Flaneur's Diary: Living on the Edge

            Mumbai is a city with an understandable identity crisis.  Over the past three centuries, India has been occupied by the Portuguese and the British, and has hosted over 600 World Bank and IMF developmental projects (source: World Bank).  Some see these projects as another form of imperialism, or “westernization.”  In Mumbai, there are many ongoing transformations, including international development projects; Mumbai is a globalized reflection of this mix between ostensible and actual concern over its future. 


It is my opinion that the slums of Mumbai have become a part of the city’s vernacular culture.  But most of the developmental projects in Mumbai are slum redevelopment projects, and many are financed by two Washington, D.C.-based developmental mega-banks.  The IMF and The World Bank were created after World War II to rebuild Europe, and subsequently became the developmental financiers of the Third World.  During the 1980s and 90s there are countless examples of these banks lending money to Third World countries; we can now see the results of many of these loans.  The problem has been with the fine print, or the conditions, attached to loans from the IMF and the World Bank.  Although now these two banks claim to have corrected many of their flawed practices, the damage has been done.


The conditions attached to developmental loans distributed by these banks are known as Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), and were meant to bring Third World borrowers in line with the banks’ own economic philosophies.  These philosophies included cuts to social spending, tax cuts for the rich, financial deregulation, trade liberalization, and privatization of every social function including water delivery and sanitation.  But economic adjustment within these parameters raises the question: how can a country that does not have many resources to begin with possibly thrive in this type of economy?  Paul Hawken, in his book Blessed Unrest, looks at it this way: “Asking the impoverished to make a structural adjustment is like asking a toddler to cross the freeway.”  To add insult upon injury, certain trade liberalizations suddenly made borrowing countries vulnerable to local resource depletion by savvy international speculators and investors.  The result for many countries has been civil wars, pandemic levels of disease and famine, and a handful of very rich people.


Mumbai has fared better than some cities in sub-Saharan Africa, but the city has developed a dual personality as a result of the city government’s adoption of the same economic philosophies that the World Bank and the IMF have insisted upon through SAPs.  On one hand, there are skyscrapers shooting up, newly built rich suburbs, shopping malls, and other signals of assimilation into western ubiquity.  But on the other hand, there are millions of slum dwellers in Mumbai; they are the worker ants of the city.  These people are highly social, and while their slum-based shops operate on the fundamentals of a market system, they are more interested in cooperating with each other than competing with each other.  The slums of Mumbai are where humanity is separated from the economy.  There are no gated communities in the slums.  Everything is reused and recycled.  As for the social processes in the wealthier zones, we know them well.  They are very similar to those that we know in America.


At this stage in the 21st Century, we are seeing the same scenarios playing out in many cities around the world – Tokyo, New York, London, Singapore – in which they all have individual transnational architecture that makes them “officially” global, but they are trading the uniqueness of their own local classical vernacular form for the modernity of globalized shapes and spaces.  The amount of world cities that are distinguishable upon first glance is small and shrinking.  If this is the democratic wish of the global citizen – along with vast and increasing poverty fringed by extreme opulence – then let it be so.  However, I suspect this not to be true.  Conflicts between NGOs and government agents in Mumbai prove that the debate between economic prosperity and social justice is alive in the city.  Just like it should be. 


by Stephen Marotta