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Pop!Tech 2005: Suketu Mehta on Mumbai as Megacity
Ethan Zuckerman, 22 Oct 05

gateway_of_india.jpgSuketu Mehta, an Indian author, gives us a tour of his hometown, Mumbai, as documented in his book, "Maximum City."He's returning, having left "Bombay" years before to return to "Mumbai" and comes back to talk to Mumbai residents about the 1992-3 riots, where Hindu men poured petrol on Muslims and lit them on fire.

From this harrrowing opening, Mehta takes us on a tour of a city so large that it will soon be more populous than the nation of Australia. If Mumbai was a nation, it would be the 54th largest in the world, as as it grows, it will soon be larger than Italy. There are 45,000 people per square kilometer in Mumbai, which is over four times the density of New York City. And the density is actually much higher than that - 2/3rds of the residents of Mumbai - the poor ones - live in 5% of the land area.

So why are so many people moving to Mumbai every day? Why are megacities growing all over Asia? (11 of the 15 largest cities of the world are in Asia...)

It's all about the villages. Indian villages are grindingly poor, and young people are willing to travel to Mumbai and live on the sidewalk in the hopes of making their fortunes. In 1950, villages provided 70% of India's net domestic product - now 60% is produced in the cities. Mumbai alone provides 38% of the national tax revenue. Mehta argues, "Fix the villages and you fix the cities." But until you do, Bollywood films fix Mumbai as the city of dreams for all rural Indians and increase the rural to urban migration.

But there's enormous hope to be found in Mumbai as well. When massive flooding destroyed homes, stranded travellers and thoroughtly soaked the city earlier this year, the crime rate didn't rise. Slum dwellers welcomed stranded motorists into their homes. Volunteers fed people in train stations. The government machinery was absent, but no one expected otherwise. Mehta tells us that, "this is how most human beings are going to live and cope in the 21st century."

He also sees hope in the fact that (unlike in the US?), the poor in India vote. This means that the technocrats can get voted out if they don't do a sufficiently good job in addressing the problems of the poor. Untouchables are becoming government ministers, parliamentary seats are being reserved for women, and there's hope - despite lots of skepticism - that the government could be a major force for social change.

Mehta tells us that everything you can say that's true about India is also false. In saying that India will soon have the world's largest middle class, this hides the fact that it's also got the world's largest underclass. This underclass is finding itself increasingly in conflict with the wealthier classes.

We hear a story from Goa, where human waste was traditionally disposed of in "pig toilets", open-sided outhouses where human waste became pig food. Unfortunately, this environmentally friendly model doesn't work in five-star hotels, and there's insufficient space in Goa to bury this human waste. So the waste is transported by trucks into rural areas, and dropped in villages. But villagers have started stoning these trucks as they arrive, and the garbagemen now need to be protected by armed guards.

Mumbai is what the future may look like, as more than 2 billion people will live in slums by 2030. But the news isn't all bad. Mehta closes with a story about the Mumbai train system. The trains are packed tight with people hurrying to work. But if you miss a train, dozens of hands reach from every door to pull you aboard and let you put a toehold on the train and make it to work on time. As Mehta says, when those hands reach out for you, no one knows whether you're from Bombay or the villages, whether you're Hindu, Muslim or Christian - "they just know that you're trying to get to work in the City of Gold, and that's enough."

During the question and answer session, Mehta reveals that he's using proceeds from the book to sue the Indian government through public interest litigation to provide better educational services for children. I can think of no better reason than to go out and buy a copy right now.

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But if you miss a train, dozens of hands reach from every door to pull you aboard and let you put a toehold on the train and make it to work on time.

Dear Ethan, I appreciate your sentiment in the above post, but I feel as the other contributor from Bombay (besides Dina) I have to clarify some misconceptions propogated by this over-rated bird-view of the city I encounter every waking moment.

Being a Bombay resident, I do not like the crude exoticisms offered by tourists like Mr. Mehta, in particular the generalisation that Indians are samaritans en masse. His book has sold because there was no other such competing narrative of Bombay in existence.

These hands that pull you upon the train is a particularly interesting case in point. Normally when this happens, it is because you are being pulled by a work-buddy, since you work in the same office/factory, get on at the same station, or whatever, and you do this everyday. If you miss a train and you run after it, there is a higher chance you would slip and go under, than be pulled up.

At other times, the rush of the crowd on the platform is so much, that you are lifted over even if you don't want to go anywhere. I would more readily accept the Coanda effect as a plausible theory than the Mumbaikar's "spirit".

When the evening rush hour trains leave from Chruchgate, what people standing near the doors (these are open trains) do is that they create a human door, an impenetrable blockade so that they can at least beathe for the next hour of the journey.

What he ascribes altruist motives to are mainly phenomenon found everywhere in social chaos.

And a book if you feel it is good, and if your friends say its a good book. Too many authors are using humanitarian angles to augment their marketing strategies.

If I'd stacked my shelf with books that contributed royalties to child relief and poverty, I would be none the richer in knowledge.

Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 23 Oct 05

Just to prove my point, here are two links to pictures of people getting into a train at a Bombay station:

1. Coanda Effect or nice people?
2. Gettin "on" the train.

Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 23 Oct 05

Ah man, anyhow I just love mumbai city. I've been there several times. I've memorize the crowd rushing towards the train after seeing your pics. Thanks buddy.

Posted by: Ricky on 25 Oct 05



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