This Utopia is flat

| Updated on: Jan 15, 2018




Navi Mumbai failed to live up to its founders’ vision of a well-planned, egalitarian city; still it has emerged as liveable and even outshone its ‘mother megalopolis’

In 1964, the Maharashtra government published a draft development plan — an urban blueprint designating land use in Bombay. The document stopped at the bounds of Greater Bombay.

“We asked, ‘What about what happens beyond?’” says Shirish Patel, then a young engineer with an independent practice. But the authorities seemed indifferent to that question. “How could they not care?” continues Patel, “that was absurd.”

Industries were just coming up in neighbouring Thane and Belapur, the Jawaharlal Nehru (JN) Port on the east was being planned, as was a bridge connecting the mainland to the areas on the east. “We said, ‘Take these as a starting point and make this a planned city’,” says Patel, who was part of the original trio that conceived the idea for Navi Mumbai.

In 1965, Marg magazine published a piece jointly written by Patel, architect Charles Correa and planner Pravina Mehta. It was a manifesto of sorts, calling for the formation of a new planned city extending eastwards from Mumbai, and with several distinctive features. They argued for a new administrative and economic centre to take the pressure off Mumbai, which was creaking under an expanding population and saturated spaces.

If the capital of the country could be shifted from Delhi to a new planned entity called New Delhi, then could Bombay too do something similar for New Bombay?

“Can you imagine if old Delhi had continued as the Capital?” asks Patel, the surviving member of the trio. “Why not do the same thing here, we said.”

At first, no one took them seriously. “We tried to peddle the idea to bureaucrats and politicians, but no one was interested until one bureaucrat decided to take it seriously and set up CIDCO,” says Patel.

The government-owned City Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) was tasked with fashioning this new urban centre from the 344 sq km carved out of Thane and Raigad districts.

But there was an inherent problem in the government’s thinking. On one hand it was pushing to expand eastwards, and on the other it was pushing development further south in the island-city itself. Nariman Point, the southernmost part, was being reclaimed from the sea, and simultaneously encouraged as a business district.

“They were selling coordinates in the sea,” says Patel. “It was one of those things the government did that completely typified its lack of vision. If you are building in South Bombay, how can New Bombay ever work?”

And so, from the outset, New Bombay as envisioned by its founders was doomed.

The business district in Nariman Point emerged, the new Assembly building was completed not far from there, and Mantralaya, the seat of government, stayed put.

And right there, planners and urban experts agree, was the undoing of the new town.

The utopia on paper

The early CIDCO planning team looked at three key areas. The first involved developing urban “nodes” based on proximity to transport systems. Each node would have variable Floor Space Index, or FSI, which is the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the area of the plot (the higher the FSI, the taller a building can be). CIDCO proposed constructions with higher FSI closer to the station and lower FSI for those plots that are further away. With the corporation owning all the land, it would have no problem in selling plots with specified FSIs based on the distance from the station. And then, there would be open spaces before one node gave way to another.

The second proposal was to supplement the arterial transport system with buses on a dedicated transit track, thereby facilitating a speedy network that loops through the settlements and ends at the station from which it started.

The third principle envisaged housing for all — that is, allowing the full range of income groups to co-habit in the same node. Patel says the third principle was partially successful, but the other two were never implemented, for no discernible reason.

The first few decades

When Manohar Shroff moved from Chembur to Navi Mumbai in 1980, bus connectivity was nonexistent and the best way to commute to Bombay was by tempo. They didn’t get a landline telephone until 1987.

With government offices and industry refusing to shift, New Bombay appeared resigned to remaining a dormitory town, which was precisely what its founders had assiduously sought to avoid. Train services were poor, public transport was in shambles and jobs remained in the mother city.

“I don’t think it helped decongest Mumbai the way it was expected to,” says Kamu Iyer, founding partner of Architects Combine. “If the government had shifted, a lot of others would have too.”

The JN port, now known as Nava Sheva port, didn’t generate the kind of employment that was expected of it and manufacturing wasn’t really growing, recalls Vidyadhar Phatak, an independent urban planner.

Effectively, New Bombay remained dependent on Bombay, becoming just the kind of suburban extension that it was not meant to be.

“In a sense, linking the fortune of the city with its name — New Bombay — was itself pessimistic,” says architect Sameep Padora of the design studio sP+a.

New start in the Nineties

In 1992, the first marker of change arrived: Vashi station. Mumbai’s suburban harbour line was extended from Mankhurd — trains cross the Vashi Bridge to reach Vashi in Navi Mumbai — automatically increasing the relevance of the satellite township. Other stations followed one by one.

In 1998, CIDCO set up a major IT park near Vashi station and more offices have since moved there. From the early 2000s, Navi Mumbai has seen a gradual rise in its fortunes. Though a special economic zone was slowed by the 2008 financial crisis, a few other developments went ahead without a hitch.

Bus connectivity has improved, new train stations are being built, a new trans-harbour link is underway and the construction of a new airport has been given a go-ahead. Plans for a new financial services hub were floated in 2015. Meanwhile, real estate prices have shot up from ₹2,200 per sq ft in 2003 to nearly ₹30,000 now, according to Shroff, who is currently vice-president of the Maharashtra Chamber of Housing Industry (Navi Mumbai).

A 2006 survey showed Navi Mumbai outperforming Mumbai on parameters like income and literacy.

As the new airport gets built, it will naturally spur development in the immediate vicinity. Simultaneously, developments further afield too are continuing and real estate watchers are optimistic. “More people are moving from Mumbai’s suburbs,” says Shroff. “We don’t feel like we have to go there for anything.”

The population surged from 1.56 lakh in 1971 to 11 lakh in 2011; over the same period the population growth in Mumbai has slowed, according to CIDCO figures. Now, one section of Navi Mumbai is being developed as a smart city, and is expected to be ready by 2019.

Has Navi Mumbai succeeded?

How does one define the success or failure of a city? “There are planning objectives and there are daily-life objectives,” says Himanshu Burte, an assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). “Some have been met, others not. But I don’t think the concept was carried forward fully, and that middle-class and elite interests were better served than those of the poor.”

For instance, the villagers who gave up their land felt cheated in the deals, low-cost housing never really materialised, and mass transit was slow to grow. So for one segment of society, the city has failed to deliver.

As real estate prices rise, some still see a role for the State. “I am not pessimistic about the city, but there will be issues of affordability if the State doesn’t intervene,” says Padora. “It shouldn’t become a big gated community.”

Despite forsaking some of its founders’ tenets, Navi Mumbai still boasts several positive indicators: regular power and water supply, a sanitation effort rated among the country’s best, good schools and greenery. “Everyone speaks of Navi Mumbai not living up to its original vision,” says Padora. “That being said, it has created an extremely liveable city. People no longer use it as a dormitory town for Mumbai. The dependence has been mitigated.”

For the middle class especially, housing has been more affordable here than in Mumbai, there are wide roads, more open spaces and less pollution. “Ultimately the success of a city depends on quality of life, the conveniences it has,” says Iyer. “People who live there are happier. I have not heard a single adverse remark.”

So in some ways, the city has been successful despite sidetracking from its original plan. But experts also ask, ‘How workable was the plan and was it too romantic?’

“I don’t know if the original plan was perfect but it was in the public interest,” says Matias Echanove, director of urban research body Urbz. “I would say it is a failed urban utopia. What could have been was flattened.”

Phatak, who made a short presentation on utopias at a TISS workshop on Navi Mumbai in May, argues that “not achieving utopias” isn’t in itself terrible since it is hard to implement everything.

“The question is whether planners can conceive and enforce these things,” he says. “You can’t have it all under your control to achieve.”

Patel has a response to those who say the Marg manifesto was too utopian. “Having a planned public transport system is utopian? Do you want it to be dowdy?” he asks. “It has fallen far short of what it could have been.”

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based journalist

Published on December 02, 2016
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