Suketu 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.