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A bridge in Mumbai Halfway to paradise A half-built bridge symbolises the urgency and the frustrations of improving India’s infrastructure Dec 22nd 2012 |From the print edition N 1988, when V.S. Naipaul arrived in Bombay, now known as Mumbai, and drove south from its airport, he could tell something unusual was happening because the traffic was so bad. It turned out that a festival of Dalits, the former untouchables, had led to crowds that blocked the roads. The Nobel-prizewinning writer complained of “fumes and heat and din” in his taxi to the Taj Hotel. The chaos was novel enough to form the opening passage of his book, “A Million Mutinies Now”. Today greater Mumbai’s population has almost doubled to 18m, and transport bedlam has become as integral to its psyche as the stockmarket, films and slums. Millions endure commutes that would qualify them for post-traumatic-stress counselling in rich countries. Rush-hour trains get so crushed that a phone or pair of glasses carried in a breast pocket will smash under the pressure of bodies. Every year perhaps 500 people perish after falling off trains in the city and 6,000 die on the tracks. If, like Mr Naipaul, you can afford a taxi, it will reek of sweat and honk and buck for inches of advantage against bigger cars, which under a Darwinian highway code have bullying rights. After monsoon storms the sewers overflow and the roads flood. On nights like this endless lines of vehicles crawl in the dark and you can hear the slop lapping on your car’s underbelly, like waves on a dinghy’s hull. But if you divert from Mr Naipaul’s route, by a creek at a place called Mahim, and turn west, you can take a different trip. Time leaps forward. India becomes China, or even Singapore. The swarm of autorickshaws fades and, after pausing at a toll booth, you find yourself on an eight-lane motorway running parallel with the coast, floating high over the sea on 120 piers, and suspended on wires from two 128-metre towers. The bridge is called the Sea Link and opened in 2009. If you open the window the air is fresh; if you put your foot down you can hit racing speed. From the bridge Mumbai’s berserk skyline seems hazy; the 23 sets of traffic lights and 40 minutes of furious traffic you are bypassing are like a bad dream. The Portuguese fort and aboriginal fishing village that you zip past feel about as real as the scenery of a Disneyland ride. For that matter, can it truly be possible that after just 4.7km, or about five minutes, all eight lanes of this glorious bridge stop in mid-air—as if King Kong had bitten them off? But alas, it is. If you keep going you will plunge into the Arabian Sea. Instead a narrow slip road delivers you back to the city. The shift is disorienting. As your car battles for space again and you pass a Dalit slum, perhaps housing the children of the folk Mr Naipaul saw, it is tempting to look back. What just happened? Viewed from the Sea Link, Mumbai seems like a mirage. But seen from the chaos of the city, it is the Sea Link that is improbable, like a giant hologram. Decent infrastructure and this megacity, maybe this country, do not belong together. Do they? Dream on If any country needs better infrastructure, it is fast-urbanising India. The government hopes a trillion dollars will be spent between 2012 and 2017, although with a creaking banking sector and jumpy investors that is optimistic. If any megacity needs better transport, it is Mumbai. Formed from seven islands, the city was given by Portugal to Charles II of England in 1661 as dowry for his marriage to Catherine of Braganza. It is a long spit whose hub is at its southern tip. Manhattan has 16 bridges, four underwater tunnels and a ferry system linking it to the mainland. Mumbai has just six bridges, all but one at its northern extremity. Two main roads, three railway lines and an airport besieged by shanty towns are its fragile links to the outside world. The city centre is like a head on a long, strangled neck. The difficulty of commuting is partly why Mumbai is so densely populated, with property prices driven high and migrants forced into slums, which now house over half the population. There are only a handful of successful state-sponsored developments: a satellite city on the mainland called Navi (New) Mumbai, some flyovers and a new office park built on marshland near the airport. What Mumbai has been unable to do in practice, it has done in theory. The first master plan to relieve the city’s woes emerged in 1948, the most recent in 2011. In the six decades in between some fine minds, from J.R.D. Tata, a revered industrialist, in 1981, to McKinsey, a consulting firm, in 2003, have had their say. There is widespread agreement on what is required. First, a road round the city’s perimeter—probably a series of Sea Link-style bridges along its entire west coast, and on its east coast a highway partly to be built on land occupied by the city’s dying old port. Second, to link this ring to the mainland, a 22km road over the sea, an idea known as the “trans-harbour link”. Third, near the end of this putative bridge, on the mainland, a new airport. And fourth, at least nine metro lines in the city itself. You can get a flavour of this Utopia in the offices of one of the many government agencies responsible for projects in Maharashtra, the state Mumbai belongs to. A huge, Lego-for-adults model built by a Singaporean firm shows the city centre bisected by an elevated bridge that sweeps in from the ocean. Vast new skyscrapers tower over the Art Deco and colonial buildings. Today’s shabby military cantonment is a nature park. Metro stations are everywhere. Jetties for ferries are abundant. A slum has become a “heritage village” with yachts moored beside it. The sea is blue, the grass is green and the buildings are spotless white. All of it is made up. Indeed of all the transport mega-projects planned for Mumbai, after decades of reports and committees, only one is in use: that surreal 4.7km stretch of the Sea Link. Kafka in Bombay What has gone wrong? One view can be heard on the wasteland at the north abutment of the Sea Link. A ragged family are smashing reinforced concrete rubble. They say they get about a dollar for every two kilos of steel inside—roughly the cost of a one-way Sea Link ticket. Nearby, dogs and feral pigs sniff around abandoned machinery as Girish, aged 52, hits the bottle with his colleagues. The pals work nights in a call centre selling Americans an erectile-dysfunction drug. “You get a quick recharge,” is the sales pitch; the most common response, they all agree, is “Fuck you”. They also agree that this derelict land is a fine spot to unwind. Yet the rumour, which seems to have originated in the nearby slum, is that it has been grabbed secretly by a tycoon to build a mall, or luxury flats; the details vary. A local priest (a church was built nearby in 1575) talks suspiciously of the “fantasy” that any such project could ever benefit the common man. In fact, the land is still owned by the government. But the conspiracy theory that Mumbai is essentially a stitch-up by the rich is not propounded only by drunk cold-callers and men of the cloth. It may be the most widely held belief in the city. Its grandest iteration is that the city’s elite has deliberately sabotaged its transport infrastructure to enrich themselves. The argument goes like this: better transport would lower the scarcity premium on land and property in downtown Mumbai, hurting builders’ profits, and in turn curbing the flow of bribes to India’s political parties. The idea that the rich control the city’s fate was fuelled by a battle in 2005-08 between Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, and his estranged brother, Anil, over a tender to build the trans-harbour link. After a legal tussle Anil undercut his brother by bidding for a concession of nine years and 11 months. The tender process was eventually abandoned. Mumbai is certainly corrupt in other ways. The chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, who wants to clean things up, speaks of a nexus of builders and politicians. One official reckons illegal gains of $5 billion a year have been made by builders bribing their way around planning rules. “Those bastards have ruined everything” by scaring off legitimate firms, says one boss. But the grand conspiracy theory is silly. Mukesh Ambani owns a chunk of land near the proposed new airport, the value of which would soar if the trans-harbour link were built. Builders are buying space near proposed metro stations. And without good transport links the population of south Mumbai has begun to decline, which should be bad for property prices. Most businesspeople say the city’s decay is an embarrassment. The truth is fiddlier—as the half-built Sea Link demonstrates. The bridge was commissioned in 1999 but took ten years to finish, instead of the planned two and a half. Ajit Gulabchand, the boss of HCC, the construction firm that won the contract to build it, says the project was “a Kafkaesque struggle”. He describes himself as a “south Bombay boy” and drives a Bentley through the city to his office in the north-east (he does not use the Sea Link because there are no good connections between the west and the east). He is also subject, like all tycoons, to a secondary conspiracy theory, which is that he gained by being close to Sharad Pawar, who heads a Maharashtrian political clan. Mr Gulabchand says this is rubbish. “I’m not going to deny my friendship,” he says. But, “If I’m so powerful, how come I lost money?” One recent fiasco involved a military convoy doing a U-turn, a naval ambulance, a man in flip-flops with a red flag, and thousands of angry drivers The bridge’s original budget was $74m at current exchange rates, which rose to double that (officials verify these figures). Mr Gulabchand says he is still owed around $100m. The rising cost reflects a deep problem: delays. After construction began the cash-starved road agency in charge, MSRDC, changed the plan from eight lanes to four and back to eight again. The council took an age to release the land needed to house machinery (near where the call-centre employees relax). Maritime rules banned work during the monsoon. Customs held up the import of a 5,400-tonne floating crane. Subsea telecoms cables were found in the wrong place. Old folk living nearby griped about noise pollution. Those are the kind of problems big projects face everywhere. But other hurdles were peculiarly Indian. In a 107-year-old house in the fishing village the bridge passes over at its southern end sits Vijay Worlikar, one of the “nine Patils”, or clan chiefs, who in effect run the area. He is a Koli, an aboriginal people who have been there for centuries; he has childhood memories of Iranian boats sailing to the village to trade pistachios for dried fish. “This land is our land,” he says. Mr Worlikar successfully campaigned to shift the bridge farther from the village, and for a second suspended section to be built to create a channel for the fishing fleet to sail underneath. His legal objections, along with other environmental complaints, caused years of delays. Yet he is a modern man: his daughter is a doctor and his son an executive at the airport. He blames sloppy planning. He says he is now helping the state build relations with other fishing villages in the city to try to avoid further fiascos. Cutting red tape and winning public support would be easier with political leadership. The Sea Link was opened, with a firework display, by Sonia Gandhi, the dynast of India’s ruling Congress Party, and was officially named after her assassinated husband, Rajiv. However, consistent with the rule that the more politicians celebrate a finished project, the less they did to make it happen, the Sea Link had earlier been left out to dry. Mr Gulabchand says that after the state government changed in 1999 and an energetic minister left, the plan had no sponsor to bulldoze through bureaucracy. Maharashtra’s ruling coalition since 1999, of the Congress Party and the NCP, often squabbles over who runs big projects. The politicians have rural vote banks and are afraid, as one official puts it, “to be seen to neglect the rural man”. Mr Gulabchand thinks Mumbai needs more political accountability: “The Sea Link would not have been delayed if there was a mayor responsible for doing it. His re-election would have depended on it.” For the time being, such a change in the city’s governance seems unlikely. Mumbai’s biggest secret To grow fast India needs lots more infrastructure. But lately spending has been falling. The central bank thinks that the value of envisioned projects dropped by 52% in 2011-12. The slump reflects worries about red tape, corruption and doubts about the profitability of public-private partnerships (PPPs). In Mumbai it is easy to despair. “The whole spirit of doing things has gone,” says Mr Gulabchand. Five kilometres south of Mr Worlikar’s village is a fenced plot by the sea where men sit on plastic seats, apparently anticipating, like actors in a production of “Waiting for Godot”, the next section of the Sea Link to arrive. It could be a while. The winner of a PPP project to build and run it, Anil Ambani, has got cold feet. A political tussle has erupted, with the NCP keen to build a bridge using public funds and Congress preferring a road on reclaimed land. Nothing may happen for years. Yet, just as the Sea Link manages those 4.7km of elevated bliss, some projects are moving. Beneath a hill owned by an atomic research agency in north Mumbai, roaring diggers have almost finished excavating two half-kilometre-long tunnels. Outside, in both directions, the ghastly task of clearing slums has been accomplished and their residents moved to blocks of flats nearby. This is part of Mumbai’s best-kept secret—the Eastern Freeway, a new road stretching all the way down the city’s east coast, on the opposite side from the Sea Link, using tunnels and stilts. It should open in 2013, about five years after work began. J.R. Dhane, an engineer on the project, says it has been like painstakingly weaving a thread through the city’s dense fabric. Elsewhere the first metro line is almost finished, its platforms inches away from living-room windows, an experimental monorail is coming up, and a new round of bids is set to begin on a contract to build and operate a $2 billion trans-harbour link. These projects are all being run by the MMRDA, a state development body that has stepped into the vacuum. It owns land worth $12 billion, which it sells to help finance projects, and is viewed as clean and technocratic. Its boss, Rahul Asthana, says that progress is being made, but seems cautious about the city making a Shanghai-style great leap forward. In all probability Mumbai will do enough to prevent a crisis, but not enough to fulfil its vast potential or quickly transform the quality of most of its people’s lives. The same is true of infrastructure across India. And what of that 4.7km stretch of the Sea Link, stranded out there, all alone? The bridge is in good nick but seems to be run poorly by the road agency, MSRDC (its chief declined interview requests). Vehicle numbers are thought to be half those expected. The financial impact is hard to assess: the most recent annual report on the agency’s website is from 2008. Waiting for Utopia Meanwhile the toll-booth system has become a slapstick affair, with a maze of concrete chicanes prone to collapse, complex cash fares and overstaffed booths. Usually receipts are printed, but occasionally they are hand-stamped on the kind of paper used for bingo tickets. Accusations of graft swirl. An electronic swipe system has apparently been introduced but seems to be available only to VIPs. After a suicide jump in August it emerged that the CCTV system to help stop terrorist attacks was not working properly. One recent fiasco involved a military convoy doing a U-turn on the bridge, a naval ambulance, a man in flip-flops with a red flag like a Formula One race official, and thousands of angry drivers. This created a traffic jam along most of the Sea Link, which seemed at last to have become part of the city. Often couples on motorbikes park by the bridge. They are not there to ride on it—two-wheelers are prohibited. They are not seeking intimacy, for the choice spot for that is the rocks around the headland at low tide. Nor are they there for the ambience, for the ground nearby features broken promenades, weeds and rats. They are there for the view. When you see its sweeping cords silhouetted against a dusky sky, the Sea Link is as close to a wonder as Mumbai can offer. And whether this ritual demonstrates low expectations or hope is in the minds of the beholders alone. http://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21568582-half-built-bridge-symbolises-urgency-and-frustrations-improving-indias