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Monday, November 29, 2021

Writings on the wall: Navi Calcutta

Mumbai is a tired city with chronic fatigue syndrome. And yet, there is also Padhayi Gali, a patch of sidewalk paved with four young men’s dreams of gold.

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
Updated: April 23, 2014 8:16:31 am
Smouldering 50,000 tonne coal mountain in the heart of the city, a decrepit dock choking 750 acres, Mumbai is a tired city with chronic fatigue syndrome. Smouldering 50,000 tonne coal mountain in the heart of the city, a decrepit dock choking 750 acres, Mumbai is a tired city with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Smouldering 50,000 tonne coal mountain in the heart of the city, a decrepit dock choking 750 acres, Mumbai is a tired city with chronic fatigue syndrome. And yet, there is also Padhayi Gali, a patch of sidewalk paved with four young men’s dreams of gold.

Wasseypur, immortalised in Anurag Kashyap’s violent two-part epic, is now more or less subsumed by the expanding coal town of Dhanbad, and located in Jharkhand. The oldest stereotype of these east-central coal fields is the fires that burn inside the earth as coal heats up in summer and combusts by itself. The visual image is that of a hundred columns of smoke rising from black, coal-laden soil.

But if you are a Mumbaikar, you do not have to go as far as Jharkhand to see this spectacle. You can see it on a considerable scale, if not Dhanbad’s, next door to where you live in the sexiest parts of Mumbai. It will also solve another recent mystery: Why is Mumbai’s air quality deteriorating so rapidly, with dark black suspended ash that lodges in your nostrils, throat and, inextricably, in the lungs?

This is just about a mile from central downtown, on the eastern flank of the narrow strip of the island that constitutes South Bombay, the celebrated SoBo. In its eternal wisdom or, let’s dump all subtleties, incredible stupidity, the Bombay Port Trust (BPT) has decided to justify the existence of the nearly decrepit docks, import pulverised coal from Indonesia, pile it into an exposed 50,000-tonne mountain and open wagons, then ferry it to a government power plant in Nashik.

Winds lift and churn this malevolent powder into the air and bring it straight into your homes and lungs. Pulmonologists tell you of the boom in lung disease in Mumbai. “My daughter is a young doctor,” says prominent former banker and AAP South Bombay candidate, Meera Sanyal, “and even she tells you of this horrible increase in lung disease.” She also takes me to see the coal mountain, unmindful of what wading through the slurry would do to her sandals and feet, points to the fires already smouldering as the early summer sun beats down on the very high quality Indonesian coal. “Right next to this,” she says, “are thousands of tonnes of ammoniac fertiliser stored by Rashtriya Chemicals and Fertilisers Ltd.

Then, three public sector refineries.” And then, she adds, in a tone that is a mix of disgust and resignation: “If this coal blows up, all of us are toast.”

Meera, herself a navy brat (her father was a respected vice admiral, G.M. Hiranandani) has brought along another retired vice admiral, I.C. Rao, who, she says, has been working with her to fix the dock/portlands issue in a campaign that predates her leap into politics. I am conscious, though, that she has learnt politics quickly. The political subtext of the focus on the docklands rot is easy to read, as rival Milind Deora is the MoS for shipping. But it doesn’t change the facts.

Mumbai’s old docks, all property of the BPT, are actually nearly 750 acres of vacant, abandoned land, open to encroachers — including Bangladeshis — and either misused for importing and storing coal or, as an indignant Rao tells us, for illegal ship-breaking. The port has no business to exist in the heart of Mumbai. It is well past its use-by date. Its draft is only 5.6 metres, he says, and container ships need a minimum of 20. All the goods that are still transported here have to be carried by barges, and so the coal arrives in open barges. Meera and Rao have been campaigning against a shipping ministry decision to build a new Rs 1,200 crore container terminal. The Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust is just 10 nautical miles away, says Rao. It is working at 70 per cent capacity and can still be expanded. So why do we need this monster here? Rao estimates that the terminal will be responsible for at least 11,000 container truck movements in and out of this asphyxiated city.

The entire trail, in fact, is a disaster zone. In a city so starved for land, hundreds of acres lie under the wrecks of temporary godowns built in the Sixties to store PL-480 grain imported from America. Mumbai’s newest slums are coming up here. These are much, much poorer than what we saw in Vikhroli earlier. Yet, you cannot miss the fact that every single roof, usually rigged with tin, asbestos and blue plastic sheets, has a dish antenna on top of it. Some 10 feet above the ground, therefore, a new bush forest is growing, a forest of satellite TV dishes.

Hundreds of acres lie under the shells of factories that wound up four decades ago. The Unilever soap factory, for example. It would make a wonderful setting for a bhoot-prait movie. And then there are the three public sector refineries in the city’s very underbelly. Now you know why Meera worries about burning into toast.

It is all such a horrible spectacle of waste and destruction, but in fairness, you have to record the fact that Milind Deora was among the first to campaign against this. Deepak Parekh, chairman of HDFC, one of Mumbai’s most respected citizens and corporate India’s favourite problem-solver, tells me that he and Milind even took a delegation to the prime minister five years ago, demanding that the new terminal not be built and the port land be handed over to the city. Nobody listened, he says, and now they have started building this terminal.

It has to be the gravest provocation to get Deepak, usually one of the calmest people you will meet, agitated. But the non-stop destruction of his space-starved city gets him furious. The docklands, all 750 acres of them, he says, should be given to the city as no port is needed here and none is functioning either. Every major city in the world, he says, has converted its port into a museum, a marina, a public space, and in Mumbai, we are going to rebuild it right next to the Regal (old landmark cinema building). This land must be freed. It will create tens of thousands of homes and an outdoor cultural and culinary hub with a cruise ship terminal, a pleasure boat marina for all of the city. But who will listen?

Who, indeed. Further north, another several hundred acres of land east of Vikhroli lie waste, open to more encroachment. This was given away in British times to people to make salt. That activity stopped 50 years ago, but the salt pan lands remain as they were, unless slummified. You can build an entirely new sub-city here, an artery to de-clog Mumbai north to south along the eastern seaboard, to bypass the sole link on the western side. But who will bell this cat? Deepak acknowledges that space is the currency that drives Mumbai, fuels its economy, in white, black and all shades in between, and nobody wishes to address this. “There is no integrity, conscience, heart in this city, just greed.”

You can’t stop Deepak once he gets started on this, even if he is speaking to you from the lounge, awaiting departure call at Singapore’s Changi airport. The city has zero planning, he says, and today is so rundown that good professionals do not want to live here, as even well-paid people are condemned to live sub-optimally because of space and infrastructure constraints. There are no homes, no roads, no schools. He would know that particularly well.

Among the scores of responsibilities he carries out selflessly, the most challenging is as the chairman of Bombay Scottish, the school so much in demand that he gets fed up of saying no to friends and acquaintances in admission season. In one sense, Mumbai is no different from the rest of the country. Its most recession-proof businesses are education, fitness and medical care, as a three-deck hoarding in the middle class Gujarati neighbourhood of Ghatkopar shows.

Deepak bhai always has a solution. So many mill lands, particularly those owned by the state-run National Textile Corporation, still remain. These should be bought by the government and then sold to developers on the condition that they will build only 400-500 sq ft homes. Lakhs can then move out of slums like Vikhroli’s, become fully legit and give themselves a life of clean dignity. “But nobody would do it. They will only auction land to builders who will develop luxury housing,” he says, and gives examples where builders were allowed only 400 sq ft per flat, but they simply built temporary walls between two or three and removed them subsequently. “Where is the regulation in this city?”

If you still want to fix Mumbai, you can, he says. “Free up the land, go higher. If low-cost highrises can work elsewhere, in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, why not here?” Those three words, “why not here?”, actually, are his favourite lament. “Oberoi hotel, the Air India and Express buildings, Nariman Point, NCPA complex were all built on land reclaimed from the sea. Why can’t you reclaim more? If reclamation worked in 1964, why not now? Reclamation is not anti-environment if you take good care. Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, so many places are doing it.” And then the same question returns to assail him: “Why not here?”

The result is, this city is ageing and tiring. Worse, in fact. It is now a case of what doctors would call chronic fatigue syndrome. Nothing moves. An 11-km metro has taken 10 years and is not yet on stream. A 22-km trans-harbour link connecting the eastern seaboard with Navi Mumbai was planned 10 years ago. It is still being planned. Meanwhile, the Chinese are completing a 6-km-long underground tunnel, as part of a 50-km link, between Hong Kong and Macau. One issue holding up the link was how it may affect the pelicans and other birds next to the docks. That problem will be over in the course of time, but sadly, not in the way you would have wanted.

The rotting air and water will drive away the birds, if not poison them to extinction. Mumbai’s tragedy is that in this election, as in any other before this, nobody is even promising to fix it. No Bloomberg, no Giuliani in the contest here. I bait Sharad Pawar by reminding him that he knows every square inch of land in this city, so what is his solution? He says docks, salt pans, all lands must be taken over by the city and developed as housing and public spaces, but who has the will these days? Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan sounds even more helpless. “The Port Trust will never give our lands back to us,” he says, as we meet for a customary chat past midnight. The mill lands, he said, provided an opportunity.

The court said, divide the land into three equal parts and give to the owners for development, to the city for public spaces and to the government to build housing for the jobless mill workers. But the owners persuaded the courts to modify that order to confine that three-way division only to land that was not under the existing factory shed. That ended the mill lands opportunity.

In this vast city ruled by helpless leaders, there is only one who is totally, unabashedly can-do. His spirit is as unsettling as it is refreshing, and you can see why the faithful flock to him. In the eight years since he left the extended Thackeray household, Balasaheb’s favourite nephew, Raj, 46, has become the champion spoiler in Maharashtra politics and its most prolific headline hunter. He is contesting 10 seats, is not tipped to win more than one, and that is his strength. He does not win, but usually takes away enough Marathi votes from the BJP/Sena to make them lose.

This time he has made a strategic deal. He will not contest against the BJP, only against cousin Uddhav’s Shiv Sena, to make “Modiji” prime minister, and opinion polls predict a Congress/NCP rout. I knew his uncle Balasaheb well, and he indulged me, always introducing me to others as the person who “writes most delightfully among all the people who abuse me”. In an interview for NDTV 24×7’s Walk the Talk, he had become so heavily sentimental while talking of his split with Raj: “He was my child too, used to always pee on my shoulder as a baby.”

“Toh theek toh keh rahe thhe woh, main unke bete jaisa hee thha,” says Raj, as we settle down in what you might call his office-cum-study (although lining the walls are not books or files but movie DVDs, Indian and foreign, JFK, Titanic, Best of Charlie Chaplin, you name it). His home, Krishna Kunj, in a Dadar street, looks about as ordinary as a 300 sq yard house in New Delhi’s Jangpura or, maybe, more like the middle-class Bengali enclave of Chittaranjan Park. Raj is dressed in a blue and red tracksuit and I ask him about his film obsession. He watches them all, he says. On his work desk, to the right of where he sits, is a large LCD TV and he says he has another 3,000 titles in the closet under it. He doesn’t collect just movies. I am intrigued by the number of perfume bottles on display on the large shelf in his bathroom, scores and scores of them, the best brands, enough to fill a small duty free shop’s perfume section.

“You seem to really like perfumes,” I say.

“But I use only one brand, Abercombie and Fitch,” he is straightforward. “The rest, people come and bring along, so what do I do with them? I display them.”

I raise Mumbai’s space problem. He says, what can anybody do if 48 trains arrive every day from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh with new migrants? You need to fix those states first. But of all the politicians you meet in Mumbai, he is also the most urbanised, most mayoral in his thinking. “You know, when my wife and I went to Switzerland, I asked her, what does the opposition do in this country? Everything is perfect here.” But of course, there were problems there that somebody going from a dysfunctional Indian city could not see. Similarly, he says, politicians from the hinterland come to Mumbai and say, wow, everything that doesn’t work in my village is brilliant here: power, roads, schools, hospitals, where is the problem? A city has to be governed by city people, just as Switzerland can only be governed by the Swiss. Even Mumbai Police is wonderful, but what do you expect when a bumpkin like R.R. Patil becomes home minister.

“Who do you think will be the ideal home minister of Maharashtra,” I earnestly ask.

“I, who else,” he answers equally sincerely, and then adds a qualification, “but only when I am also the chief minister. Or there is no point.”

Like his uncle, he has built a nasty reputation that masks his multi-layered personality and once you level with him, time spent with him can be as much fun as with his late uncle. Our conversation goes late into the afternoon, over two bowls each of soaked chivda and sabudana khichdi, the Maharashtrian snacks that, in his home, are real after-burners even for a diehard mirchi enthusiast like me, and somehow, we meander into talking about animals. Raj perks up.

“One day, I was on a road near Pune and I saw a man carry these beautiful murgas (roosters) in a cage. They were beautiful and I paused, these were all going to be sold, slaughtered and eaten. So I told my driver to stop and buy all of them. All 80 of them.”

“And where are they now? What did you do with them,” I ask, dreading that the answer would be the obvious one: on my dining table.

“Many on my farm at Karjat, the rest at my friends’ farms, they are all fine,” says the man who usually has Mumbai quaking in fear. He also has 10 dogs in this little house, three pugs, four Great Danes and three of the most adorable mongrels. He ruffles the fur of one as he sees me off, smug in his electoral defeat but strategic victory. He is delivering Maharashtra, even Mumbai, to Modiji.

Uday Kotak, 54, is a very different kind of Mumbaikar. A Gujarati by birth, but a son of the soil as much as the Thackerays. Also a man who so perfectly justifies the city’s title as a “jadui nagri (city of miracles)”, which, he said, is how a Raj Kapoor film first described Bombay. He was born in a joint family of 60 members near Babulnath temple (the one you see on the left as you turn from Marine Drive to the right) and got himself an MBA from Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies. The family’s cotton trading business was on the decline. But Uday was a born entrepreneur and financial wizard in a jadui nagri. He had a friend who worked at Nelco, the Tata electronics company that was usually short of cash.

So it would discount its bills for 90 days with banks that charged 17 per cent interest. Uday noted that the banks paid their depositors only 6 per cent and enjoyed an 11 per cent arbitrage. So he approached some friends and family and offered to borrow from them at 12 per cent (twice the bank rate) and lent it to Nelco at 16 per cent. The 4 per cent in the middle was his. And “everybody knew it is a Tata company, it will pay back”. That was the beginning of one of India’s most remarkable banking success stories.

He met Anand Mahindra as a customer, then just back from Harvard to work at Mahindra Ugine, and they got along so well he offered to invest in a business Uday was starting. Thereby, Kotak Mahindra was born. He enticed two more of his (now rich and famous) classmates, lawyers Cyril Shroff (Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A. Shroff & Co) and Amit Desai, one of India’s finest criminal lawyers and one we at the Express also hide behind when faced with a really sticky situation, like the threat of a court asking us to reveal our sources on a controversial story. “You know,” Uday says, “if they invested one lakh rupees then, what is it worth now? It is Rs 640 crore.” His market cap is now Rs 62,000 crore. That is the kind of place Mumbai is. Or rather, was.

“Was,” because as Uday also says, the city is now tiring. Good professionals don’t want to work here. It no longer ticks. A kind of Calcutta-fication of Mumbai has started, and it must be reversed.

Wherever this election goes, is there hope for Mumbai? Meet K.V. Kamath, another self-made, professional doyen of Indian banking, who built ICICI into our largest private bank by far. Along with Deepak Parekh and Uday Kotak, he completes the trinity of India’s most talented home-grown bankers, all loyal proud Mumbaikars, even if not Marathi Manoos. You say banks are threatened by bad loans. He says, let growth return. At 9 per cent growth, most of those loans will be good. That’s how optimistic he is. Things can be done, miracles are possible, look at this, he says, running his eye through his office window over the brilliant new banking district at Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai. Just one great officer who headed MMRDA and some good ideas created this miracle. More can be done.

Kamath is one of the most optimistic — and successful — people you’d meet anywhere, so call him when you are low. He will tell you about how good intentions, ideas can work in this messy megapolis, how even the overcity and undercity can coexist so beautifully. He will take you to his street (S.K. Ahir Marg) in Prabhadevi, where the swanky Kalpataru Towers where he and many other well-to-do Mumbaikars live, is located. The street, he will tell you, is popularly known as Abhyaas Gali or Padhayi Gali. Because, in a tradition going back to the 1920s, children from nearby slums and chawls come here to study under streetlights. When the area was gentrified and new towers built, they decided to preserve the tradition. So, large halogen lamps were fixed, the sidewalk paved with clean tiles. And you can go and meet young students there every evening. In the exam season, it is like a mela.

I find four of them under one light. Niket Kode, Suresh and Amit Singh are BCom classmates and Badda Prasad Ramesh is studying computer engineering. All four live in the nearby BDD Chawls, notorious for their inhuman crowding and communal latrines. Their fathers, respectively, are a newspaper vendor, a police constable, a security supervisor in a highrise and a tailor paid by the pieces stitched. They come here every evening and residents love them. Often, late in the evenings, politician Sachin Bhau Ahir (after whose father the street was named) and other residents organise tea and biscuits for these students.

They all have dreams. Niket wants to design automobiles — he has an uncle who works with the BMW design team in Japan. Suresh wants to finish an MBA and become an executive. Amit (a Rajput from Pratapgarh), already an NCC ‘C’ certificate holder and a crack shot, is preparing to become an army officer. And Ramesh, a Telugu, would continue with further studies in computer engineering. A Mumbai street and a halogen light they do not own, a gunny-bag to sit on, is all they have. But remember, it is a Mumbai street. It is still paved with dreams of gold.

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