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'So very little is being done for our security, it makes me nervous'

April 27, 2009

The 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai led Meera Sanyal, India head of ABN-Amro Bank, to take a sabbatical from her job and run for the election.

Like many Mumbaikars, she found the terror attacks on Mumbai especially disturbing. But rather than wrestle with anger and bewilderment like most of us, the 47-year-old banker resolved to try and make a difference, and hence her bid to become a member of Parliament from Mumbai South constituency, the country's richest.

Since April, Sanyal opted to shelve her day-to-day involvement with investment, project finance, man-management etc in order to construct a credible election campaign for herself

Sanyal, who grew up partly in tony south Mumbai and is the daughter of a retired vice-admiral and former vice-chief of the naval staff, has had special involvement with ABN Amro's corporate social responsibility projects that focus on women empowerment through livelihood, tribals, environment, wildlife and more. She also runs SUPPORT, a Mumbai-based NGO that helps street children with addiction issues and HIV.

The banker feels that her 25 years in finance and responsible banking lends her much more experience than the other candidates in the fray from Mumbai South. She believes Indian politics sorely needs professionals, Meera Sanyal tells's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel in an interview.

What are the main issues facing Mumbai from an independent candidate's standpoint?

There are a couple of big issues.

Let's start with terrorism. This is the financial capital of the country. It has been the target of terrorist attacks since 2001, and has received repeated threats. I have been a member of a regional Bank of India panel in terms of securing the financial infrastructure of this country. And when you look at it, it is clear that we are vulnerable. We are vulnerable in terms of our financial institutions and we are vulnerable in terms of all our institutions. It is very clear.

And since November 26, 2008, not much has actually been done to beef up our security. I've had discussions with the naval command. I have had discussions with police officers. If you look at the reports in newspapers, money has been sanctioned. But money hasn't been spent. We need an immediate urgent allocation of funds for bullet-proof vests, helmets and guns for police officers.

If you go to Leopold Cafe (in south Mumbai that was the target of a terrorist attack on 26/11), the poor policeman standing outside still has a (Lee-Enfield) gun. If you cross Oberoi Hotel at night the policemen who are off-duty are sleeping on the pavement outside the hotel. This is a complete outrage. I am the daughter of a naval officer. It really makes my blood boil to see uniformed personnel being treated this way. So very little is being done for our security. That makes me nervous.

Let us move a little beyond security. Let's talk about the life of the ordinary Mumbaikar. Over 80 lakh people are travelling every day on the trains on the Central, Western and Harbour railway lines. Four thousand people die on the railway tracks every year. They don't even have stretchers to pick up the bodies. We are talking of the most basic facilities.

Yesterday I was in a walk with the disabled, which went from Eros (cinema in south Mumbai) to Oval Maidan to Azad Maidan. It is not a very long walk. I have to tell you that it was hard for me, as a normally able-bodied person, to walk on the pavements. It was just chaotic for the wheelchairs. Two wheelchairs went out of operation as we were coming along because basically the road was so bad.

There was not a single handicapped friendly toilet anywhere. There were no ramps for people to come off and on the pavements. And when we tried to cut across to reach Azad Maidan, that was not possible because we had to walk all the way to Metro cinema (in south Mumbai) and around to get there. There is no planning of any kind.

I was walking with people -- there were parents of handicapped children -- one man said, 'Madam, we are building so many skywalks. There is not a single skywalk with a ramp. There is a skywalk being built between the (northwestern suburb of) Bandra station and Lilavati hospital (also in Bandra). Who are the people who go to hospitals? Should there be some facility for them? Should at least one of them be made handicapped enabled?

You know these are small things that we don't think about on a regular basis. But what it does show is the absolutely lack of planning (in Mumbai).

Look at what is happening on Peddar Road (where the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation announced closure of north-bound lane for repairs, cancelled it due to pressure from citizens, and went back to its original plan). Can anyone explain what is happening there? First they shut it down, then they opened it. They are doing work on Nepean Sea road (in south Mumbai) and destroying parts of houses. They are moving trees, cutting down trees. Why is there no planning and why is there no forward thinking in terms of all of this?

What I talked about were very local issues. People will say why should a member of Parliament be focusing on local issues? The first thing I would like to say is that as a member of Parliament you represent your constituency and you need to makes sure that the problems of the constituency are addressed and that you represent that constituency in Parliament.

Both the issues I have talked about -- security and public transport -- there is an interface with the national government. Why is there no National Security Guard contingent based in Mumbai? As we just said, this is a city that is going to be the target of terrorist attacks, so we do need a unit of NSG here.

Who is negotiating for that? Who is asking for it?

Let's talk about public transport. Railways is a central government subject. Who is having that discussion with the ministry of railways?

Let's talk about environment. Mumbai is a city where -- whether you believe in climate change or not -- if the water level rises the city is going to be very severely impacted. This year on July 29 they are predicting the highest ever tide of the century. Are we geared up to cope with this?

These are basic questions. What is happening in terms of all of this? These are the kinds of things that I feel needs to be addressed.

Image: Independent candidate from Mumbai South, Meera Sanyal, drinking 'cutting chai', the quintessential Mumbai beverage, while on her campaign.

Also see: Why Captain Gopinath is contesting the election | India Votes