Mumbai's island city: Less crowded than in 2001

Mumbai's island city: Less crowded than in 2001

But your average Mumbaikar still shares a square kilometer with 20,038 others
Mumbai train station
"The city is becoming more expensive and it is harder to find a job here so Mumbai is starting to attract more educated, wealthy migrants and fewer poor rural migrants," says one academic.

Look at this population density map of the world. The most densely-packed regions tend to be colored in dark red to purple, as if to say: "Stop, it's getting crowded here."

Mumbai is one of those dark blobs on the world map, bursting with people, and we don't need a graphic visualization to know that we live in one of the world's most densely populated cities.

Google population mapA Google rendering of human populations in a common geo-referenced framework.The trains, streets and few public parks in the metropolis are literally swarming with people.

This is part of the reason why regionalist parties have used the city's alleged over-population as their rallying cry to limit inward migration from the poorer northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Yet, despite the impression one gets when walking Mumbai's streets, the population of the island city is actually shrinking.

Moving to the suburbs

According to the 2011 Census of India, the island city recorded a negative population growth rate of 5.75 percent over the past decade.

In 2001, the population of Mumbai district was 33.26 lakh. Today, it is 31.45 lakh.

Part of the reason why Mumbai district's population has gone down is that people in the island city are seeking a higher quality of life in the suburbs, which witnessed an 8.01 percent growth rate in 2011.

Increasing numbers of Mumbai's residents have moved to suburbs like Kharghar, Thane, Badlapur, Belapur, Panvel, and Kalyan–Dombivli, those far-flung destinations advertised on the back of taxis where rent is lower and facilities are in less demand.

RB Bhagat, head of migration and urban studies at the International Institute of Population at Deonar, says that migration to the city is also becoming more selective.

"The city is becoming more expensive and it is harder to find a job here so Mumbai is starting to attract more educated, wealthy migrants and fewer poor rural migrants," says the academic.

Decreasing birth rate

Despite being portrayed as having a mushrooming, out-of-control population growth, India's Maximum City is slowly stabilizing its population growth rate.

This is partially thanks to the dip in its birth rate, which is currently at 1.6 children per woman, according to Bhagat, who points out that the number is below the replacement level of two children per couple.

Demographers have welcomed the news as lower birth rates have typically been associated with higher literacy and quality of life, as parents are able to invest more money in fewer children.

Indeed, the literacy in Maharashtra is reported to have gone up from 76.8 percent in 2001 to 82.9 percent this year, a trend which is most felt in Mumbai and Greater Mumbai, which accounts for 8.9 percent of the state's population.

While the population dip in Mumbai is positive news, the increased population in the suburbs is not without problems.

Despite moving out of Mumbai, many suburban residents still have jobs in the island city. This means there is a further burden being placed on the city's strained commuter system.

Anand Shinde, a small business owner who moved from Colaba to Navi Mumbai in 2009 says, "It's very quiet here and there is less traffic than in town but I need to travel four hours every day to get to my job."

How many people is enough?

While population growth in some parts of Mumbai is decreasing, the city's population density is still very high when compared globally.

Currently, your average Mumbaikar shares a square kilometer with 20,038 other people, compared with 10,630 people per square kilometer in New York and 4,907 people per square kilometer in London.

That means that Mumbai's residents need to deal with more pollution, more waste and more noise than the majority of residents in other world cities.

With such a high population density, is it fair to say that the city is over-populated?

"The question of over-population is an irrelevant question," says Bhagat, interestingly.

"One needs to look at this in a historical perspective. The city has grown from a small town to a large city. With this growth, there has been a growth in services, and in local economy. As long as the city has the capacity to handle these numbers, it is not a problem," he adds.

The question of whether the city can handle the multitudes of people who call Mumbai their home, depends largely on urban planning and development.

"At the moment, there is no single body in charge of the city," laments Bhagat. "We have the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and many other bodies. This is a problem. Who is really in charge of the city?"

Until that question is answered, the slow-down in the city's population growth will be little source of celebration.

Amana is a freelance feature writer based in Mumbai.
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