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Mira Kamdar: Reflections on Mumbai — Material World

On the way from Worli to my aunt’s house off Nepean Sea Road, there are two gigantic posters for the new Mont Blanc Mahatma Gandhi commemorative pen. The posters feature a thin and grizzled Gandhi in profile. Against the photograph, rendered in historically appropriate sepia tones, a short quotation written in Gandhi’s own hand is featured in luminous gold: “The way to truth lies through ahimsa (nonviolence).” To the right of the photograph, is an image of the pen itself, uncapped, ready to be used. This pen, designed to honor a man who dedicated himself to the masses of India’s poorest, who dressed and lived in the strictest simplicity as they are forced to dress and live, costs $27,000, more than most Indians will earn in a decade. According to the billboard, it is available in Bombay exclusively at the Taj, the city’s most opulent hotel. For centuries, India has evoked for Western observers images of extreme wealth existing cheek by jowl with the worst human misery—Maharajahs weighed down by ropes of pearls and rubies the size of pigeon’s eggs using virtual slave labor to build extravagant palaces hung with rich brocades and filled with trinkets of silver and gold, while outside the palace gates skeletal subjects eke out a living with nothing more than their calloused hands and bent backs. The contrasts of wealth and poverty in India today are less visible but hardly less extreme. On magazine stands and in bookstores across the city of Bombay, a special edition of Forbes magazine featuring “India’s 100 Richest” is on sale. In the last year, a year when the rest of the world, especially the United States, reeled from a massive economic crisis, a year when India’s financial capital Bombay was hit with a devastating terrorist attack, India doubled its number of billionaires, from 27 to 54. These 54 individuals, according to the Forbes special-edition cover, represent 25 percent of India’s total GDP. The country’s remaining 1.2 billion people have to make do with the remaining 75 percent, and that is hardly distributed equally. 800 million Indians still live on less than $2 dollars per day; of those, half live on less than $1.25 per day. Absent from magazine stands is the recent annual UNDP Human Development Index report. While India’s richest were getting richer, its poor were barely running in place. India, the world’s fourth-largest economy when measured by purchasing power parity (PPP), ranks a miserable 134th on the UNDP’s human development index. 47 percent of its children are malnourished. Famed for its brainy software engineers, poised to become a world R&D center, more than a third of Indians are illiterate and only one in 10,000 benefits from higher education. In the streets of Bombay, these contrasts are visible as ever. During my stay in Bombay, the occasional beggar displaying twisted limbs or a baby with matted, russet hair has accosted my car when it stopped at a red light. Returning home at night from dinner, we have passed the recumbent forms of people too poor even to string a patch of tarpaulin over their heads; men, women, and children curled up in a thin blanket on the sidewalk. On either side of the manicured park where I go to walk each morning with my aunt, the slums still hug the narrow line where the land meets the sea. The stench from the rocks below the park can’t be blocked by the landscaping that screens the hunched backsides of people who have no other toilet. In the buildings of the rich, where apartments with polished marble floors equipped with wi-fi and flat-screen televisions are elegantly furnished and hung with paintings by contemporary Indian artists, servants are barked at and sleep on kitchen floors, in hallways, or in entry foyers. One does not reach across the table for the salt or pepper; one calls the servant who has retired to the kitchen to come to the dining room and move it nearer. The stark contrast between the physical size, the clothing, and the hairstyles—not to mention the bearing of the rich and the stunted poor—still shocks, though I have known this my whole life. Along Nepean Sea Road, the grand nineteenth-century mansions with their solid walls, high ceilings, balconies, and graceful arches are being torn down to make way for concrete residential towers for the new rich. One, distinctive in its cylindrical form, is to rise, I’ve been told (by two different but not necessarily reliable sources), 80 stories above the reclaimed strip of land on which it will stand. Meanwhile, there are no plans to widen the Nepean Sea Road—one lane in each direction with space for cars to park and sometimes to double-park. The traffic is already horrendous, stop-and-go all the way along during morning and evening rush hours. It’s about to become impossible. There are also no provisions for sidewalks or land set aside for additional parks, schools, or post offices. One year after the horrible farce of the city’s emergency response to the unfolding 26/11 disaster, there is still no plan to build regularly spaced fire stations that might be staffed by professionally trained firemen for this city, whose steadily expanding population has already topped 13 million people. There is no plan to increase the number of hospitals equipped with proper emergency rooms and ambulance services. In this realm, the terrorist attack last November was a great equalizer. For once, the very rich caught up in the attack faced the same lack of services Bombay’s poor do every day. The daughter of family friends who came to dinner the other night was one of the guests trapped in the exclusive Chambers at the Taj Mahal Hotel. She recounted how around 4:30 a.m. the staff began to evacuate them from their hiding place in groups of four. Her group of about 30 people was the last to get out, the family behind her mowed down in a hail of automatic weapons fire and the remaining guests forced to run back into their hiding place and bolt the door. She told us how when they came out onto the street in back of the Taj, there was no one there. The street was absolutely empty. Some began to walk away from the hotel; she and seven others jammed themselves into a lone taxi that inexplicably drove past. While the world watched the fiery drama from the front of the hotel, at the rear of the hotel not one policeman, fireman, or emergency response person was standing by. God forbid some disaster strikes one of these new residential towers—survival will depend on dumb luck. On Pedder Road in Bombay, the 27-story tower that will be the single-family residence of India’s biggest billionaire, Mukesh Ambani, is now visible from all around; its flat-topped square shape is unremarkable at this point. At its base is a slum. Rumor has it that the Ambanis are spending $ 1 billion on this new home for their family of six. Their style is starkly different from that of America’s biggest billionaire, Bill Gates. Though they do support some smaller charities, they have not given away any substantial amount of their personal wealth. One billion dollars—enough to fund the complete upgrade of what cynically passes for this city’s emergency response system. It could fund the total rehabilitation of any number of the city’s slums and substandard housing areas, preferably undertaken with community input on terms dictated by the residents themselves—something no city in India as dared to embrace. It could fund the creation of car-free zones in the city’s main shopping and residential areas, with the amenities one finds in European and a very few American cities: bicycle lanes, pedestrian malls, parks, free trolleys or minibuses. But I dream and digress. None of this will be done. The developers and the local politicians are making too much money on the private building bonanza. There is zero accountability from the city’s government for its abject failure to provide India’s financial and business capital with basic civic amenities and infrastructure. Home Minister R. R. Patil, who resigned after last year’s tragic terrorist attack, is back in office. No government leader at the municipal, state, or national level has faced any consequence for the spectacular lack of preparedness and response to an attack on India’s financial capital city—one carried out, if we are to believe the official reports, by a mere 10 individuals. 10 individuals who held a city hostage and the world spell-bound for more than three days. Mira Kamdar is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World (Scribner, 2008).

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