Saturday, January 1, 2011

First Impressions of Mumbai

From January 1-15, I am in Mumbai, India participating in a winter institute on sustainable urban development. My group from the Washington University Brown School of Social Work has partnered with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in an effort to create intellectual and cross-cultural learning. The institute focuses on four thematic areas: access to water, solid waste management, financial inclusion, and adequate housing. We are using “group model building” and system dynamics to work directly with the Mumbai slum communities to uncover the root causes to their most pressing problems. I strongly believe this type of work should serve as the cornerstone of our collective efforts to create a sustainable society.

Happy New Year and greetings from Mumbai!  I am here in the Indian financial capital with the Washington University Brown School of Social Work, attending a two week institute focused on sustainable urban development.  We will be working with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to examine how to create better policies and programs for Mumbai’s slums.  Needless to say, I am extremely excited about this opportunity.

During the next two weeks, we will use system dynamics modeling to examine four different areas: 1) access to clean water; 2) solid waste management; 3) financial inclusion in the banking system; 4) adequate housing provisions.  In my next blogpost, I will provide a brief overview of system dynamics and ways it can be used to draw new insights in complex systems, such as the provision of social services in the urban environment.

This blogpost, however, is about my first impressions of Mumbai.  After a very long, 14.5 hour flight, I arrived in India from the Newark.  I took a prepaid taxi with two friends to lodging in Navi (new) Mumbai. While walking to the taxi we were quickly identified as tourists, and as such were offered help with our bags for "small coin."  I have a feeling that we will continue to receive much attention during our stay, as are obviously American tourists.

It takes about an hour’s drive to reach Navi Mumbai from the main city, and during my taxi trip I observed the chaos that is Mumbai traffic.  Everyone drives on the left side of the road in India, as the country follows the pattern of its British colonizers.  The roads in Mumbai are jam-packed with a mix of new automobiles, three-wheeled motorized rickshaws, motor-bikes, and pedestrians.  I've never seen such crazy activity happening in a road before.  Although there are lanes, they appear to be more optional than mandatory.  Motor-bikes weave in and out of traffic, while pedestrians crossed with almost no heed to approaching cars.  There is a constant cacophony of honking, which somehow prevents any collisions from taking place. 

I am staying in the YUVA Center in Navi (new) Mumbai during my two week stay.  YUVA stands for "Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action," and is a non-governmental organization that works for social justice and expanding democracy to the poorest citizens of Mumbai.  Our hosts are very gracious and showed us great hospitality, although we had some difficulty communicating since the YUVA workers we first met knew little English.  

So far, I have very much enjoyed the food in India.  For breakfast, we had white bread with jam and a flat bread vegetarian omelet.  We ate the omelet with Indian Ketchup, which has a slightly different flavor than the more bland American variety.  We were also served coffee, which was in a small mug comparable to the size of an espresso.  While the food was simple, it was very delicious.  We later had lunch at the nearby Three Star Hotel, and sampled various vegetables, naan, curries, and marsalas.  All were extremely tasty.
Navi Mumbai is a mix of traditional Indian customs and Western-style globalization.  The streets are lined with shops for electronics, hair cuts, cyber-cafes, food, medicines, clothing, fitness and almost everything else imaginable.  I was particularly surprised by the Western-style fitness centers, which feature pictures of buff white athletes exercising.  There was also a Domino’s pizza joint, which featured slightly different varieties of the American food favorite.  Apparently, globalization means that even halfway around the world, I can still order an American style pan pizza.

We picked up some provisions from a corner drug store, and then stopped by a cyber-café to access the internet.  The internet was extremely fast, but unfortunately the toilet clogged and flooded the floor while we in the café.  I don’t expect that this is a common occurrence for cyber cafes, but it was certainly an interesting first impression.

Most people in Navi Mumbai wear western dress, although we did see several women in traditional Indian garb.  There was also great disparity in the formality of people’s clothing.  I saw Mumbai residents wearing everything from formal suits to casual T shirts and shorts.  The clothing stores matched this diversity, as some sold saris and Indian fabrics, while others had garments emblazoned with Homer Simpson or 50 Cent.

Some other observations initial observations about Navi Mumbai: Dogs are very common in the city.  On almost every street corner, I saw dogs basking in the sun.  Pigeons are also present, perhaps signaling the extreme adaptability of the bird to urban conditions.  Overall, both the dogs and the pigeons were pretty much ignored by the Mumbai natives.

That sums up my first impressions of Mumbai.  Please keep reading the blog for further updates on my experiences in India, and to follow our work on system dynamics modeling and sustainable urban development.

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