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Witnessing the Slow Death of a City

Whenever I visit home and we sit in traffic or something is wrong, my dad says "This city [Bombay] is dying." I never really understood it; as a short-term visitor to the city every year, in my eyes, yes the traffic had increased, there were more cars on the road, more people, but that probably was a sign of prosperity and growth, if anything. In fact, that sentence always annoyed me; how could someone who's lived here all their life talk about their home town like that? After all, how can anyone talk about my favorite city like that?!?

Then recently, the debate sprung up in a different form, in a different part of the world. On a recent trip to Ghana, a few friends were discussing the merits (or should I say, demerits) of holding an Indian passport and their desire to switch to another nationality. At first, the reason given was the need and inconvenience of getting a visa for visiting almost every country in the world; as the night wore on and the topic was discussed further, the subject expanded to cover the nightlife in Bombay, the strict restrictions that are being placed on eateries, bars and nightclubs and, finally, the infringements on people's freedoms of speech and expression (read: blocking Internet content) that are turning people against the city/country and its moral police.

Shortly after, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that talked about how an overzealous, power hungry cop has run a strict campaign under which he exercises his power by branding young girls at bars as prostitutes or locking up citizens for the pursuit of a hobby. In this instance, the police took into custody a 53-year-old woman who enjoys making chocolates and distributing them to friends and family (sharing the joy, I guess) purely as a hobby. Her only crime was that she used alcohol as a filling in the chocolates which, apparently, is now a criminal offense.

This article points to other ridiculous and almost questionable decisions on the part of the city's local police force. Is it simply a case of too much power in the hands of too few, or power getting to someone's head really quickly? What stuns me is that while this moral police out there is running riot on the average citizen, the real criminals and hoodlums are running rampant in the city and across the rest of the country. What about showing your might in front of them? There have been several other stories of people being roughed up by cops or local thugs in response to their comments on social media sites... Mere opinions or thoughts have been termed as "provocations or explicit material that has the potential to cause disruptions," and subsequently been used to harass the "offenders."

I mean, India has so many other problems that our law enforcement can focus on -- corruption (India ranked 94th out of 176 countries in the global corruption index), poverty (according to the World Bank, as of 2010, about 37 percent of our population lived below the poverty line), illiteracy, female infanticide, etc. I was reading The Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld, in which the author talks about how there are more poor people in India today than there were when we achieved independence. Yes, of course, it is a function of our rapidly growing population, but in 60 odd years since independence we haven't been able to keep pace with that growth, let alone bring it under control and alleviate some of these social evils. And we are worried about alcohol in chocolates! OK, if you don't want to go for the big fish and still wish to focus on the smaller, petty issues, then pay attention to things like destruction of public property, people defecating and urinating in public, simple other such 'crimes' that are probably more damaging to the city and society...

Maybe the signs were there when the city's name was changed to Mumbai in the mid '90s; maybe once we allowed that to happen, it gave our politicians and the powers-that-be a free reign. Or maybe it came later, as we elected one corrupt politician after another and let them pass one restrictive (read: ridiculous) law after another. I only speak of Bombay (by the way, I refuse to, other than in official correspondence, refer to it as Mumbai), because that is what I read about and hear firsthand from my family and friends there. I am sure that similar scenarios exist in other parts of India, too. I mean, in a country with an easily influenced population, religion, morality and the influence of the big bad west on our culture is as easy a bait as any. "We cannot allow couples to hold hands or display affection in public because it goes against the principles of our culture," say some of these politicians. I guess it stems from the top; we really can't blame the local law enforcement officer if the politicians we put in place at the top have no common sense or moral fiber. I was particularly enraged and ashamed when I watched this clip of the West Bengal Chief Minister storm out of a Q&A with college students, accusing them of being Maoists and members of the Communist Party simply because she didn't have a straight answer to their questions! At least the student could see the humor in it, and laugh about it after.

In my travels, I have often gotten the question as to whether I hold an American Green Card or citizenship, or even another nationality. I guess it is a normal question, given how long I have been away from India, but I have always insisted that I will never give up my Indian passport. Maybe, as I watch the slow decline of my favorite city and country, it actually may be time to rethink that stand... Or maybe I just need to be careful about the wine I use to cook my pasta and the liquor-based chocolates I eat; where can I find a permit for those?

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