Navi Mumbai - Navi Dissonance

Since independence, the city of Mumbai has grown quickly, bringing new morphological changes to the urban landscape. Sharp population growth in suburban and peri-urban areas accompanied by an insatiable need to build housing, industrial spaces, trading spaces, and small-scale industrial units have created a vertical shift in population density from south to north. In 1971, city authorities realized that the city was growing unsustainably—to save the city from a constant contest to find space and to stave off suffocation, a twin city was born.

Navi Mumbai (New Bombay), a city of recent settlement with millions of inhabitants, is not just an outcome of quick urbanization and population growth, but also of the decentralization and ambition of Mumbai. Hope stems from dreams of participation in a neoliberal economy: deregulation, privatization of public enterprises, planning and administration, multinational corporations and developers, special economic zones and higher income groups all push and pull to shape the city. The result is an “infrastructure island” culturally and socially distinct from Mumbai—it is a new center of commerce manifested with political power.

The plan for Navi Mumbai was finalized in 1973, but it was not until 1981 that it was realized. In no time, Navi Mumbai commissioned a railway connection between Mankhurd and Vashi, a move that increased demand for land for commercial and residential uses. Soon new nodes were developed, each taking on a different character. By the end of 1990, private enterprise was actively encouraged to make up for a lack of public resources and funding toward growth. These moves coincided with the moment when neoliberalism and a desire to integrate into a globalizing economy became emerging philosophical and ideological trends in India. With the rise of urbanization, land use governing this region, which once centered mostly on farming (rice, pulses) and fishing, has given rise to a discordant region where Navi Mumbai grows haphazardly into an unrecognizable city.

Two entities were created specifically to develop and maintain Navi Mumbai: the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO, 1970s) and the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC, early 1990s). Regional policies controlled by these city administrators allow the sale of new sections of Navi Mumbai; the product of this entrepreneurship—or sanctioned takeover—is a region that seeks to compete with other global cities in the worldwide marketplace. Inasmuch, Navi Mumbai has become essentially a “commodity.” Land once dedicated for community purposes and livelihood is now land for new realty and commercial use. Spatial configuration of Navi Mumbai is inspired by economic, rather than community enhancement, values. Is planning based simply on supply and demand? Is Navi Mumbai meant solely to satisfy free market and specialization needs?

Thus, in this city of contrasts, we have well networked nodes stocked with communication facilities, an airport under construction, shipping harbors, new shopping malls, modish restaurants, a score of BPO (business process outsourcing) centers, industrial belts, techno parks, educational institutes, and residential high-rises, all which continue to grow without apparent aim.

Navi Mumbai has witnessed different stages of planning through legislative intervention, and urban renewal and capital improvement projects, yet it is still unsure of its growth and direction. Every planned node is caught up in this dizzying development. The “square” remains the epitome of the old notion of a planned, self-contained city, where separate, squared sectors reflect the nature of its components: commercial space, schools, or residential spaces remain disconnected within this new urban confusion. Developed nodes lack meaning and become fragments—or remnants—of the city’s multidirectional development. High uncertainty toward any particular goal forces Navi Mumbai to resign itself to a fate of decentralization and confusion.

This unconnected, twisted land is never politicized, brought together (in peace or indignation), or celebrated as a whole.The absence of urban drama does not encourage individuals to emerge from confined spaces to fully express his or her imagination. For Navi Mumbai, the contradictions, conflicts and fantasies are created or defined by infrastructural and corporate actors, rather than individual citizens who might otherwise (and elsewhere) have the ability to express their own imaginations of what their city should be. Thus, the resident is prevented from participating in the creation and molding of his own city. Controlled planning and takeovers have taken away the beauty of spontaneity. The individual has become merely an end-user rather than a patron of the city—citizens are left to wallow in urban-scale feelings of introversion, homogeneity, and alienation.

Given the multifaceted factors and perspectives that go into creating a city, there will always be different elements that will generate different views of what a city should be. Ideologies will have their vantage points and give rise to new societies over time, every time. My perspective is equally handicapped in fully understanding the consequences of ir/rationalities of the urban form and formation, and the resultant quality of life generated. In this sense, it appears the planners of Navi Mumbai and its inhabitants share at least this much in common: we are all confused as to what Navi Mumbai is, what it should become, and what it will be.

December 22, 2009

frontispiece: close-up aerial view of Navi Mumbai, Google Maps 

Urbanization, India