By Nadine Wagstaff
B Science (Environmental Science and Geography), 2012-2015
The second you enter Mumbai you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of people living in this diverse city. Space is a rare commodity.
The battle for space – physical space – in a mega-city of 20 million is what strikes me most. But I can also see there is a struggle for people to find space for privacy, visibility, unity and identity. The battle for ‘space’ in Mumbai is representative of many of India’s wider battles. Globally, India strives to be an influential nation, an economic superpower. Within India, the battle for economic and social space is pervasive. The North contests the South, lower castes battle for equal rights with the privileged, women struggle against the patriarchy, rural communities seek access to resources enjoyed by urban dwellers, the informal strive for formality and the poor struggle for the wealth of the rich. Immediate, clashing comparisons between the use of space can be seen in the location of informal dwellings or slums tucked in between and around areas of wealth and privilege.
In these first two days I’ve learnt that India is a nation of diverse peoples and realities, each trying to carve out a place in the promised new nation; a free, united and equal India. So how can I best describe how we have seen this battle for unity, equality and place after a few classes on caste, religion, gender, nationalism and governance and a half-day city tour? For me, the Mumbai traffic and the advertising billboards that plaster the city are metaphors for Mumbaikars’ struggle for space.
Mumbai’s roads are packed with cars, taxis, bicycles, pedestrians, rickshaws, carts, scooters, dogs, monkeys and everything in-between. Each asserts a claim to the cramped and limited road, each with varying degrees of success. Lanes, dividers and signals are often missing, seemingly creating an ‘every man for himself’ style of survival. But is it? Are social differences actually played out in the traffic scenario? The newer, more expensive cars of the well-heeled traverse the city largely unscathed, while older, cheaper cars bear the dents and bruises of many a lost battle for space on the road. Larger trucks and buses use sheer size and force to navigate the roads, demonstrating a raw style of governance and power. Motorbikes and scooters represent the smaller stakeholders in society – sometimes able to skirt around the periphery of the traffic, yet vulnerable to the flux and power of the larger vehicles tearing past. Everything else on the road could represent India’s treasured individualism. These individual players in the battle for space hold a different power- the ability to sometimes travel adjacent to the larger movements of the city – swept along by forces larger than themselves.
The struggle for cultural space and identity is evident in the advertising splashed across valuable public spaces in Mumbai. As a citizen of a consumer society I can use these billboards to gain insights into some aspects of the local culture. Western-style ads dominate public spaces, clashing with the surrounding society. Many are located on the walls and roofs of slum huts. The ads display Western consumerism, materialism and ‘modern’ gender roles to a society that has different values. Women in ads often wear Western clothing, pose provocatively and appear to move around unrestricted. This notion stands in stark contrast to the few conservatively or traditionally dressed women seen on Mumbai’s streets. Such advertisements encroaches into their limited and contested space, sitting uneasily in a society struggling with stark inequalities of gender and wealth.
But, despite the daily struggle for space and apparent chaos, Mumbai appears to function well, with signs of community, sustainability and opportunity. Each player in this city seems to have found some space, providing hope for a future and more inclusive democracy.