In 2019, Mumbai soldiered on with issues it has been battling for years — heavy rainfall, flooding, crumbling infrastructure, potholes and increasing traffic congestion. The state also went through two elections. Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha polls saw Maharashtra’s political landscape change dramatically within six months. Green activists locked horns with the government, erratic weather patterns threw many in a tizzy and just as the year was about to come to a close, thousands poured out on the streets — many against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizenship and some in support.
Entering the New Year, Maharashtra has hope, expectations and wishes. The Indian Express draws up a list of 20 wishes in 2020 that may come true if those in power make the right New Year resolutions and live up to them.
1. NO MORE MIDNIGHT MATINEES
2019 turned out to be an action-packed year in Maharashtra politics, one with several twists, turns, and surprises. How can one forget the drama that unfolded post midnight on November 22. When people in Maharashtra went to sleep that night, they knew Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray was set to become the next chief minister with NCP and Congress supporting him.
Uddhav, too, must have retired for the day in this hope. Little did he know that another deal would take shape in utmost secrecy in the dead of the night, which saw BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis quietly meet Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari and stake claim to form the government, propped up by the support extended by NCP’s Ajit Pawar. By the time most of us woke up, Fadnavis was back in the chief minister’s chair, with Ajit as his deputy.
But then as in a great thriller, nothing is at is appears. The BJP almost immediately lost its serve. Ajit was back in the NCP fold, uncle Sharad Pawar had yet again saved his party from a split, and the new Fadnavis government collapsed within 80 hours of formation. The chief ministership went back to Uddhav, and the year ended with Ajit making a dramatic return in the Thackeray government as the deputy chief minister. But most of us still do not know what happened that night when the politics of power slumped to a new low.
As we usher in 2020, let us wish that we see no more midnight dramas and overnight coups. Let us wish there is more of truth and less of half truths in politics. Let’s also pray that politics of growth prevails over gimmicks for a change.
2. D-STRESS CALL
To wish away Maharashtra’s tragic farmer suicides would be to deny the deep, structural stagnation in agriculture in the state over at least seven to eight years, and the ensuing devastating agrarian distress that encompasses highly troubled financial, social, domestic and trade relationships.
Between January 2011 and December 2014, at least 6,268 farmers killed themselves, the number rising sharply to 12,021 in the next four years, data from the state government stated. The trend continued in 2019. But to wish away the suicides is also to overlook the mental health crisis unfolding in rural and agrarian communities.
What Maharashtra really needs is a sharply defined policy, one that is based on analytics and compassion, also one that dovetails various departments’ efforts. Such a policy could be one of 2020s biggest success stories if it is based on honest and credible data on rural suicides, if it is designed as a state intervention to mitigate rural Maharashtra’s mental health risks while understanding the varied stressors that distressed farm communities face. Currently, one state department offers ex-gratia payment to families of farmers. Another department has been, since 2015, operating a programme to address farm suicides. These initiatives neither have any link with efforts to buttress household incomes in long periods of farm failures nor with women self-help or small savings groups.
Maharashtra’s farmers need policy designed to address various aspects of their daily tragedies in one holistic manner. They could also use an effective and professionally operated suicide helpline.
3. SAFETY ON TRACK
With an average of eight persons dying everyday on railway tracks and another 10 sustaining injuries, Mumbai needs serious initiatives to prevent deaths on tracks. Till November 20, 2019, 2,471 people had died on suburban tracks due to reasons like trespassing, falling off crowded locals and getting hit by poles and getting electrocuted among others.
The Railways took several initiatives, such as construction of boundary walls to prevent those living near the tracks from trespassing, while other measures are being planned to ensure that those who are on the tracks for whatever reason get a better sense of the speed of an oncoming train. Speedy implementation of these initiatives and ongoing infrastructure projects such as Thane-Diva 5th and 6th line and Borivali-Virar 5th and 6th line, which would ensure that suburban and long distance trains run on separate corridors, along with pressing more local trains on suburban corridors may help, as they would ease the congestion.
Overcrowded trains are one of the main reasons why people die on the track. With the platform being extended between Andheri and Virar, additional three coaches would enhance the capacity of local trains, making the daily “rush hour” that much more bearable.
4. SAME HOLE STORY
While the ailment may be old, the BMC set out to find a new line of treatment for potholes in 2019 with its week-long ‘Pothole Challenge 2019’ that it rolled out in November. It urged residents to report potholes on its official ‘Fixit App’ and win Rs 500 if the reported pothole was not repaired within 24 hours. In all, it received 1,670 complaints and claimed that 91 per cent of the potholes in question were fixed in time.
The app was short-lived as was BMC’s alacrity to relieve the city of one of its pet peeves. While BMC, MMRDA and PWD continue to pass the buck year after year, with political winds taking a new course, 2020 may hold some promise.
While the Shiv Sena-ruled BMC always found it convenient to blame agencies under the state, Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray taking over as the CM should ensure better coordination among BMC and government departments, giving Mumbaikars smoother, if not less clogged, roads.
5. JAL, JAMEEN, JUNGLE
For tribals and other forest-dwellers, 2019 began in dismay as the Supreme Court issued an order, later stayed, to evict those whose claims under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Protection of Rights) Act, 2006, had been rejected. Later in the year, it emerged when the state government filed an affidavit in the court that in Maharashtra too, several forest-dwellers’ claims for settlement and cultivation had been rejected on vague or technical grounds, and the process of appeals and the resolution of cases where only a part of the claimed area was recognised was incomplete. A massive review of these was undertaken.
For those whose livelihoods depend on the forest, for researchers and scientists who have impleaded themselves in the litigation on the constitutionality of FRA and indeed for several in the Maharashtra government itself who have worked to make the state among the better performers on the implementation of the law, a top wish for 2020 would be a full resolution of the knotty issue.
Alongside it, they would also welcome resolution of the parallel debate over the rights and case-by-case relocation of forest-dwellers living inside critical wildlife habitats.
The FRA’s provisions on critical wildlife habitats have incidentally not been implemented too, and this is a project to complete in the New Year.
While there is a contention that sizeable tracts of forest have been denuded on account of handing over land or cultivation rights to tribals, researchers on the subject have found the real problem to be the incomplete implementation of the law, whose objective was to rectify historic injustices in granting rights to settlement, cultivation and forest use.
6. QUIS CUSTODIET IPSOS CUSTODES?
The Latin phrase, meaning “who will watch the guards themselves”, should find an answer in the implementation of Bombay High Court’s direction to install CCTV cameras in every room of every police station.
2019 was tainted by the death of 26-year-old Vijay Singh, who died after he was allegedly tortured in the Wadala Truck Terminal police station in October. Following the incident, five policemen were suspended. The same year saw the HC ordering the policemen accused in the 2014 custodial killing of Agenlo Valdaris to be tried for murder. Data presented in Rajya Sabha in 2019 showed that there have been 442 custodial deaths in the last three years, Maharashtra alone accounting for 70 of them. As we step into the New Year, the hope is that rule of law will prevail over all else. Let every person taken to the police station be accounted for.
7. RED LINE TURNING BLUE
The Western Express Highway has been the bogeyman for the Mumbai traffic police for the better part of this decade. While the registration of more than 1.41 lakh new vehicles at regional transport offices in Andheri and Dahisar in 2019 hasn’t helped, the construction of a new Metro line has made travelling on the arterial road a nightmare. Traffic crawls on the highway at 21 km/ph and travelling between Dahisar and Kalanagar takes at least 70 minutes on an average. In 2020, woes of motorists may finally ease if the Metro 7 route between Andheri East and Dahisar East becomes operational by the end of the year. The traffic police hopes the Metro will take vehicles off the road and make peak-hour travelling smoother.
8. NEED FOR SPEED
Large tracts of Mumbai roads have been hiding behind barricades for the better part of 2019 on account of various infrastructure projects. Apart from the construction of 11 Metro corridors, the city’s roadspace has shrunk on account of projects, including two flyovers at the Santacruz-Chembur Link Road and the Amar Mahal junction in Chembur.
For nearly two years, barricades erected for these projects have eaten into several important roads, slowing down traffic and stretching travel time across the city and into peripheral areas, including Thane, Navi Mumbai and Vasai-Virar.
In 2020, commuters who have spent unending hours on the roads, dustier with ongoing construction, wish for a faster ride to work or home. The possibility of the construction barricades being pulled down at least at the two flyover projects and four Metro corridors — Metro 2A (D N Nagar to Dahisar), Metro 7 (Andheri East to Dahisar East), Metro 4 (Wadala-Kasarvadali-Thane) and Metro 3 (Colaba-Bandra-SEEPZ) — may open an additional lane for traffic in both south Mumbai and the suburbs. Faster road travel would top the wish list in every Metro in the country, but Metro becoming operational still a long way to go, removal of construction barricades would mean a lot to Mumbai.
9. AXES AND OHs
The hacking of trees in Aarey Colony to make way for the Metro 3 carshed was an issue locked in litigation until October 2019. But once the litigation came to an end, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited (MMRCL) moved in to cut 2,134 trees in what was seen as a surreptitious mission after sunset. It was followed by protests, demonstrations, detentions and a full-blown social media war. But with the city’s green cover of 142.86 sq km in need of conservation, a stronger tree authority under the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, which allows the use of an axe sparingly, is among the city’s top wishes endorsed by green activists, tribals in the hamlets of Aarey and students who took to the streets to voice their angst against felling of trees.
10. CITY AND THE SEA
One of the enduring sights of the year gone by was the Arabian Sea spitting garbage back on the city during the monsoon high tides at all the posh promenades, including Marine Drive and Worli Sea Face, as if taking revenge on Mumbaikars for treating the water bodies, including the sea, inland waterways such as the Mithi, as dumping grounds. Afroz Shah, the pioneer beach cleaner, has shown that it is possible to keep a beach clean and restore its beauty. The city cheered when 80 Olive Ridley turtles made their way into the Arabian Sea from nests on the southern end of the cleaned-up Versova beach this March, hope rose that the model could be replicated. However, Shah, who has been designated Champion of the Earth by the UN, believes there is a long way to go. The main obstacle is changing people’s attitudes. Next, Mumbai has to get itself modern sewage treatment plants. The proposal for this is at a virtual standstill since the last 10 years. So it cannot but be everyone’s wish that the BMC makes at least a teeny weeny start in 2020 towards not dumping the city’s raw waste into its water bodies.
11. SEIZE THE NIGHT
With Shiv Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray becoming a minister, his pet project ’24×7 Mumbai’ aimed at making the city’s night life more vibrant should be inching closer to reality. Aaditya had made the proposal, which was passed by the BMC in September 2013. It aims to keep eateries, cafes, milk shops, chemists and malls open 24 hours in non-residential areas in Mumbai.
Aaditya had suggested that non-residential areas like Kala Ghoda, Nariman Point, BKC can be Special Entertainment Zones at night. While the proposal received a go-ahead from the Mumbai Police commissioner in 2015, it has been pending with the Home Department for implementation. With Aaditya now a minister in the new government, this project could see a revival. May the city that never sleeps never have a problem finding an open eatery. But please note, the proposal does not extend to 24×7 pubs.
12. GOING GAG-FREE
In 2019, the NIA sought to conduct the trial in the Malegaon 2008 blast case — in which BJP MP Pragya Thakur is an accused — in-camera with a restrain on media from publishing proceedings. The special court conducting the trial rejected the NIA plea allowing an intervention by a group of 11 journalists, including from The Indian Express.
It said that the media “being the main pillar of democracy” plays the role of providing correct information to the public at large.
After the Bombay High Court set a precedent in 2018, setting aside the trial court’s order that restrained media from publishing proceedings in the 2005 alleged fake encounter case of Sohrabuddin Shaikh, in which police officers from Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh were accused, the freedom of the press was upheld once again.
2020 could well be a year for the lower judiciary to shun such gags altogether with the courts already ruling in favour of transparency and press freedom.
13. SILVER LINING
Crisis in the Punjab and Maharashtra Cooperative (PMC) Bank exploded in the face of its depositors in September 2019. In the months that followed, several of them, connecting over WhatsApp groups, strangers who happened to be depositors in the same bank, came together on the streets of Mumbai. They protested, wept, shouted slogans and desperately cried out for help after they found their money locked in the bank, owing to withdrawal restrictions imposed by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Savings over decades, some for children’s education, some for medical emergencies, some for an early retirement buffer seemed suddenly lost to many who stared at a future of uncertainty. The Mumbai Police Crime Branch arrested 12 people, including the directors of the bank, and filed a 32,000-page chargesheet in December. Police officers have submitted a list of properties of the accused — including real estate players from HDIL — that can be auctioned to recover the bank’s dues. As hundreds of families reeled under stretched finances, nine lives were lost and at the start of the New Year, here is hoping that they are compensated quickly. Here’s also hoping that those whose job it is to detect such frauds have learnt their lessons and are able to prevent a repeat of this shabby tale.
14. ART ROOM
For years, the art and culture lovers have demanded more number of dedicated spaces in the metropolis to host cultural activities. The options are especially limited for those who are doing something experimental, edgy or off-beat. Not many can afford the rent for National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, while getting a booking at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, is very tough due to the heavy demand. During the past few years, the city has witnessed several intimate spaces, such as Harkat Studios and Veda Factory come up and host a range of cultural activities. Such spaces have either shut down or changed their address after a brief successful run thanks to gruelling rental and other real estate hurdles. Most of these spaces are the result of the efforts put in by an individual or a group. Godrej India Culture Lab has been a nice addition to the city’s culture-scape. Recently, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya collaborated with Junoon to host theatrical experiences for children. A culturally-vibrant city like Mumbai needs more space, especially a permanent address, to welcome various kinds of performances, readings, art shows and discussions as well as consistent effort to make art and culture events more accessible. Here’s hoping the year 2020 will make room for more cultural spaces in the city.
15. ON THE DOUBLE
The city’s iconic double decker buses, featured in films, books and abundant in stories of struggles, budding romances and unexpected kindness, face the prospect of being phased out. Introduced in 1937 into Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) undertaking, about 120 of these buses remain. And 72 of them are set to be scrapped in June 2020. With these buses being a quintessential part of the city’s character, its citizens are just not up to parting with them. The red double decker bus is as much a testament to robust public transport as it is nostalgia for a time gone by. In the year ahead, here’s a wish that Mumbai’s roads will continue to see the red double deckers, and in greater numbers. The conductor’s robust shouts of “Varti, Varti (Upstairs, Upstairs)” and the rush to grab the front seats on the upper deck, cannot be denied to the generations to come. The onus of keeping them running on the streets is, however, as much on its commuters as BEST.
16. SMOOTH ACADEMIC CALENDER
Question paper faux pas, clashing examination schedules and rising revaluation applications for students pock-marked the academic calender of Mumbai University in 2019. Entering the New Year, students struggling to thrive in a hyper-competitive environment could do without glitches in the way examinations are conducted. Recently, MU suspended its exam committee chairperson after its third semester Material Technology question paper turned out to be identical to a month-old internal exam paper of a Panvel-based engineering college. Despite law college admissions having been completed only in November, the exams have been scheduled for January. There have been instances of exams clashing with one another, as a result of which students pursuing dual degrees are left to deal with undue stress. An incident saw half of an MA examination paper having questions from the old syllabus. Students, future leaders of the city and the state, need to focus on their curriculum and be spared from having to write applications to the varsity and worrying about getting their results on time.
17. SETTING SAIL
With the city’s road and rail transport system stretched to its limits, water-transport, an option to connect Mumbai and the western coast all the way to Navi Mumbai and Raigad, continues to be an underutilised and under-rated way of easing its traffic congestion woes. In 2020, the city hopes to see the Maharashtra Maritime Board and Mumbai Port Trust’s plan of a water transport network to connect the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, take shape, starting with the Colaba-Belapur-Borivali network. As per the plan, total of 33 routes were decided for water transport. With an estimated cost of Rs 400 crore, the proposal failed to get the nod of the cabinet due to a fund crunch. Out of 33 routes, 32 routes were scrapped and one route connecting Thane-Navi Mumbai is under the consideration of Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC). People wish that the Maharashtra government should reroute those 32 scrapped routes. Apart from this Mumbai Port Trust is to start water taxis on 18 routes for which licence is been issued. We hope that 2020 sees a couple of these routes started.
18. CYBER CRIME CELL 2.0
2019 saw a sharp spike in the number of cyber crime complaints — from fake bank representatives extracting account details to vaccuming accounts by tricking unsuspecting netizens to believe they are calling a restaurant, to conning retired pensioners of their live savings by pretending to be damsels in distress. Even if the Mumbai Police claimed that the losses incurred by victims of online frauds is small, the number of such cases — estimated to be at least 10 per day — certainly isn’t. What is less obvious is that the police are woefully inadequately prepared to deal with such crimes.
In the New Year, let police officers make a small beginning by registering such offences separately, just so that they have an accurate picture of how common they are becoming. A dedicated and well trained unit to look into the menace of fraudulent phone calls and check patterns by fraudsters is also in order. In most cases, the perpertrators operate a pan-Indian network. So ideally, it should be an inter-state unit that could coordinate with police forces in other states to arrest fraudsters.
19. A SONG FOR SOMEONE
The year ended on a high note for rock fans with Irish rock band U2 performing live at the D Y Patil Stadium that resonated with thousands of fans singing Give Peace a Chance. “It’s taken us only four decades to get here,” said lead singer Bono to the packed stadium. But as fans soaked in hit after hit that the band belted out, many wondered if that is how long they would take to see U2 perform again. In 2020, here’s hoping not. A month before U2, American singer Katy Perry and English singer Dua Lipa performed at the same venue. May the year ahead attract more international artistes to the city and may it be able to provide more venues for performances of this scale. With the city’s new development plan in place, here’s hoping more recreational and open spaces will be reserved for these purposes and not every music concert would mean travelling to neighbouring Navi Mumbai.
If driving in Mumbai can be punishing, cycling can be much worse. If the pothole-laden and dug-up surfaces aren’t putting off already, shoddily done pavered tiles along the roadside suggest that cyclists have no friends in the administration.
Mumbai’s road builders and city planners have shown scant regard for the needs of a cyclist whilst planning surfaces. Barring a few poorly designed ones, roads in Mumbai have no separate cycle lanes. Then there are safety issues. The bus and truck drivers do not regard cycle as a vehicle at all. And when in need of a pit-stop, where does one park a cycle?
Here’s a shout out to all city officials, cycling enthusiasts and supporters: Give cycling a chance in 2020. Cycles do not kill people. They are green and environment friendly. They promote good health. It’s time the city gives cyclists the right of way, makes space for cycling tracks, and shows that a Mumbaikar on a bicycle has as much claim on the roads as a person driving an SUV.