Reflections on our Time in Mumbai

Jul 21 2012 - 9:28am

The last part of our trip took place in Mumbai, the financial and commercial capital of the state of Maharashtra and the country. For the last leg of the research workshop Professor Robbie Barnett was our teacher, and Jai Kasturi was our teaching assistant. Our host students were undergraduates from H.R. College of Commerce and Economics. 

On our first day, Dr. Bajpai, director of the Columbia Global Centers | South Asia gave us an introductory lecture on India.  He pointed out the major developments the country has gone through, and the major challenges it faces for the next decade. During our first week we visited the Urban Design Research Institute to understand some of the main initiatives that Mumbai is conducting to cope with the rapid growth that the city has experienced.
We attended very interesting meetings during our first week including visits to Waterwalla, a social venture running a pilot program to provide clean water to Mumbai's slum dwellers; Pukar, an NGO devoted to studies on poverty and slum development; and TISS, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, where we attended a lecture in the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy.
Among the highlights of the week were our visits to Dharavi, once the largest slum in Asia, and now a "city within a city." It is a major center for commerce. We also visited Wangini and Waghinichi Wadi Villages where we met a "Women's Self-help Group" and learned about some pilot programs regarding environmental and educational endeavors.
During our second week in Mumbai we visited Mumbai Mobile Creches, an NGO that provides education to the children of migrant construction workers; SPARC, the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, which  helps slum dwellers obtain adequate housing facilities; and Studio X, an initiative that is part of Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture and Planning.  This organization is working towards innovative design solutions for the urban environment in Mumbai.
A couple of the most interesting interviews we had featured Kisan Mehta from Save Bombay Committee, in which we learned about the first environmental efforts in India. We also spoke with Reshma Patil, the former assistant editor and China correspondent for Hindustan Times newspaper, who gave us a very good perspective about concepts like "From Mumbai to Shanghai" and "Ch-India."
Our time in India was exciting.  We were exposed to some of the most challenging aspects of the growth of large cities. India remains a developing country with a huge population and limited resources. India is now growing in critical ways, which opportunistically may allow it to reduce poverty and build basic infrastructure inclusive of an efficient power grid, modern train network, and efficient, reliable roads.
It is difficult at this point to compare India and China. It is true that they both are regional and global economic powers with huge populations and part of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China).  However, they are very different in terms of geography, culture, costumes, traditions, beliefs, ways of living, and government, Perhaps a good way to begin a comparison is to extract some of the best practices each is conducting in its own realm, and consider its implementation in the other country. Both nations are making large efforts to tackle environmental degradation, pervasive poverty, corruption, lack of education, internal migration, and inequality in general.   It is only fair to try and compare how they achieve these important goals.
The program has ended, and in our return to New York, we begin to collect our thoughts, reflect on the fantastic experience, and for some of us, select topics for our research papers. These past six weeks definitely comprised a life changing experience, one that made us aware of the most difficult challenges cities are facing today in urbanization and environmentalism. Deep poverty, lack of jobs, growing inequality (gender, income, justice, education), garbage disposal, air quality, public transportation, basic infrastructure, government involvement, efficient policy enactment, and public participation are among some of the issues that require prompt attention from scholars, government officials, and policy makers.  These mega urban areas should continue to be centers of production, creativity, and innovation, but should also be places that nurture and strengthen the human spirit 
Many thanks to the coordinators, professors, sponsors, and TAs of this program. It was an intriguing experience and certainly fulfilled all expectations. Hopefully, this pilot program continues because it gives a great opportunity for students interested in urban and sustainability issues to learn first-hand some of the challenges and solutions endemic to the developing world.