Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why Mumbai is different from Bombay

I grew up in Bombay, and spent a large part of my childhood here. When the city was renamed to Mumbai, I resisted the change in name, partly because the reasons for renaming the city were so superfluous. The government that forced the change did so for political reasons, and partly because they did little else. As I recall, that was also when the name of the airport and the train station was changed.

Quite some has changed in Bombay, and not all for the better.

The traffic has become absolutely terrible. Drivers seem to be playing a video-game where points are earned for every move that can get people killed. Vehicles inch forwards at signals, and consider traffic lights as mere hints. Traffic cops stand in the side and are paid to discuss cricket scores. Drivers have no concern for pedestrians, even when pedestrians are forced to walk on the street due to missing pavements. I used to think that bad driving was a result of illiteracy till I saw a well-dressed seemingly literate lady driving the wrong direction on a one-way street, carrying school children in her car. If you want to see what a raging herd of angry Mongols would drive like, visit Bombay. Ooops, sorry. That should be Mumbai, the evil and angry version of Bombay.

The air quality has gone to garbage, literally. Every morning I am amazed to find a thick haze as far as the eye can see. Buildings and trees farther than 250m are hazy and dull. October in Bombay was like living in a furnace. October in Mumbai is like breathing the exhaust of a coal furnace too. Every morning, I am amazed at the low-grade fuel fires: cowdung fire spewing out a thick smoke, and wood fires in the nearby areas. All the garbage in the area is burnt, to transfer rubbish from the streets to the air, spreading it evenly among everyone. All these make the air warm and thick with particulate matter. Trees in the distance become impossible to see early morning. If you want to feel like an asthamatic, you should visit Bombay. Ooops, sorry. That should be Mumbai, the evil and angry version of Bombay.

The biggest problem is that we don't acknowledge these issues. The newspapers carry short stories of how some old man was killed at some intersection, and how some children died when they were run over by a bus. Is this news? Does it surprise anyone that people die on the streets because of the wild mongols that are driving huge boxes of metal? Every driver seems to relish passing by other cars and pedestrians. In this atmosphere, death and destruction are expected. I would consider it news if there was no traffic accident for a day. Bad traffic in Bombay has a precedent: around 1992, South Bombay had terrible traffic, and the traffic police laid out high barricades to prevent pedestrians from crossing major junctions, they started laying down thick stones to separate turn-only lanes, and clamped down on drivers ignoring traffic signs and signals. Result: good traffic behavior in Bombay. Traffic can improve, if people focus on it. Bombay has done it. Maybe Mumbai can do it too.

Nobody acknowledges the bad air either. Since my mom is an asthamatic, I was convincing her to buy a military-grade gas mask. You need that to inhale the air around some parts. The poor have no alternative but to breathe in the fumes, and the rich are too happy turning on the air conditioning, and isolating themselves. I saw some deluded people jogging on the pavement in the morning. If the traffic doesn't kill them, the air surely will. Death is in the air. You can smell it in Mumbai, the evil and angry version of Bombay.

I'm sure many things have changed for the better. My point is many things have become much worse, and that we can only change the situation if we notice the problems. There's a lot of noise about employees of some company that were laid off. Why is that worth worrying about? I'm more concerned about the toxic fumes that everyone is breathing in.

It is very sad to see such a beautiful city go down the toilet like this. Mumbai is a difficult city to live in. Mumbai is a difficult city to visit. I am glad that some of my immediate family has moved out of Mumbai. Bombay was a wonderful city to visit. Mumbai is a wonderful city to leave.