1.5 crore to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai but failed and the organisers were held hostage to it. Pay up, the organisers were told, or the roads on which the feet fly in the marathon, would not be repaired, the kerbstones of the footpaths alongside would not be painted etc.

This, despite the fact that the marathon attracts live television coverage seen internationally and is one good way to showcase the city which aspires to be Shanghai till the government stepped in and said, 'let the marathon be run; let there be no charge.' The exposure the city gets, with even aerial views, is worth millions of dollars in advertising terms.

There is another reason which provoked the laughter.

Unkempt

You can't throw a stone in this city without hitting a badly maintained public area. Take the Mulund East entry to the railway station. You keep searching till you find a gap in the wall which passes off for an entry/exit. Look at the access to the Byculla station on the eastern side -- the same story. Everything, bar a few exceptions, is unkempt.

The Dadar station's western side does not present a facade at all. A flyover built to ensure that people have some access to the station because the road had heavy traffic and the hawkers had taken over the road obscures that. Such examples are unending.

Coming to the clothes that put out to dry which offended the rulers, here is an interesting element that failed to be taken into consideration. People in Mumbai, at least most of the residents, just do not have a place to dry.

No space to live

They live in chawls which is just a room, or at best, with a kitchenette attached. Where would they dry the clothes then? Others live in small tenements which would make rabbits uncomfortable and are called apartments or flats which too have no space to live inside, leave alone dry clothes there. Some don't even have spaces to store the garbage overnight and just throw it out of the window.

The builders who are patronised by the rulers, and to whose tunes the government dances, have made it a habit to overcharge buyers for the apartments with the construction not matching the approved plans, never think of giving even balconies inside which the clothes could be hung. If they do, they are charged at the same astronomically high per sq ft price.

And the shanties

And if you didn't know, more than half of Mumbai lives in slums which are again clusters of semi-permanent hutments built with every conceivable material, plastics to cemented bricks with tin roofs. They have no place to defecate, no spot to bath, and of course no place to even dry their clothes except sometimes on their tin roofs. That is the plight of approximately 70 lakh Mumbaikars -- yes, seven million of them -- which is ignored.

And you want to tell them -- no, you cant create eyesores by hanging your clothes out to dry?

These policy makers obviously look at people as numbers and statistics and not humans. They live in palatial apartments which also have in quite a few cases, a separate entry for the servants. They live in the bungalows of Malabar Hill whose landscaped gardens can accommodate the laundry of an entire block of apartments. They fly in and out of Mumbai and every time that happens, their eyes would be lighting upon the swaths of tin-roofed slums.

Offended sensibilities

If that had offended their sensibilities, they would have worked harder to replace them with aesthetic housing for the urban poor. That did not. That's why slum replacement is a slow process.

But the laundry fluttering outside someone's window hurt someone's sensibilities, hit them, as it were, in the solar plexus and hence the fatwa to the civic body, an entity which cannot keep the urinals within their own offices devoid of the overpowering stink.

The city is past the inflection point to dish out lessons in aesthetics. Guys get realistic and realise that the city can only run fast on the treadmill to remain where it is. And yes, true to form, this is a classic case of government ignoring core issues of affordable housing, making builders friendlier towards the buyers etc. and instead literally going for cosmetics.

So, if I do not laugh at this logic, what else could I? Except cry!

Mahesh Vijapurkar