A reality check Mr. Correa and Mr. Parekh?

Dear Mr. Correa,

There are some serious flaws in arguments raised in your interview in DNA 28th October, 07 – Thank God for Marine Drive – and I thought it necessary to react to the same.

Of particular interest was the para below:

Of course there is no sense endorsing indiscriminately every new development. Any proposal must be studied. But this has to be done intelligently, keeping in mind the broader issues involved. Unfortunately, nowadays this is very seldom true. People are accepting at face value pronouncements made by self labeled ‘greens’ about environmental concerns, in some cases, regardless of their total lack of experience or training, or intuitive insight into the complex problems.

I must say at the onset that I am not personally offended by your comments. being an environmental activist. It’s just the sweeping-ness of it that upsets me. There is an element of truth in your comments but you are not able to hit the nail on the head because either you choose to be diplomatic and polite and lazy taking the easy way out – or maybe you really don’t know a lot of things(in which case you shouldnt comment). There certainly is a threat from environmentalists who are doing far less than they are made out to be and from another section of environmentalists whose behaviour has become so dangerously compromised that some in the development lobby liken them to extortionists. Also I would like to invite you and Mr. Parekh and others to some of these areas which are being proposed for reclamation. Attaching the picture of one such area in the end.

Also I say a bit breathlessly that there is a lot more to the city than Marine Drive.

Don’t you think that what you are saying in the above para is so enormously self-contradictory? Most of the allegations you make against self labeled ‘greens’ are actually truer for Ivy League trained ‘experts’ like you. Has it not become one of the fundamental tenets of developmental policy and urban planning to be inclusive in a manner which involves all stakeholders? As opposed to being driven by a few vested interests and driven primarily by greed. Shouldn’t ‘renowned urban planners’ like you be taking the lead in involving the ones who are far less educated than you and have ‘less intuitive insight’ into complex problems? How much of that is happening in Mumbai as compared to some other cities around the world case studies of which you would know by heart. Whatever happened to carrying capacity, density requirements, per capita open space, super crush loads and so on?

And some of these less-educated-than-you are the greens who have been sprouting across the city. The issue of reclamation is less of an environmental and more of a governance issue. You should take time out to understand the import of developments like the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the constitution. Many of your ‘planning and development experts’ (including some environmentalists) – which ironically also include politicians whom we have clearly come to see as corrupt and compromised coterie don’t seem to understand it well.

I was a Project Officer at Bombay First from 2003-2005 and got a good ringside you of the likes of you, Mr. Parekh, organizations like Bombay First and the general planning coterie. Don’t try to make me believe that people like you and Mr. Parekh or hollow and completely compromised and unethical organizations like Bombay First have some great intuitive insight into Mumbai’s problems. In my opinion you are certainly a bit over hyped about your contributions to the city. You don’t have much of a clue about the city’s needs and anyways spend most of the time touring the world. Since you don’t stay here and don’t bother to study or experience in detail the problems people go on an ongoing basis (besides just housing) I don’t think you should make sweeping comments. If you could only help in impacting some of the organizations and committees you are associated with that would be good.

I saw the Citizens Action Group being formed and the various committees being formed after the Vision Mumbai Report and know what a shallow and stage managed exercise it was. A lot of what went on there had no comparison to the ‘face value pronouncements made by a few self labeled greens’. A lot of those concerns at least don’t have the huge agendas that drive these committees. What the city needs is genuine sustained and in depth (as opposed to superficial) dialogue between various stakeholders and I don’t see the planning experts exerting themselves sufficiently in that direction. I dont think even the environmentalists are doing it but the paucity of resources – of the kind available to the organised and state sponsored planning community – is a very real issue.

In a large part this dilemma arises because fundamentally we are an undemocratic culture which has always been ruled by a few of the kings or the zamindar’s men. Staying in South Bombay or jet setting to world class cities doesn’t seem to erase that. I find it only getting exacerbated in the case of Indians. At the launch of the Vision Mumbai report itself I used to say what we need is a World Class mindset before we come anywhere close to a world class city. How much of that even Bombay First demonstrated is a shock. I wonder what you have to say about the competency of the current CEO of Bombay First about intuitive insight into complex problems.

The reason (and this is the most important point in my argument) that the pronouncements of a lot of greens sound hostile and unpalatable is because when any planning exercise regarding the development of Mumbai takes place what is not practiced is what you preach –“ Any proposal must be studied. But this has to be done intelligently, keeping in mind the broader issues involved.

Are you suggesting that Mr. Parekh or you or some others you may end up suggesting are intelligent enough to study the proposals? I don’t think so. The proposals will be passed through the CAG and some other docile committees and get pushed ahead in the ‘larger interest of the city’. Don’t you think the green pronouncements are keeping some broader issues in mind? I do think so. Various factions whether the poor or the greens are continuously left out of discussions on Mumbai’s matters and yet people like you make it sound as if the development sector is a victim and being harrassed by misled elements.

And the double standards are what have really defeated the whole planning process and created rifts between various social factions in Mumbai. The point of balance is difficult to find in such an atmosphere. Maybe a lot of reclamation is actually possible and maybe a lot of environmentalists would agree to these arguements if they were well researched and presented. But in the current atmosphere of secrecy and venal and greedy interests driving the arguements dont even consider the same happening.

Incidentally while I am not as trained and ‘degreed’ as you I consider myself sufficiently well educated to comment on Mumbai’s issues and am open to being further educated. I had plans to going to some of the Ivy League schools to better my intuitive insights but when I saw some of my peer groups doing one off don’t-use-plastic-bags campaigns, showing it in their CVs and pushing of to these colleges I felt I was better of doing serious grassroots work with even some wishy-washy greens.


Bombay First stop misleading the city and the world!

The recent visit of UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Mr. David Miliband had some moments of serious concern. I happened to get invited for a dinner with the Minister and was till then unaware of his trip. On the day after the dinner on the 25th January did I realise the scope of the visit and the various programs that the Minister had participated in. The DNA report caught my fancy http://www.dnaindia.com/report.asp?NewsID=1076222.

It spoke of the breakfast meeting that the Minister had with Bombay First. The report left me infuriarated. Just the previous evening I was left mildly agitated with the course of discussion between myself, an official of the government of UK and Mr. Narinder Nayar, the Chairman of Bombay First. The discussion revolved around the topic of food processing since the visiting Minister also Food in his portfolio. The British person asked about what ails the system and whether contract farming is followed etc. Mr. Nayar showed his ignorance of the issue by speaking of how India lacks cold storage facilities and sophisticated logistical facilities and 40 percent of food is wasted every year. Neither the other gentleman nor I got any chance to speak much. I tried to put across that these were statistics which were thrown about nearly a decade back or at least till 2000. I used to be reading about these while researching about my economics class projects. After that the country has seen enormous change. I did a bit talking of how there has been considerable change with cold storage and processing. Just the example of McDonalds is good about how best practices have been adopted by the rest of the sector.

As is the way with dinner meets, soon enough there was a change of partners and we were all speaking to others. I have never liked this particular habit of a lot of Indian’s of trying to gain sympathy from Europeans and Americans by going out of the way to show what all is wrong with the country – even when it is not true like in this case – and was left with a bad taste. This habit is a bit too prevalent I must say in the Independence generation.

Coming to the DNA report of the breakfast meeting. I don’t know who the other participants were but can hazard a guess as to some of them being the same old self obsessed cronies who always hold the mantle of the crumbling, facade of a Think Tank that Bombay First is. I was a Project Officer at Bombay First for two years and have enough understanding of their processing power and ability to understand the city’s problems and participate. It is one of the city’s biggest scandals – much bigger than most of the corruption scams in government – that such an un-meritocratic institution represents itself as the vanguard of Civil Society of Mumbai and is presented before visiting delegations of World Bank and whosoever would drop in from the world.  No doubt the article mentions that at one point the participants were left wondering whether Bombay First was representing Bombay or David Miliband was! This was exactly the feeling I – and many others – would be left with while I was there.

I think it is a matter of grave concern and high time it was looked at with seriousness by everyone. At a time when co-operation and working together is the need of the hour the atmosphere gets tremendously vitiated by this kind of experiences. With all due respect to Mr. Nayar and Bombay First the fact remains that Bombay First does little original thinking and remains far removed from the city of Mumbai. Being geographically close to Mantralaya and sitting on official government meetings has given Bombay First the illusion that it knows best. The mandarins in Mantralaya also have cultivated Bombay First for a good reason.

In all this gaming its only the city’s urban management problems which are suffering. Some get a good ego massage, others have some narrow purpose served and there is hardly any serious thinking and analysis on the city’s issues. It is this fundamental anomaly which needs to be corrected first before we worry ourselves silly with what to do about the issues. We cant fight a battle with a fragmented army which itself is engaged in turf battles.

The management of Bombay First gives me the impression of being from that same conceited breed of Indians which over centuries has betrayed the country. Even most foreigners end up doing more good to this country than these (and those more notorious) sons of our soil. Aided by a a cunning and completely self serving establishment Bombay First has been propped up as a representative of the city at the neglect of more deserving representatives. And all with a deliberate purpose of creating confusion.

The specific issues mentioned in the article as discussed in the round-table were mass transportation, waste management and slums. All issues of which Mr. Nayar has little understanding but one’s on which he will keep speaking till the cows come home. While the rest of the city keeps giving its hand at trying out various creative interventions Mr. Nayar remains fossilised with some few statistics and opinions on Mumbai and India that he held – and maybe which were true then – in 2000–01.

I  feel depressed and demoralised with his self-deprecating and completely shameful manner in which he always will talk about the city’s waste problem and run after foreigners for solutions. It is indeed a scandal that other more knowledgeable people who put their day and night in offering solutions and are silently bringing about a change hardly interact at such forums and a few completely unrepresentative candidates do all the speaking and representation on behalf of the others.

And the ironical and completely embarrassing part is when the foreigners on the other side are more knowledgeable and are left completely confused and uncomfortable by the fact that here is a person who is the Chairman of the city’s ‘premier’ Think Tank and knows little. Same is with Mass transportation on which from what the article speaks Mr. Nayar did a complete foot in the mouth!

The fact remains that for most of the time Mr. Nayar travels in an air-conditioned car from Malabar Hill to Nariman Point and then a couple of meetings and functions of South Mumbai. That certainly is not enough to know enough about mass transportation. In the past few years anyways he has been spending more than half the year in the US and Europe where also I am not sure whether he uses mass transportation. Something of this sort can only happen in a society which is still very unrepresentative and runs on aristocracy.

There was talk about disposing of old cars and bringing in Euro standard compliant cars? Mumbai has been seeing reduced pollution levels since 2000. Disposing of old cars was something discussed in the late 90’s when we still had old Fiats and Maruti 800s on our roads. Has he missed the great automobile explosion – with newer more compliant cars coming in everyday? The challenge today is not disposing old cars but in being able to gauge the public and political mood towards fiscal disincentives on people purchasing cars and consequently choking up our roads! Something Bombay First will avoid by a barge pole!

And what about CNG which last year saw its consumption beat that of diesel and petrol in the city. And where ever in the world do cars get talked of as mass transportation in the world? I am not surprised that the Minister looked perplexed. Maybe looking perplexed was also an attempt at getting out at the earliest from the room.

I think the city needs a break from this embarrassment and its time that those who rightly deserve start getting embarrassed.

Through this note I would like to make a request to London First and the UK government to open their eyes, disengage from ceremony and more importantly stop doing damage to Indo-British relationships by engaging in dialogue on important city and urban management matters with just a few individuals and organisations. Being representative is the most fundamental principle for policy making and public discussion.