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The City That Never Became

New Mumbai from the distance

A node of development in Navi Mumbai, seen from the highway

If you want to understand why a city is the way it is today, it is sometimes just as important to look at what didn’t happen in its past, as what did. And possibly the largest “didn’t-happen” in the history of Mumbai can be found just to its east, across the harbor: New Bombay, or as it is now called, Navi (New) Mumbai.

The name Navi Mumbai is slightly deceptive. It implies that the city was, at one point, born anew—much like Delhi was reborn with the construction of New Delhi in 1911 upon the Raj’s decision to move India’s capital inland from Calcutta. Of course, that is exactly why Navi Mumbai has that name: rebirth was the original reason for its construction.

The idea of stretching Bombay’s growth across the harbor from the island city was originally suggested in the 1940s, but it was first realized as a concrete plan in the mid 1960s when two young architects and an engineer thrust forth their vision for a “Twin City.” The idea was twofold: first, to relieve the island city of the pressure of massive population growth that was imploding the city center and pushing development ever northward, and second, to open up swaths of land for unhampered expansion east into the Maharashtrian mainland.

It’s hard sometimes, especially in those moments where Mumbai’s towering problems seem much greater and more overwhelming than its multitude of strengths, to not try and imagine what Mumbai might be like today had these plans actually panned out.

To understand why they didn’t, let’s flash back. As I mentioned in my last post, Mumbai’s early development happened rather reactively as the city sprouted from a small harbor city never really intended to grow to great size. But the city did, of course grow, and it took quite a while for the city to even officially accept its growth, and the need to plan for it. The concept of “Greater Bombay”— which swelled the city limits northward to officially include by then long-established suburbs such as Bandra, Juhu, Kurla and others, as well as forty-two villages within the district—didn’t become a legal reality until the late 1940s. And though an act requiring local authorities to begin submitting actual development plans for official sanctions for the first time was created in 1954, it took an incredible thirteen years for the act to become legally operational. It wasn’t even until the 1960s that concepts like floor space index and land-use zoning first came into play.

And through it all, despite a constant effort to create more and more room by chopping down mountains and piling their remains into the water to fuse what was originally seven islands into one mega Pangaea, it was clear that the island city was simply not large enough to comfortably host such an exploding population.

Enter New Bombay.

“The older city was congested and we said there was no space really for it to grow; it should grow to the east.” This is what Shirish Patel, one of the three original authors of the twin-city idea, who eventually lead the multi-disciplinary team that began designing New Bombay in 1970, told me in a recent interview. But it hinged on one thing: “We said the quickest way for this to happen was for [state] government to shift its capital there. We said if they were to shift to New Bombay, others would follow. We said, you already have an example of this having succeeded in your own country in New Delhi . . . why don’t we do it again?”

The government agreed, secured 344 square kilometers of mainland for the endeavor, and Patel and his team of eight were off.

It’s almost eerie, nearly fifty years later, listening to Patel describe parts of that original plan he and his colleagues drafted. He talks of transit-oriented nodes, with high density around major stations, tapering outward, and connected internally by bus rapid transit lines. Open spaces between the nodes, he says, should have ensured access to open spaces for everyone within close walking distance. Housing was to be built to accommodate all income groups to ensure social mix and inclusiveness while preventing slum growth. To my twenty-something urban ears, it all sounds strikingly familiar. Indeed, if heard out of context, it could almost be mistaken for the progressive, hopeful vision of livability that modern urbanists so vehemently peddle as fixes for our broken cities of today.

But arrive at Vashi station, the first metro stop in Navi Mumbai across the water from the Island City, and you’ll quickly realize how far off the mark of a vibrant and pragmatic new city center New Bombay actually became. The wide, open concrete swath in front of the station and the neatly spaced shops lining the straight, gridded avenues, which seem so foreign in the context of Mumbai’s otherwise webbed, semi-chaotic form, are at first a little surprising. But the jolt comes more from the sudden, immediate quiet that settles on your ears; the sparsely populated spaces; the abandoned, dilapidated, half-built towers gathering moss in the Navi Mumbai Central Business District.

Such a sharp juxtaposition to the city from which you have emerged is unsettling. In a time when the population of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region has ballooned to over 18 million— over 12 million of those in bursting Mumbai proper itself— the new city that was originally built to accommodate two million in the 1970s and absorb future growth accounts for just one to two million, depending on whose statistics you believe.

Dilapidated buildings in New Mumbai

Many building projects in and around the CBD sit abandoned, gathering moss.

More dilapidation in New Mumbai

New Mumbai building

A mixed-use building inside one of Navi Mumbai’s residential sectors

Depending on who you ask or what you read, there are multiple complex, difficult, and disputed explanations for why the vision of Mumbai never came to fruition. For reasons still not fully understood today the government retracted its plan to move across the water to the new city, which, Dwivedi and Mehrotra write, “Deprived the new city of its anchor function—the catalyst that would have made growth happen for the new city.” The state also rejected, and went directly against the design committee’s advice on where and where not to locate specific industries—a last straw that caused Patel himself to leave the project out of frustration. The proposed FSI distribution, rapid transit, and housing for the poor never materialized. And the government failed to provide proper linkages to the city or incentivize certain types of growth there that could have remedied the shock of the government pulling out on their planned relocation.

The list goes on and on. But the short end to the story can be more or less simply put: the attempt to turn the direction of the city’s expansion eastward failed. Though it is growing and slowly garnering new business, Navi Mumbai today is little more than a bedroom community, and the pressure in the island city never lifted. “It’s pushed it back into the old city. It could easily grow eastwards and instead it’s growing further and further along the railway lines in this direction,” Patel says, following the lines northward on a map with his fingers.

It’s impossible to say, of course, how the city would be different today had the vision gone through as planned. There is little doubt that the pressure still remaining in Mumbai contributes enormously not only to overcrowding and, for many, immensely long commutes north, but also obscenely inflated real estate prices and slums. Whether and how Navi Mumbai could have changed this is, of course, up for debate. But there’s one thing that one can say, I think, with confidence. And no one says it with quite as much confidence as Patel: “If it had happened, it would be quite different.”

View from road

Residential towers along Navi Mumbai’s shore

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Photos: Christine McLaren