Anytime now, Mumbai, India’s financial capital, proverbial City of Dreams and Maximum City, will start its monorail service, the first in the city and in the country.
It will truly be a moment of pride for Mumbaikars and Indians. A city whose public infrastructure has long been the subject of national debate, would finally get a new feather in its cap – a swanky, new 8.8 km stretch of monorail track between Chembur and Wadala.
And the good news does not end there. The monorail is only the first of a slew of completed projects to be commissioned this year.
The Sahar Elevated Road, connecting the western expressway to T2 will also start operations after T2 begins its own.
In March, the first line of the Mumbai Metro’s first phase, between Versova and Ghatkopar would be inaugurated, providing a key link between Mumbai’s western and eastern suburbs.
After that, the 6.54 km Santacruz-Chembur Link Road project, between the Eastern and Western Express Highway would be opened.
All this is for this year. In the next few years, there could be some more ‘treats’. In March next years, the second phase of the monorail, between Wadala and Jacob Circle (Sant Gadge Maharaj Chowk) would be opened. In 2016, the Navi Mumbai metro rail’s first line can be expected. In 2019, the metro rail line between Colaba and SEEPZ is expected to be completed.
The Maharashtra government on January 15, 2014 also cleared the Bandra-Versova Sea Link, the northern extension of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and part of the ‘Western Freeway’ project.
But behind all these successes, there are failures. For one, the delays that have occurred while executing all these projects. Work on the monorail began in January 2009. The metro has taken even longer. Construction on it began in 2008.
And then, there are the projects which never took off. The list here is long: The Worli-Haji Ali Sea Link, the Haji Ali-Nariman Point Sea Link, the Charkop-Mankhurd line of the Mumbai Metro, the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link and the Navi Mumbai International Airport.
What explains Mumbai’s incompetence to improve its infrastructure? Various reasons have been ascribed to. Some blame the city’s geography, given that its island nature make land and space premium in the city. Some others blame the politicians and bureaucrats. Yet others place the blame on land acquisition, environmental and rehabilitation issues. And in some cases, even the private sector is hauled up.
There is even a conspiracy theory that Mumbai’s elite has deliberately sabotaged its transport infrastructure to enrich themselves. The argument is: better transport would lower the scarcity premium on land and property in downtown Mumbai, hurting builders’ profits, and in turn curbing the flow of bribes to India’s political parties.
And while Mumbai struggles to upgrade its infrastructure, far away, in the land of Zhongguo or China as we know it, a city that has often been compared to Mumbai has left it far behind.
Shanghai shares a lot of traits with Mumbai. Both cities were started their modern journeys as subjects of the British Empire. Both are their respective country’s largest cities and financial capitals. Both are located on the sea and have had great, maritime pasts.
Besides all this though, nothing between the two is common.
Like Mumbai, Shanghai’s infrastructure had lagged behind once, due to extreme interference from the federal government in Beijing. But since the 1990s, when controls were relaxed, Shanghai’s development as an infrastructure hub has been nothing short of impressive.
Today, the city has some of the best roads, a dream of a metro rail system, a light rail system, a swanky new international airport, an older airport which is as well maintained and a brand new business district (Pudong). And the city is still expanding and developing even as I write this.
Compared to Shanghai, Mumbai, which an Indian minister had once promised to convert into another Shanghai, is still lagging behind.
What to say of Shanghai, even Delhi, Mumbai's great northern rival in India, has stolen a march over the city. With India’s best subway system and a competent BRTS system in place, Delhi has its own back to pat.
To be fair to Mumbai, it is not as if the city is not trying. It definitely is, but its efforts are too far and few between.
Each city is unique in itself, as are its problems. And hence, the solutions have to be novel too. As such, the ‘Shanghai Model’ cannot be replicated in Mumbai. The city will have to find its own unique model, its own answers to its infrastructural problems. That, most importantly, would require a concerted and coordinated effort from government, bureaucracy, developers, activists and citizens.
My greatest fear is that come October, when elections take place in Maharashtra, and a new government is installed in Sachivalaya, the projects approved now could be overturned. That is the hallmark of our political system. It is a democracy and consequently, there are too many U-turns. Shanghai, and China, being run by a totalitarian regime, have so far benefitted vis-à-vis policy matters.
Having said that, India has its own unique strengths too, as has Mumbai. I only hope that the city can build on the successes that it has achieved recently and can update its infrastructure by 2020. The city’s dynamic and resourceful nature mean that Mumbai can achieve, once it has set its heart to a task. We just have to give it some more time.
Best of Luck, Mumbai.