I've put to bed my absurd fantasy that Mumbai will become a 'Global City' by the year 2020. Maybe, hopefully, probably, one day. But not any time soon.
After three years of watching things improve incrementally, at a snail's pace, only to be hampered by inevitable setbacks, my delusion has been replaced by disillusionment.
I recently spoke to a New Yorker friend, who had visited the city on business. In the weeks leading up to his trip, I responded to his requests for advice with a glowing testimonial. "Mumbai is a top ten global finance centre. It's an international media and entertainment hub, more like New York than an Indian city. It's Singapore with freedom. Paris of the East. Dare I say it, the next Hong Kong," I had gushed.
After two days here, he shot me a strongly worded e-mail. "Dude, you said Mumbai was like New York. It's not at all. It's filthy and crowded, and the infrastructure is laughably bad. I almost fell into an open man-hole today, in one of the nicest parts of town."
He finished dramatically, with this send-off, "It's less like New York and more like a bigger, dirtier Bangkok, without women in the windows."
For the past two or three years, both the international and domestic media have repeated the following story ad nauseam, the crux of which goes: Indians living and working in the West are moving home in droves, because Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru now offer the same cushy lifestyle they enjoyed in San Francisco, New York and London.
But no matter how swanky the high-rises, or how expensive the boutique clothing stores, just outside is sure to be evidence of shocking poverty and glaring infrastructural deficiencies. Not to mention the unavoidable traffic. Oh, that traffic
I hate to keep harping on it, really. But today I traveled 60 miles -- from the northern suburb of Andheri, to Nariman Point in south Mumbai, to Mahim in central Mumbai, to Andheri in approximately five hours. Considering that I took the highway in the morning, along with the much ballyhooed Bandra Worli Sea Link (the city's newest coastal bridge), I can only call this paltry pace pathetic. To the best of my knowledge, there were no accidents blocking lanes of traffic. No VVIPs passing through the city. No extra nakabandis (roadside vehicular security checks) for beefed-up security. In short, no possible explanation, other than too many cars and too little road space.
It wasn't exactly a pleasant or scenic trip, either. Innumerable buses and trucks belched gallons of bluish-black smog from their dubious exhaust systems, up into the hazy gray cloud that perpetually hangs over the city.
Two-wheelers squeezed into impossibly tight openings, with their big rig horns blaring and handle-bars intruding into my open taxi window. A wailing ambulance was hopelessly stuck at a single intersection for ten minutes, as others outmaneuvered the cumbersome vehicle, gaining a precious extra car length in the process, ambulance passenger be damned.
People threw empty soda bottles and packets of chips from moving vehicles. Each and every road was uneven and riddled with pot-holes. Men relieved themselves in full view of hundreds of passersby. It was like one giant game of Tetris, played in hell.
Also, being a foreigner, every day I'm confronted by the same set of squalid characters: Beggars thrusting babies into open windows, children singing Jingle Bells while grabbing at my shirt. Hijras clapping and carrying on. Hawkers pushing xeroxed copies of novels I've read months ago. Some guy with children's colouring books, though I'm 25 and have no obvious need or want for what he's selling.
So I refuse -- first politely, later sternly -- every single day. "Go to Anil Ambani or Ratan Tata. I'm just a young kid, on a journalist's salary," I shout, when exasperation reaches its zenith. They clearly know I'm not some freshly arrived tourist. But it doesn't matter. That attitude permeates the entire begging culture here: "Ahh, gora sahib. Paise dena, please '
Most disheartening to see are the countless half-finished and incoherent 'projects' peppering the Western suburbs, constructions for which have left traffic snarls twice as long as normal.
Walk overs. Fly overs. Metro lines. All saw ground struck months, even years, ago. But they sit half finished, often wearing a shade of abandonment. Will they ever be completed? Who knows?
For over two months now, the SV Road-JP Road junction in Andheri has been closed, blocked off by ugly yellow and blue barricades, which are plastered with infuriating messages like, 'To make Mumbai a better place. Please have patience,' and so on. No matter what time of day or night I pass this construction site, I've yet to see actual work being done. My patience has worn thin.
And for nearly two years, JP Road, one of Andheri's main arteries, has been completely clogged, owing to the Metro's construction. As they've progressively widened the construction site and narrowed the road, it's now actually quicker to walk a half mile stretch than to drive. Perhaps the Metro will be utterly amazing, and redefine life in Mumbai's suburbs. I have my doubts. But to have restricted traffic by about 50 per cent for God-Knows-How-Long, it better be the greatest public transportation device since the wheel.
I cannot imagine this sort of dilly-dallying being accepted by Americans. Heads would roll. But here it's as if everyone is resigned to inefficient and corrupt governance. The contempt of authorities for the public at large is almost palpable. Everyone jokes how the municipal corporation is easily the world's biggest wastrel. But no one seems prepared or capable to do anything about it. How did these guys get so autocratic? Isn't India a representative republic? Can nothing be done at the ballot box?
I love this city. And I love its people. But the complete lack of civic sense has me scaling down earlier projections for an 'International Mumbai'. I recently saw a doting woman, almost cliched in her stereotypical Indian motherliness, carefully and delicately wipe her son's cheek clean of a streak of date chutney, only to immediately toss the napkin over her shoulder and onto the pavement. As she strode off, son wrapped protectively under her arm, the napkin fluttered into the street, eventually joining a heap of sopping wet refuse in the gutter.
Unfortunately, her behaviour is not the exception. This is the prevailing attitude of Mumbaikars. "Everyone else is out for themselves and for their family. Screw it. I'll do the same." And so the vicious cycle repeats.
Yet people believe this city will some day soon be another New York or London?
Not in this lifetime.
Matthew Schneeberger is a feature writer at rediff.com and a native of Cleveland, Ohio.