Plan for a Times Square in Mumbai stirs criticism

Written By Unknown on Rabu, 05 November 2014 | 22.23

MUMBAI: It was a bold, if somewhat mystifying, proposal.

In an effort to bolster tourism, India's new central government laid out plans last month to transform parts of one of Mumbai's oldest and most charming neighborhoods into a "cultural hub." The inspiration: Times Square in New York City.

The details of the planned renewal of Kala Ghoda, which means "black horse" in Hindi, read like a blueprint for an ersatz replica. A massive video screen and a 15-foot Indian flag would loom over the neighborhood's maze of century-old buildings and the occasional historic monument. Tourists could snap selfies with costumed film and cartoon characters. The hubbub would be streamed live online.

"We'll have a fair. We'll have jugglers. It'll be an outing. It'll be buzzing," said Valsa Nair Singh, managing director of the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation, a state-level body that coordinates with the Ministry of Tourism, which released the plans.

The proposal hits all the right economic notes. Tourism figures high into the Indian government's plans for economic revival, and getting Mumbai's copious business travelers to stay an extra night would be a major boost to a lagging luxury sector. Last year, more than four million foreign tourists visited Mumbai and other sites in the state of Maharashtra, the highest rate in the country.

But locals aren't exactly thrilled with the idea, which may not even be legal. Preservation groups and residents associations have denounced the plans, citing the potential noise pollution and the lack of parking space. Urban planners and real estate lawyers say the proposal may violate India's stringent building codes in historic areas.

"The Times Square model is a nonstarter," said Maneck Davar, honorary chairman of the Kala Ghoda Association, a nonprofit that undertakes cultural preservation projects. "This is the first time the government has ever expressed interest in helping us develop Kala Ghoda, and we appreciate that, but we told them, 'Sorry, you cannot do this because the area is an official silent zone and heritage district that certainly cannot have full facade signage.' "

India's Supreme Court passed rulings in the early 2000s that bar large advertisements in designated heritage precincts like Kala Ghoda and prohibit construction projects that would disturb the relative silence around judicial, religious and educational institutions like the Bombay High Court, Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue and Elphinstone College, all dating to the colonial era. Changing the exteriors of such buildings, many of which would feature on any postcard from Mumbai, is also disallowed in India's heritage preservation laws.

Santosh Desai, a columnist and author who has written extensively about India's middle class and consumer culture, chalked up the proposal to a rushed charge to proclaim India's presence on the global map of modern urban sightseeing.

"Here," he said, "we have a strong desire to say 'We have arrived,' or 'We have caught up.' We want to communicate scale, but we are impatient with details. Building a simple road in this country is a nightmare, but our government is quick to trumpet projects like an expressway or a bullet train."

As a government representative, Singh said she, too, was troubled by the plans. "See, I wear two hats, one for tourism and the other for culture," she said. "True, it's not by aping another place that you attain the balance between the two. But we do want every traveler to spend an extra night here."

Anand Kumar, a former joint secretary in the Tourism Ministry who oversaw the drafting of the government's plans, said that it made sense to focus on heritage-rich areas like Kala Ghoda because it creates compact tourist districts. Luxury hotels and restaurants are already clustered in Kala Ghoda and neighboring Colaba. As for choosing New York as a model, Kumar said that his office wanted to communicate ambition, and that "everyone knows that Times Square is the center of the world."

In trying to connect Kala Ghoda to Times Square, the government has drawn upon a longstanding set of both real and imagined parallels between Mumbai and New York City.

Both cities' natural harbors lured colonial trading companies in the 1600s, which in turn attracted mass settlement of coastal areas. Now, the two cities are home to their countries' biggest urban populations, and they serve as their financial and entertainment capitals. Occasionally, Mumbai is even referred to as the Big Banana.

A number of tourist trappings already exist in Kala Ghoda. Street vendors, in a familiar organized pedestrian chaos, sell campy T-shirts, plastic cellphone accessories and fake pashmina shawls.

Yet a trip to Kala Ghoda, like most urban spaces in India, is a chance to encounter other, less tourist-friendly realities like homelessness and stray animals. Last month, beggars here slept on the pavement while a cacophonous stampede of office workers streamed out of the Bombay Stock Exchange and flies thronged the nearby remains of a dead cat.

Absent government intervention, the district seems to be developing its own style. Cafes and art galleries have sprouted up in the neighborhood and its periphery, coalescing around increasingly popular museums like the Jehangir Art Gallery and National Gallery of Modern Art.

Since 1999, the Kala Ghoda Association has also been putting on an annual nine-day arts festival, with hundreds of free musical, literary and other types of events. The festival's website says 150,000 people attended last year.

Rather than disrupt Kala Ghoda's transformation into a genuine arts district, said Abha Narain Lambah, a conservation architect and historic building consultant, there are plenty of other places in Mumbai on which the government could concentrate. In the areas around Lower Parel and the Bandra Kurla Complex, for instance, dozens of high-rise commercial and residential buildings have been built in the last decade.

"It would be better to convert existing spaces, particularly because when the government wants to force a particular land use, the question of compensation always becomes a problem," said Ashutosh Limaye, the head of research at Jones Lang LaSalle in India. "In Kala Ghoda, that's an even bigger challenge because businesses down there may have been situated there for more than 100 years. The neighborhood is actually an ecosystem."

Davar, of the Kala Ghoda Association, said he was confident his government would eventually come around to the idea that preserving heritage and supporting events like the arts festival would be best for the neighborhood, and the country.

"When you find art on the walls of caves, you don't rub it off and paint over it," Davar said. "Each age discovers its own idiom, and we define ourselves through that history. Future generations can't live in a timeless void. There has to be a reference point." Square,Maneck Davar,Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation,kala ghoda,black horse

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