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BW Businessworld

Varieties Of Chaos

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I recently went to Bombay after a long time. Cities change gradually; those who inhabit them do not notice the change. It takes an infrequent visitor to see the change. The first thing one notices is the traffic jams. Bombay was perfectly designed for them. It is a long, narrow city. There is only one laboriously carved-out north-south artery; another further east, starting from the docks and following the Central railway, is not nearly so popular since it does not pass through middle-class residential areas. The local authorities had done much to widen and straighten out the western artery. They even added a toll bridge parallel to a part of it to speed up traffic. Despite all their ingenuity, this artery is now choked. It took me two hours to go from Santa Cruz to Colaba, and another two hours back. It would be unwise to go to Bombay for a day, hoping to finish some business and come back the same day.

One consequence of this clogged artery is the deterioration in the manners of Bombay drivers. They used to be the best in India. I remember driving to Bombay forty years ago in my first car, an Ambassador. I was worried about how I would manage on Bombay's crowded roads. Driving there turned out to be a pleasure; the drivers were so well behaved that a Delhiwallah felt like a savage. But not any more. Drivers have no compunction about cutting across the most crowded traffic and holding up everyone. Their incivility has a reason: the traffic is so heavy that if they waited courteously, they might never be able to cross. Unlike in Delhi, where dividers have been built along all roads wide enough to accommodate them, the Bombay police put up moveable barriers, presumably because they give them more flexibility and cost less. But the result is considerable crossing across the barriers, with attendant disruption of traffic. And coming from Delhi, one is shocked by the dirt on Bombay roads; the local authorities do not seem to have much control on their cleaning staff.

Another consequence is that the centre of gravity of the city has moved northwards. Rama Bijapurkar, the bellwether of Bombay's business fashion, has moved from south Bombay to Parel; the rest of businesses seem to have moved with her, or ahead of her. Bandra-Kurla is, of course, famous. But that is more because of the swank offices of a few big businesses there. Of the rest, some have moved to Parel, where the textile mills, sent into bankruptcy forty years ago by a socialist government, are being dismantled. But the rest have moved here and there. The city is now dotted with high-rise buildings. They still provide only a small proportion of built-up space, but they are more likely to house businesses, which can pay the high rents.

The third consequence, as Rama points out, is that business has moved out of Bombay. Office space is absurdly costly there; and as the arteries have clogged up, it is just too much bother to collect employees in one central office every day and send them home in the evening. When I was a young bachelor, I used to live in Colaba, with a view of the sea, walk to work in the university, and eat in the great variety of restaurants on the way. Then I got married and was asked to vacate my room by my landladies. I found a flat in Santa Cruz, but the commute was too bothersome, so I moved to Delhi. I was a pioneer; forty years later, a lot of business offices have moved to Gurgaon, which looks like a 21st century Bombay. It would attract even more business if the governments of Haryana were not so corrupt. Power and water supply in Gurgaon are as bad as in Calcutta. But because of good roads spreading off the Delhi-Jaipur highway, and of the proximity of Delhi airport, which now claims to be one the world's best four, Gurgaon continues to attract offices, and accommodate employees of those offices.

Poona continues to do well for the same reason — the Bombay-Poona road provides the artery along which so many factories and offices have settled. I think it is the next Bombay. It can still spread out in all directions. It has good weather, and some great landscapes. Poona city is as congested as any Indian city; but so it was even half a century ago, so development has just left the city centre behind and spread all around it. If the local administration had any sense, it would develop the city centre as a traffic-free tourist destination; instead, it is a crowded jungle of kirana shops. Still, Poona outside its centre is one of the future cities. Half a century from now, the great metros of today will be backwaters, just like Poona city, and over a dozen new 1-crore cities will come up whose names we do not yet know. I hope though, that they will be easier to get around than the metros of today.

The author is Consultant Editor of Businessworld. ashok(dot)desai(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 31-10-2011)