Book: J. R. D. Tata Keynote

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A City in Distress

Address by J.R.D. Tata at a Civic Reception accorded to him by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay, March a, 1983.

 

ombay has been my home almost right from my birth, and almost continuously thereafter, for the last seventy-eight years. As I look at the beautiful view from here (Kamala Nehru Park), I remember the Bombay of my youth with its magnificent harbour, its shady wooded hills, its flowering trees, its then disciplined population – there were no 'morchas' then to impede one's travels through the city – its virtual absence of beggars, its freedom from law and order problems, and how happy a place it was in which to live and to work, a city of which we could be proud.

Those happy and peaceful memories seem long gone today as I contemplate with sorrow, not unmixed with anger, the present scene of so much of Bombay. Over a short period of fifty years, from being a beautiful, clean and well-ordered city, Bombay has become perhaps the site of the world's largest collection of hutment dwellings, of decaying and dilapidated buildings, of congested streets occupied largely by unlicensed hawkers, plagued by hordes of beggars, its air heavily polluted. Many of the city wards, if one succeeds in walking through them, look more like disaster areas than parts of a city worth living in.

An old citizen like myself, when he contemplates that scene, cannot but be torn between two emotions – on the one hand, deep sympathy for the five million or so out of our population of eight million who, having come from the countryside to find work, are compelled to live in crowded and truly sub-human conditions; on the other, indignation at the failure of our Government, of our Corporation, of all of us to face up to and deal with the horrors and misery that have been inflicted on this city and its residents in the last three decades since Independence by the excessive and over rapid influx of population.

Maharashtra is known throughout India as one of the country's best administered States. It has been, and still is, a leader in the industrialisation of the country. It has been a pioneer of many schemes including, for instance, the employment guarantee scheme. Therefore, its failure to tackle the grievous problems of Bombay's degradation could not have been due to ignorance or inefficiency, but to a misconceived populist posture, itself partly due no doubt to the belief that doing nothing would safeguard or buy more votes in the highly politicised era in which, alas, we live today. When I questioned and pleaded with members of the Government, I was told that, as the millions who poured into Bombay in the last thirty years came in legitimate search of employment and a better life for themselves and their families, no democratic Government could impede their flow into the city. I don't agree. For the fact is that, whether or not the majority of them did find worthwhile jobs and employment, they certainly did not find the minimum living conditions to which every human being is entitled and which to some extent they had in their villages. Instead, the conditions they found in Bombay were so appalling that one would hesitate to inflict them even on cattle or beasts of burden.

 

Problems of Encroachment

 

The crucial point I want to make is that all these millions would not have come in such large numbers, or so quickly, if they had not found from the start that they would be permitted to occupy and build hutments on any piece of open land they could find in the city, on public lands as well as private lands, on roadsides, alongside railway lines, even on footpaths virtually free from any restraints, either from the Government, or from the police, or from the Municipal Corporation authorities. The majority of slum-dwelling householders who have fortunately found employment in Bombay have fairly well-paid jobs. Even the thousands of street hawkers who peddle with impunity their smuggled goods in our streets earn enough to pay something for the services they get out of this city – towards the enormous cost of running a city of this size, of maintaining its buildings, its roads, its schools, its hospitals, its parks, and in providing all the civic services, rightly mentioned by the Mayor in his speech, the water, power, transport, fire fighting, and many others including health services, hospitals and schools. And yet, in what I feel is a distorted interpretation of social justice, millions are allowed to enjoy these benefits and services virtually without contributing anything to their cost.

I have read from a recent speech of one of our Deputy Ministers that the total amounts extracted in some form or another from the four or five million slum dwellers is only of the order of something like Rs.80 lakhs in a city of eight million with a budget of Rs.540 crores. Probably the biggest tax that most of the slum dwellers pay is to the 'dadas', the crooks of the Bombay Mafia, who extort crores of rupees from them every year as protection money and for arranging for their illegal occupation of land and unauthorised construction of hutments on it.

To my mind, there is no doubt that the Government and the Municipality had every right, and in fact the duty to do their best, from the very beginning to prevent the wholesale occupation of public lands over the last thirty years. Instead, all these poor migrants into Bombay were practically encouraged to occupy lands and build hutments by the total absence of any restraining action which could, and should, have been taken before any hutment was put up. Once hutments are put up and inhabited, great hardship is caused and social problems created when families have to be turned out of their homes, however miserable. But if one acts before they are built, or while they are being built, there is no hardship caused, only annoyance. That the damage could in my view have been prevented, or at least greatly mitigated, is proved by the fact that there are indeed, even today, including right here in these lovely gardens, many places in Bombay which have been kept free from such occupation. You find not a single hutment or a single hawker in New Delhi.

 

Votes and the Rent Act

 

The plight of the city was aggravated by the Government retaining unchanged, since it was passed in 1947, the Bombay Rent Act, which froze the rents of all buildings to the rents prevailing in 1940, that is forty years ago. Every modern country in the world after the Second World War has introduced similar rent acts, but those have always been revised from time to time to cope with inflation to enable resources to be raised by Municipal authorities as well as landlords for maintaining and repairing their buildings. But not in Bombay. And no wonder, therefore, that our Municipal Commissioner bemoans the heavy loss of tax revenues resulting from the grossly uneconomical rateable values, which are themselves largely determined by the absurdly low rents which are prevailing in Bombay in all the old buildings. As a result, and as the rupee has depreciated to about one-twentieth of its value forty years ago, it has become impossible to maintain a building out of rents. And so we see all through Bombay an increasing number of dilapidated, decaying buildings.

The Kerkar Committee found that there were today in Bombay and growing in number every year, about 30,000 dilapidated buildings, a large proportion of which have reached a dangerous stage. In fact, as we all know, there is never a monsoon during which, at some time or another, a number of buildings collapse in Bombay and in the process kill a lot of people including women and children living in them. A few years ago I pointed out to the then Chief Minister that the Government was responsible for these deaths because it was under the Government's control either to revise the Rent Act or to repair the buildings or, failing repairs, to condemn them as unfit for occupation. You know what his reply was? He said, with a smile, 'Mr. Tata, there are more tenants than landlords.' He was of course referring to voters.

The time has come, I submit, for a radical change in the attitude of the Government towards the relative needs of cities and villages. In Maharashtra, the view seems to be held by our politicians that cities are rich and, therefore, can fend for themselves, while villages are poor and that all State revenues must therefore be concentrated on their uplift. This ignores the fact that most of the five million people who live in Bombay today in appalling hutment settlements and dilapidated buildings, and the hundred thousand or so of them who live without any home at all on the pavements of Bombay, are themselves villagers, or were villagers until recently. Are they not entitled as much as villagers in villages to better conditions than the congested squalor to which they are condemned today?

The evidence is clear. Unless urgent and determined action is taken, Bombay will by the turn of the century – and mind you that is only seventeen years from now – become perhaps the greatest, the most wretched, epidemic-ridden collection of slums in the whole world.

 

Decongesting

 

There is fortunately no need to despair, I am glad to say. Having been an optimist all my life, I am not likely to despair at this time of my life about anything except perhaps myself – but let my wife do that! I do not despair because I feel that our Government and our bureaucracy are by now fully alive to the magnitude and the menacing nature of the problem which has been created by thirty years of neglect, or worse. They realise that something must be done now to save Bombay, and have initiated steps and policies, on which I congratulate them, to decongest the city by developing New Bombay and other areas on the mainland, and promoting all new activities and transferring many of the old ones to New Bombay. The Government is to be particularly congratulated for its decision, still to be implemented, to transfer wholesale markets, perhaps the greatest source of congestion in Bombay, and its administrative headquarters to New Bombay.

Also welcome is the project, just started, for the creation of the new Nhava Sheva Port. Unfortunately, progress in developing the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO) and other New Bombay areas has been so slow as to provide no real incentive up to now for voluntary transfer of business activities or for people to move to new areas. I am glad also that the Government of Maharashtra, subject to the Government of India's approval, has decided to build a bridge across the harbour so as to facilitate the decongestion of Bombay and I am grateful to them for having entrusted to me the task of preparing the ground for it.

The most urgent tasks for the Bombay administration today are, to my mind, the following:

 

First, to accelerate the infrastructural development of New Bombay and to induce by all possible means, including perhaps a little arm twisting, the transfer of all economic activities from Bombay which today clutter up the old city and can be carried on efficiently and economically on the other side.

Second, to deter by such means as I have indicated to our Government more than once in the past, the further unchecked influx of migrants into Bombay, for if the influx continues, all efforts and plans to relocate 'zopadpatti' dwellers will be frustrated.

Third, to complete with all speed the programme of transferring all wholesale markets to New Bombay.

Fourth, to amend the Bombay Rent Act so as to enable additional tax revenues to be raised by the Municipality and to ensure that some funds at least are made available to the owners to repair their buildings.

I realise that I have spoken up to now only of what others have done or not done in the past or should do in the future. 1 do believe, however, that all those citizens of Bombay, individual and corporate, who have resources, mental as well as financial, and a will to help must bear some of the responsibhas been myility for past errors and neglect. And I believe that they have an important role to play today and in the future in support of the Municipality's efforts to retrieve the situation. Business houses, such as the one I am connected with, can do much to help keep the city clean, to preserve it from decay, to beautify it, and generally to cooperate with the Government, Municipal, police and traffic authorities in their task in the interests of the city as a whole.

There are scores of groups of concerned citizens working in their own wards to help the Municipality in various ways and 1 think it is time that these groups were brought together, under possibly an apex body such as exists in some cities in the West, and their active cooperation sought by the Government.

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