Future on display in 'Maximum City'

BOMBAY, INDIA — BOMBAY, India - The shack had no toilet or even running water. It was infested with mosquitoes. The man sitting on a cot had recently lost his brother, shot dead by police during a riot. I asked the man his opinion of the city he was living in. "Bombay is a Golden Songbird," the slum dweller said, marveling.

He was a migrant from the countryside, drawn here like the majority of the population by the seductive call of the Golden Songbird. All the miseries of his life paled in comparison to the possibilities of Bombay, the biggest, fastest, richest city in India; a Maximum City.


Bombay is one of a group of "megacities" - those with 10 million or more people, most of which are in the developing world. Until the turn of the millennium, the majority of people lived in villages. Now we live in cities.

The U.N. report that establishes that trend - State of the World's Cities 2004/05 forecasts that 60 percent of the world's population will be living in cities by 2030. Two billion people will be living in slums. The report warns of a "race to the bottom" as companies move capital and jobs across borders to cities with the lowest labor costs. The desperation of slum dwellers in Lagos, Nigeria, or Jakarta, Indonesia, therefore, directly affects the economic fortunes of the poor in Baltimore or Los Angeles.


Within its water-bound municipal limits, Bombay - also known as Mumbai - is the most populous city in the world, at 14 million. Greater Bombay's population, currently 19.5 million, is bigger than those of 173 countries. If it were a country, it would rank 54th. Bombay is a harbinger of the vast cities that will dominate the planet this century. Understanding what's happening in Bombay is a gateway to understanding the future of the city.

Unlike cities in the developed world such as London, Paris and Tokyo, whose growth largely has stabilized, megacities expand at growth rates of up to 5 percent a year. They are characterized by uncontrolled migration from the countryside, criminal mafias that take on the role of an alternative judiciary, vast shantytowns, chaotic and corrupt governments, traffic snarls and a lack of essential services. And, most of all, hope.

They serve the same function New York or Chicago did for newly freed Southern blacks in the late 19th century, providing an exciting place where the young can make a fresh start, escape agricultural drudgery and chase their dreams.

But Bombay faces huge challenges. The municipal government is on the edge of bankruptcy. The Boss Tweed of Bombay is a man named Bal Thackeray, who was accused in an official report of having directed mobs of Hindu rioters against Muslims, "like a veteran general," in a convulsive series of riots in 1992 and 1993.

But, as with New York in the early 20th century, reformers are waiting in the wings: civic groups determined to take their city back from the bosses. The more important trend is that the newcomers who migrate to the city have the power of the vote and exercise it much more diligently than the older, established inhabitants.

Bombayites voted out the governing Bharatiya Janata Party - favored by the technocratic upper and middle classes - in almost all the parliamentary districts of the city in the spring and brought back the Congress party, as did the entire country. The surprise election result was commonly depicted as the revenge of the village against the city, of the poor against the rich. This is the difference between the world's two largest democracies: In India, the poor vote.

The great cities of America, which people fled for the suburbs after World War II, are newly attractive places. Paris always has been beautiful because the poor have been kept out, shunted to the suburbs. American cities like New York are following the same pattern; crime, which kept the rents affordable, has diminished, and so the poor in the ghetto are displaced by the artists, who are displaced by the bankers, and the poorest are forced out to the inner ring of suburbs.

In Bombay, the poor live in the armpit of the rich. They have political power; in time, unorganized housing turns into organized settlements, serviced with electricity and water. Villages spring up in the city, creating its distinctive geography.


Bombay also has the most stringent rent-control laws in the world. So much of the housing in the island city is dilapidated because the landlords have no incentive to renovate it. This gives the whole city a slightly seedy air. Slums on every open patch of ground and decrepit six-story, rent-controlled buildings coexist with the startling new skyscrapers built for the multinationals.

There's another reason Bombay attracts migrants: It is a dream city, the subcontinent's La-La Land. Indians have mentally inhabited Bombay even if they've never set foot in it, because Bombay is home to the world's largest movie industry - Bollywood. Villagers in distant Bihar and tribe members in far Nagaland are all intimate with the skyscrapers of Nariman Point or the beach at Juhu through their projected images in traveling tent movie houses, creating dreams for the masses.

And Bombay is a mass dream of the Indian people.

Suketu Mehta is the author of "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found."