New Internationalist

A Live Volcano

Issue 290

A live volcano

Pollution, hazardous industrial wastes,
rampant diseases and overcrowding have
made Mumbai a dangerous city to live in.

The experience of India is of enormously increased migration into the cities; and Mumbai continues to attract thousands each year who simply have nowhere else to go. The cheerful proponents of corporate-led projects, those who speak of turning Mumbai into another Singapore believe that the market mechanism will provide the most effective answer to the city’s problem.

They portray market forces as a kind of impersonal bailiff who will more or less painlessly evict Mumbai’s five or six million poor. Alas, they will have to be assisted by real flesh and blood; a military operation far greater even than the scale of Mrs Gandhi’s relocation of the city’s poor during the Emergency of 20 years ago. Not everybody recognizes the wisdom of appointing market forces as the arbiters of their lives.

In November 1994, the Civic Executive Health Officer denied that Mumbai is a centre for malaria, TB, polio, hepatitis, gastro-enteritis and now aids. He insisted that ‘civic services are working optimally. But most of our efforts get neutralized, sometimes even defeated, by the huge concentrations of slums, mostly unauthorized, which have abysmal hygienic conditions and are the ideal breeding ground for disease.’

What he did say was that the urban poor are there to service industries that are dangerous to life. A Supreme Court lawyer, M C Mehta, warned that Mumbai is sitting on a live volcano because of the danger from the chemical industries in the city. Hospitals in the city could not cater for the thousands who could be affected by major gas leakages.

There are virtually no exit routes from the city, so the people are captive.

The Mumbai Environmental Action Group pointed out that the Government has relaxed stringent environmental regulations in the name of liberalization. A report in January 1995 prepared in co-operation with the World Bank, non-governmental organizations and the government studied the Mumbai Metropolitan region from 1992-1994. It presented a story of pollution, inadequate landfills, hazardous industrial wastes and rampant diseases. Sewage in the city is not treated before discharge into the Arabian Sea at any of the three Corporation areas. All sewers overflowed into coastal waters adjoining Mumbai, which made them unfit for recreational use throughout the year. Hundreds of septic tanks overflow into the ground, causing flies and mosquitoes to breed. Over 5.5 million people live in slums, where enteric and respiratory disorders are common, and gastro-enteritis, tuberculosis, malaria and filaria are ‘rampant’.

Migrants and Mumbai
In 1780 there were only 114,000 people in Mumbai. Today there are over 15 million. The price of land equals that of New York or Tokyo. And Mumbai has a population density of more than 17,000 people per square kilometre. (The figure for London is around 1,200.)
Migrants and Mumbai

A study late in 1994 shows that planners are indifferent to the urban poor. Inadequate budget allocation, bad municipal administration, widening gaps in the demand and supply of services and infrastructure have damaged the physical environment and the quality of life. But there are limits to what can be done to improve civic services in isolation from conditions of life in the hinterland. It is cheaper to spend on rural development and undertake activities which would make it possible for people to stay in the villages and not migrate to the urban areas, thus adding to the number of slumdwellers.

Crowded City

[image, unknown] Although India remains 70-80% rural, it now has the largest urban population in the world – many of whom are slumdwellers.

[image, unknown] Every day, 550 million gallons of drinking water must be brought to Mumbai from a distance of over 100 miles. Two million people live with no toilet facilities.

[image, unknown] Forty per cent of the formal sector jobs in Mumbai are concentrated within a two-mile radius of Flora Fountain around the Fort. There are 144 jobs for every 100 residents in the Fort area, creating enormous congestion.

[image, unknown] There are more than 23 million vehicles in India. Over 60,000 people are killed on India’s roads each year.

[image, unknown] Each day, despite large amounts of recycling, Mumbai produces 5,000 tonnes of garbage.

[image, unknown] Prices of foodgrains rose between June 1991 and December 1994 by 58.2%, pulses by 59.2%, textiles 42.5%, wood products by 169.4%, drugs and medicines by 41.9% and electricity by 93.4%.

According to the World Resources Institute in Washington, the last 20 years have done little for poverty abatement in India, but contributed significantly to environmental degradation. In the three highly industrialized states of Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is the capital), Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, per capita incomes are above the national average, yet deaths in urban areas from respiratory and waterborne diseases are disproportionately high. In 1988 these three states with 20.6 per cent of India’s population had 40 per cent of fatalities from water-borne diseases and 48 per cent of respiratory diseases, defying the logic that higher per capita income leads to better health standards. Industrial houses dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of hazardous wastes on fallow or public lands without any proper safeguards, thus making their way into the air or water bodies.

Kisan Mehta, chair of the Save Mumbai Committee, points out that cities cannot be dealt with in isolation from the wider environment: ‘The whole thrust of economic development cannot be separated from the growth of cities. We cannot restrict our campaigns to Mumbai alone – we must support those which are part of a wider process. The degradation of the Himalayas through deforestation is also part of a development that has its repercussions on Mumbai. Only by looking at the dynamic relationship between the rural districts and the cities can you understand what is happening.’

He says that things could have been different: ‘There were alternatives. A municipal plan was published for Mumbai in 1977. We came up with an alternative Citizens’ Plan. We proposed a scheme that would have accommodated the five million now living in slums. But it has not happened. Instead, the land has been released hectare by hectare at the sweet will of the owners; and then only for housing schemes that will benefit the rich.’

In the presence of all this, the politicians and officials are speaking another language. The former Sheriff of Mumbai had a vision for the city, of tree-lined boulevards, fountains and playgrounds. ‘There will be no slums. The streets will be clean with wide pavements unencumbered by hawkers. People will stroll through pedestrian plazas. The night will be brilliant with majestic buildings and fountains.’

In fact, the liberalization programme has meant that this has been the worst time for the poor since Independence. To earn the foreign exchange needed to service its $90 billion debt, India is exporting increasing quantities of foodstuffs. And yet within the country prices of all the basics have risen dramatically, with double-digit inflation. In 1939 the basic wage required to sustain life was 30 rupees a month. By that reckoning in 1994 the minimum should be 1,951. Nowhere in India is this reached. Delhi comes closest with 1,420; Tamil Nadu has 1,000 and West Bengal 750.

While Mumbai may be a major concentration of wealth in India, it is also a conduit for the export of the country’s wealth to the rest of the world, on terms that certainly do not favour the Indian people.

In the past 10 years, there have been at least 8 chemical-related disasters.

1985: chlorine gas leak in Thane, 1 killed, 129 injured.

1985: benzylchloride gas leakage, 95 injured.

1985: chlorine gas leak in Chembur, 1 killed, 149 injured.

1985: chlorine gas leak in Thane, 141 affected.

1988: refinery blaze at Chembur, 35 killed.

1990: gas leak at Nagothane, 32 killed.

1991: accident while nitrogen gas being transported on the
Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway, 100 killed.

1993: gas leak at Kalyam, 9 killed, 123 injured.

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