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WORLDVIEW: Mumbai is the urban future

EDITOR’S NOTE: “WorldView Conversation,” the blog related to this column, can be found here http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com. An audio version of this column is available at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/77/7739/7739-43113.mp3.

MUMBAI, India (BP)–Flying into Mumbai at night, you see millions of pretty lights glittering along the curving coast, like jewels on the neck of a queen.

At ground level, in the harsh light of day, illusion gives way to reality. The elegant monarch that once was Bombay is dead. Something altogether different — both exciting and terrifying — has replaced her.

Two-pack-a-day air pollution. Round-the-clock road wars between vast armies of cars, trucks and auto-rickshaws. Sleek skyscrapers, posh coffee shops and luxury high-rise apartments abound, taking their place alongside the grand Taj Hotel, the monumental Gateway of India arch and other reminders of the city’s former glory. But they’re surrounded by slums, filth, stench, violence and the crumbling remnants of old Bombay.

And everywhere, people.

Greater Mumbai’s population is approaching 20 million. That number is projected to rise to 26 million by 2025. India, the land of 600,000 villages, has joined the relentless human trek toward urban centers as the global economy moves in the same direction. Half of the nation’s more than 1 billion people will be living in cities by 2020, some estimates say.

“South Asia, set to overtake East Asia as the world’s most populous realm in 2010, will contain nearly one-quarter of all humanity by 2025,” geographer Harm de Blij reports. “Consider this: There are more people in Dhaka [Bangladesh] than in Greece. There are more people in Manila [Philippines] than in Belgium. There are more people in Delhi [India] than in Chile. Mumbai will soon overtake Australia.”

On a global scale, urban dwellers will double to 6.4 billion by the middle of this century — 70 percent of the projected human population, according to a United Nations forecast. By that time, predicts a BBC report, Mumbai “will have reached an almost unimaginable size.”

Mumbai, then, “is the future of urban civilization on the planet,” writer Suketu Mehta declares. “God help us.”

Mehta, author of “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” (Vintage, 2004), left the city of his childhood in 1977. When he returned two decades later to live there, he barely recognized it. Somewhere toward the end of the 20th century, the bustling but livable Bombay he remembered had become — like Jekyll turning to Hyde — the dangerous, uncontrollable beast called Mumbai.

Mumbai has “hundreds of very different ethnic communities, most of whom heartily dislike one another,” Mehta notes. “They [tolerated] one another for centuries” — until the Hindu-Muslim riots of the 1990s, which left 1,000 dead and drove more than 100,000 from their homes. The riots tore apart the city’s delicate ethnic fabric and fueled extremist forces in politics and society that persist today. The citywide unity displayed after last November’s terrorist attacks encouraged many, but didn’t erase the memories of past bloodshed.

Bombay’s name change to Mumbai, part of a national initiative that renamed several major cities, symbolizes more fundamental shifts. The steady inflow of migrants and merchants seeking a job, a deal or a patch of ground to occupy has become a torrent. Organized crime bosses control major parts of the economy; their gangs attack each other and victimize the public. More than 100,000 women and children work as prostitutes in the city. The police have become notoriously violent and corrupt. The rule of law is nearly nonexistent. City government is dysfunctional. The courts have slowed to a crawl; justice interminably delayed is almost a guarantee.

On a more mundane level, accomplishing anything in Mumbai requires single-minded determination — and money.

“You’ve got to pay five bribes to get anything done,” complains Suman Nabar, an eye doctor who struggled for years to build a private medical practice. She treats her patients all day — and sometimes cleans the office toilets at night to make sure it’s done right.

“I just wish people would do their jobs,” she says with a tone of exasperated resignation.

Yet for all its staggering problems, Mumbai radiates addictive energy and excitement.

“The chaos is what I’m going to miss when I leave,” says Rose Wynn*, a Southern Baptist worker retiring after serving in the city for more than 10 years. “The chaos and the people. I love it.”

She marvels at how people still help one another, regardless of caste or class. If you fall on the street, someone appears from nowhere to offer assistance. If you’re lost, someone shows you where to go and personally takes you there, if necessary.

Somehow, the city keeps going — like its trains, the arteries that move 6 million people through Mumbai every day. And like Mumbai’s renowned dhabba wallahs.

Mostly nonliterate deliverymen, the dhabba wallahs carry some 200,000 hot lunches each work day by foot, bicycle and train from the suburban homes where they are made to the cross-town offices where they are consumed. That’s more than 60 million lunch tins a year. Of that total, they misplace perhaps 10 — an accuracy rate UPS and FedEx have enviously studied (see a multimedia presentation about Mumbai’s dhabba wallahs at http://www.commissionstories.com/?p=141).

“It looks like chaos, but it works,” an amazed observer says.

Could the Gospel follow similar paths across Mumbai and other vast megacities, bringing living bread to millions of hungry souls? The time has come to find out.

“I wouldn’t say so much that we’re failing as that we’ve never tried,” says John Wynn*, a Southern Baptist worker in Mumbai, of the Christian movement’s response to the global urban explosion.

“We haven’t had the focus and the vision to reach the urban masses. The only answer is Jesus Christ. We can talk about the problems, the poverty and corruption and politicians. But it all goes back to the darkness they live in.

“They need Jesus Christ.”
*Names changed. Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board.

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  • Erich Bridges