Yesterday, the first lady of India, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi inaugurated the 5.6 kilometre long sea bridge that connects Bandra and Worli amidst much fanfare and celebration. Dubbed as Rajiv Setu, the sea link — the longest one in India — is touted as an engineering marvel that promises to cut down travel time between two distant suburbs of Mumbai from some 45 mins to 7 mins. The media guys, who have gone wonkers on the bridge, would have us believe that because of the sea-link gazillion gallons of petrol will be saved, atmospheric pollution will come down, global warming will be solved, India will become a super power, humanity will live in peace, etc. etc.
And yet, speaking for the average Mumbaikar or the Bombaywallah, there is something about this bridge that just doesn’t seem right; and it has nothing to do with its splendid architecture. The trouble to be honest is very existential in nature and can be stated as following:
DID MUMBAI REALLY NEED THIS SEA-LINK?
Mumbai, for the uninitiated, is a longitudinally spread city, i.e. unlike other cities that usually take a circular sort of shape spreading out from all directions, Mumbai does not. Thus when the Britishers came here in the 17th century and settled down in what is now Colaba, the city has been stretched like a rubber band to the northern side. In fact, till around 1950s, places beyond Bandra (or as Salcette Island as the Portuguese referred to it) were not considered to be Bombay at all. People would loathe to live in places like Goregaon, Kandivali, Joegeshwari, etc. In fact, most of the city denizens would not deem the suburbanites to be second class citizens, much like the compartments in the local trains.
But in the past few decades that has changed drastically. Driven by commercial needs the city has expanded frantically and what was despised in the 1950s is now much desired. While Churchgate, Colaba, and Dadar were the centers of the olden days; Andheri, Ghatkopar and Kurla are the new hubs of a modern and vastly overcrowded city. In fact, the change has been so drastic that it is almost as if there are two different cities that stare at each other over the Mahim creek.
Thus, the new swanky, polluted, overcrowded, garish, pot-holed city of Mumbai so as to say now lives in the suburbs and this city did not require the Sea-link at all.
In the 1990s when the Sea-link was envisaged, the Mumbai populace commuted from North to the South every morning and evening for work, as most of the offices were still located in the financial suburbs of Nariman Point, Lower Parel, Lalbagh, etc. But when the ground shifted from South to North, so did the population movement.
Millions of Mumbaikaars like me today live, work and often die within a 50 km radius that stretches from Virar at one end to Bandra at another. With most of the corporates houses shifting to BKC (in Bandra) and Andheri and Ghatkopar, it is only occasionally that we venture out into the old Mumbai.
So, who lives in the old Mumbai now? A breed of lucky silver-spoon fed breed of individuals known as Townies. These people live in their archaic buildings in Worli, Grant Road and Shivaji Park; houses that cost a few Crores and they would never be able to buy it themselves. Since, they are fabulously wealthy (thanks to the market value of the residences built by their forefathers), they make it a point to show off, travel in luxurious sedans from BMWs to Mercedes S-Class. They are accustomed to speak in a certain Americanised accent, and would keep singing paeans of the eating joints in Peddar Road and how shopping is great in Kemps Corner.
And then, finally, it is the masters of Mumbai, the MP, the MLAs, the Mantris, the Partywallahs, etc. who reside in the old city of Mumbai. And this Rajiv Setu has been basically built for this creme de la creme of Mumbai society; the Townies and the Lal-battiwallahs.
The irony is that the Rs. 50 toll tax that is imposed for travel won’t bother either of them, cos the Lal-battiwallahs won’t pay and for the Townies it is no big deal.
And that’s why I feel that the Rs. 1600 crore spent on this Sea-link are a criminal mistake. What the city is in dire need of is a Mass Rapid Transport System or MRTS, something like Sky-Bus Metro or Subway system that connects the various hubs of the city. Even the roads in Mumbai are full of pot-holes and travelling is a pain. And when nature is not against us, it is the administration that takes on the destructive role as numerous utility companies will constantly dig up the roads and often in close succession.
The Mumbai locals on which everyday around 6 million travel precariously hanging by their lives or jostling for an inch.
Right now, the biggest bane for us is the construction for the Metro project, they have dug up the arterial roads like the Andheri-Kurla Road and are taking there own sweet time on it. It is really heart-wrenching to see those concreted roads being dug up again, knowing how much trouble we went through when the roads were cemented. We must be the only city dwellers in the world that actually dread an infrastructure project, as it takes forever for one to get over.
This, in truth, is the reality of the city. Ask any average Mumbaikaar that takes a BEST bus or a local train to office, about the Sea-Link and he will give you the honest view. Imagine in a city where people have to stay without electricity for anything from 4-10 hours a day; 1,000 KW power a day will be used to illuminate the bridge, enough to meet the electricity requirement of 100 households. If this is not misplaced priority what else is?
The one thing that scares Mumbaikaars the most right now is the time factor. This 5.6 km bridge on the sea took 10 years to make, imagine how much delay will take place on the metro project that is some 22 kms in the first place. On the sea there was no hindrance, while in the suburbs there is just too much of it. I sometimes wonder that am 30+, will I live to see the day when the Mumbai metro will inter-connect the new hubs or not.
But, that is secondary and immaterial, as long as the lords of the city; the townies and Lal-battiwallahs don’t have to undergo any strain when they travel from the airport in the suburbs to their residences in South Mumbai. This engineering marvel is not for the for us commoners and hence is not a ‘concrete manifestation of India Shining’ but of’ Plutocratic symbol of the new lords of the city and the country. So, it might be a sea-link for the rest of the country but for us Mumbaikaars, it is a shame link.