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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mumbai – Killing You Softly

I have always had a lingering suspicion about Mumbai’s inherent evilness, its ability to suck the life out of you, to turn you into a slave robot. Now it seems that even these UN guys agree with me, Mumbai does kill you early.

Ever taken the Churchgate – Virar local in Mumabi?

It’s a mind numbing and life altering experience. First and foremost you will have to do a Usain Bolt to even catch the local that would halt at a Dadar for a few precious nanoseconds, then some powerful elbowing (à la Dara Singh) would be needed to make a toehold in the compartment. Now if you are high on the Mumbai evolutionary chain then you will be able to clobber your way in, else you would be left precariously hanging from the compartment door – enjoying the breeze.

For those inside – it’s worse than a can of sardines. The experience is like that of a factory crusher – you are meshed from all sides, sweaty people breathing down your neck (quite literally) – and you breathing into someone’s (not so fragrant) armpit. After taking this trip I truly understood why they called Mumbai - the great melting pot.) By the way, if your phone is ringing – then will have to wait – for there is no space for you to dip your hand into your pocket and take the call.

This great nation has a rule on how many cattle you can pack into a railway wagon – ironically no such rule exits for men and women – so daily an impossible number of homo sapiens squeeze into a railcar and chug along a city called Bombay / Mumbai) Getting off at your desired station is as traumatic – only the persuasive skills of a Wall Street Banker could make the people give way to you. Imagine all the skill sets and effort required to get from point A to B in Mumbai (Even after all this - you land up drained, sweaty and stinking like a pig)

So during one such train ride to Andheri – I concluded that I couldn’t have my dignity stripped in this manner on a daily basis. So I packed my bags and said my bye bye’s to Bombay (This was the time when were not lynched for referring to Mumbai by its cosmopolitan nomenclature) Turns out that that I did a huge favour to myself – gave myself seven more years to live on planet earth! Now that may not enthuse everyone – but we are talking about survival here.

Figures published in the Human Development Report 2009 – confirm the worst fears of every local commuter in Mumbai. Maximum City’s average life expectancy for men is 52.6 years (!!!!) compared to India’s life expectancy figure of 63.7 years. In Mumbai people are dying faster BY SEVEN YEARS – it’s as simple as that! (This study incidentally is supported by the UNDP / Govt. of India / Min of housing and poverty alleviation etc.)

So where do seven precious years disappear? Local trains are just one of the culprits. ‘Survive Mumbai, Survive the World’ says American Tourister’s new promo; where a bewildered American is shown surmounting the odds to emerge alive and kicking after a ride in a Mumbai local. But in real life the chaotic locals are choking people to death. Even if you survive the locals you will spend half your life looking for accommodation in Mumbai. Since purchasing a flat remains a pipe dream for most – paying rents are the only option. Here arcane rent laws result in whooping advance payments being demanded and more often than not – you’re booted out after eleven months of tenancy.

One other reason for Mumbai getting such a dubious distinction is more than half the city living in slums and in unhygienic conditions. Diseases like tuberculosis are rapidly rising in Mumbai and contamination of air / food / water is not helping matters either.

The only parameter where deaths have gone down in Mumbai is pedestrian fatalities - and no thanks to the Mumbai traffic police. Over the last few years traffic in the city has come to a crawl, with an average speed of 15- 20km/h, even if one were to be hit at that speed – chances of dying would be minimal. But for commuters that means spending as much as - three to four hours on the road – stuck in never ending jams. Frayed nerves are given.

So Mumbai is a city that is living on the edge on a daily basis (and I am not even getting into those ‘once a year catastrophes’ like the floods or 26/111) Living under such stress is bound to have a long term heath implication. No surprise then that the maximum deaths in the city are caused by heart attacks followed by tuberculosis, cancer, kidney failure and HIV/AIDS.

Even if the findings of the Development Report are half true – it’s a dangerous trend. Its time to look beyond the ‘sprit of Mumbai’ and ‘chalta hai’. No place on earth can be termed as 100% safe and healthy – but knowing that your city is killing you on a daily basis – is a feeling you might not want to live with.

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Over the last few years I’ve had opportunity of covering some of the biggest stories in India. I specialize in conflict reporting and political coverage, be it 26/11 attacks or the Mangalore air crash, West Bengal elections or the protestations of Anna Hazare. You can catch me on Headlines Tonight @ 8pm weeknights on Headlines Today or follow me on twitter @akashbanerjee. I am a voracious reader and my first book, is due to hit the stands later this year. You can track my photo-blog on