The Times of India, Feb 24, 2002

'Mumbai's re-invention could be a messy, long-drawn affair'

Times News Network

MUMBAI: "What's this buzz I hear that Mumbai's dying?" William Lim asks with a chuckle. "I've been coining here for the last 12 years and the city appears as vibrant as ever, and quite prosperous too."

"Having said that, however," the renowned Singaporean architect, an expert on urbanism in Asia, adds, "I do understand what they mean when they say Mumbai's dying. They mean it's in decline--which it is and it isn't. With the manufacturing sector making way for the service sector over the last few years, Mumbai's in the process of re-inventing itself and given the city's complex problems of population and space, this reinvention will be rather messy and long-drawn out."

What is disconcerting about Mumbai, though, is the very visible physical decay, the general squalor, the continuing neglect of the slums, concedes the urban expert. This is where the voluntary groups in the city can make a vital difference to the cityscape. "The time has come for NGOs to re-invent themselves," Mr. Lira proclaims, "They must start playing a pro-active role in cleaning up the city, in addressing the problems of the slum sector and rejuvenating rundown districts"

Local NGOs should form a network and divide critical civic tasks among themselves, he adds. One group could tackle the issues of water and sanitation, for instance, another of pollution and garbage disposal, another the issues of unemployment and education, yet another of housing and secure tenure.

Conceding that the issue of 'secure tenure' in slums and the informal sector was just as "violently controversial" in many other Asian cities as in Mumbai, Mr. Lira says that security of tenure is vital for the economic and emotional well being of any metropolis. "You cannot keep demolishing slums or stop new immigrants from coming into the city in search of work. That's a violation of the citizen's fundamental rights.

· It's also useless--which even a country like China, a control freak like Singapore, has realised," he says.

"Of course you can try not to allow slums to come up in the first place, by implementing effective urban planning policies as China has done. But once the slums have established themselves, like, for instance, Dharavi has done, you must regulate and upgrade them with the active participation of the local community and voluntary groups," he says.

Sectors like Dharavi, indeed the thriving informal 'bazaar' sectors that snake through the city, must be included in the urban planning process. "This issue was raised in the Marg film, One City Two Words, which we saw last Sunday. The local media and NGOs should take it up in all earnestness," he advises

Of course, Mumbai would be far better if it were a city-state in Mr. Lim's expert opinion. It would then be able to zero in on and effectively redress its problems--like Shanghai today China has turned Shanghai and four of its other metros into city-states, which has helped ensure systematic and sustainable growth.

Shanghai's population is as large as Mumbai's, and its daily immigrant 'influx far higher.

Even so, China's financial capital is not as chaotic as India's "That's because the Chinese government has devised some clever development policies. Any industry wishing to set up shop in the city must compulsorily provide housing to its employees. What's more, it sees to it that rule is not broken," explains Mr.Lim. "Hundred of unemployed people enter Shanghai every day. But they do not squat on pavements or public lands Shanghai is, as you know, the biggest construction site in the world today, and these newcomers bunk down in the temporary dorms at the city's construction sites until they find their own little dens."

But then China does not suffer from the problem of corruption as India does, we point out. "Well, that's something you young people must work on,"retorts the 7-year-old architect. "Get involved in your city, for god's sake, in neighbourhood initiatives, in civic politics."

That's what he did when he disapproved of what was happening to Singapore, he adds.

Indeed, William Lim is as famous for challenging the inflexibility and the lack of transparency in his country as for putting his stamp on the physical fabric of the Lion City. "I've fought more bloody battles with the establishment than I care to remember. I won some, many I lost," confesses this 'war veteran'.

One victory was in the battlefield of heritage conservation. For Mr. Lim, the man who gave Singapore and the world the shopping mall as we know it today - a high-rise swirl of shops set around a central atrium - is also the founder of the heritage movement in his country.

" After independence, in their rush to build a brand-new Singapore, our planers knocked down many old and quaint buildings, and with them a whole way of life. The social costs of development have been painfully high in my country," sighs Mr. Lim. "A few of us realised we were losing a very valuable part of our cultural heritage, so we got together to found the Singapore Heritage Society in the mid-1980s. We've since managed to save some relics and ways of the past."

Recently, for example, there was a bid to turn Chinatown into " a theme park" by making the old shophouses spic-'n'- span, painting them one colour, dressing the windows with Chinatown history,paving the alleys and what not. "We told the planners to leave things alone," says Mr Lim, who prefers a laissez-faire approach. "People should be able to get into history by simply walking into these areas. That's what makes Little India, with its clusters of old, lived-in shophouses such a natural success. It's real and locals and visitors alike flock to the area.Tourists want to be in places that have not been created for them."

"Singapore may be the most efficient city in Asia, but it is also the most boring-and we are constantly telling our planners that's because of our sterile planning, " Mr Lim pronounces, "At last, they are beginning to listen."