Monday, June 18, 2012

Mumbai, Money and the Monsoons

Our driver let out a muted groan as he was waved to the side of the busy Mumbai road by a police officer, one of a small cadre of uniformed men who stood at the intersection. We negotiated our way to the curb despite the motorized rickshaws, blue cabs, motorcycles and jaywalking pedestrians, all of whom were intent upon weaving their way through the midday traffic. Like well-trained dancers, the drivers slipped by each other, nosing out anyone who hesitated to completely occupy the road surface in front of them, lunging from lane to lane, and squeezing through impossibly narrow gaps with the nonchalant confidence of a matador. Chaotic choreography, each participant knew the game and his or her limits and potential. We had been making great headway through the crowded streets until plucked from the stream by the traffic cop, like a fisherman snags a trout and reels it into his net, thinking of nothing but the meal soon to be enjoyed.
The crestfallen look on our driver's face foreshadowed the mini-drama that was to play out. He stepped out of the car to face the policeman, papers in hand. The officer, his sweat-soaked shirt evidencing the heat and humidity endured by his work, took them and headed for the shade of a small tree while motioning our driver to join him. At that moment, I was not sure who to feel sorry for; our soon to be ticketed driver or the underpaid policeman contending with the variable weather, ever present pollution, or the danger from aggressive drivers unhappy about being pulled over. The cop did a cursory inspection of the papers and the car while engaging in what appeared to be perfunctory discussion with our driver. Ten minutes passed.

The fine for having the backseat privacy glass being too dark was 1200 Rupee (about $24). But the real problem was that payment of the fine would involve a time-consuming trip to the police station and potentially hours of bureaucratic hassle. As was typical, the officer, needing extra funds to provide necessaries for his family, accepted the 200 Rupee ($4)offered by our driver in order to dispense with the ticket. It was a win/win proposition, and only the government, which quietly relied on this expedient way to backfill the impossibly low police pay, lost revenue.
This was how the country functions in many ways I was told; systemic and seemingly irresolvable corruption. India's political and economic processes were rife with well-established kickback and payoff schemes. At higher levels, such corruption did not just enable the politicians and bureaucrats to make ends meet, as in the case of the traffic cop, but made them rich.

We drove away from the small squad of police and continued edging our way through traffic in silence, except for the incessant sound of beeping horns announcing the presence of another vehicle or its imminent movement. No doubt my driver was mourning the loss of some of his profit for the day (given that my fixed cost for the eight hours was 2000 Rupee, about $40, including gas). My mind was struggling with what it would take for India's population to cure the incurable, fix the systemically broken and bring about change at an acceptable cost. It was then that my eyes focused on what I had been staring at, but not actually seeing, through the side window of the car.
On the other side of the low wall of concrete that defined the edge of the overpass we were on was one of the many slum areas in Mumbai. India has more slums than any other country.  From my vantage point it was nothing but a sea of corrugated metal rooftops, blue or orange tarps and stacks of garbage. While some degree of poverty was evident in most parts of this huge metropolitan area, the hopelessly poor who were found in these slums were tucked away and unknown to many whom even lived in city. I had asked a number of local residents about the movie "Slum Dog Millionaire", and how they felt about it. Many were disgusted by its portrayal of their city, arguing that the movie glamorized and popularized the slums of Mumbai while unfairly villainizing the rest of the city. Most of those responses came from people who despite living there had never been to the slums themselves. A few that I spoke to argued that the plight of those in slums was real even if fictionalized by the movie, and for that reason deserved approval. No one seemed to have an answer to address the symptoms of the poverty problem. Most seemed to think that it was hopeless, at least in the short run.

In some ways, my time in Mumbai left me more troubled than other cities we had visited. Perhaps because it was bigger and more complex than many others. Or maybe it was because of the significant gap between the poor and the rich. Or it could simply be that this developing country, with the second largest population in the world, was facing such seemingly insurmountable challenges.
As we drove on the clouds were gathering. The monsoons were overdue. The city longed to be cleansed by the June rains.

PS.  pictures to follow.

1 comment:

  1. Reminds me of the novel, and later movie, A Passage to India. The overwhelming factors that stymie the westerners attempts to understand and participate with values intact...have you read the book?
    "insurmountable" is a big word with a scary definition.