It’s 6:30am and the Inorbit shopping mall in Mumbai has already been open for an hour and a half. But it’s not shoppers who are using the deserted aisles and the empty car park outside.
Every morning, groups of walkers and even the occasional runner descend on the 34,000m2 center in the northern suburb of Malad to exercise before the rest of the city wakes up.
“The walk makes me feel energetic and sets me up for the day,” said Ravi Wikar, whose daily constitutional takes him on a circular route past shuttered shops and up and down the switched-off escalators.
“I walk every morning from 6:30am and do about 3km on average,” said the 37-year-old businessman, dressed in a white baseball cap, white T-shirt, red tracksuit bottoms and running shoes.
The concept of using a closed shopping center as a place to exercise doesn’t seem strange to the 50 or so regular mall walkers of Malad, most of whom are senior citizens with ailments from arthritis to diabetes. It’s born out of necessity.
India’s financial and entertainment capital is chronically congested. Haphazard urban development has seen green spaces covered in concrete for apartment and office blocks, leaving those that remain packed even before dawn.
Roads and pavements are poorly maintained, while daily traffic gridlock combines with extreme heat and humidity to push up smog and pollution levels. Add rash driving and exercising outdoors becomes difficult or often impossible.
In contrast, the smooth surfaces of the shopping center aisles and flat, tarmac car park are less stressful on ageing joints than the often rutted, undulating tracks of nearby public parks.
“Someone can pick you up afterwards, but if you go to the parks, they can’t,” said Ranjan Kar, a retired media executive who is Wikar’s walking partner.
The walkers also say that with lighting and security guards everywhere — anyone walking inside the center still has to go through a metal detecting arch and be searched — it’s also safer.
“Walking on the roads ... there’s bad people also,” Wikar said, fingering the gold neck chain under his T-shirt. “It’s possible you can get mugged.”
“It’s calm and quiet and there’s no fumes from the cars,” added retired draftsman Prabhakar Kishambare, 70, who typically does three to four laps around the car park every morning.
For Neera Punj, convenor of the Citizens’ Forum for the Protection of Public Spaces or CitiSpace, the emergence of mall-walking sums up the problems facing Mumbai.
“The state of the remaining open spaces is deplorable,” she said. “That’s why we’re getting to the point where we’re getting mall-walkers.”
CitiSpace says there are just 380 hectares of parks, recreation grounds and gardens for an official population of about 14 million.
The unofficial population is thought to be over 18 million — more than in the Netherlands as a whole. In comparison, London, with nearly 8 million people, has more than 4,000 hectares of publicly accessible open space, while New York City has about 11,700 hectares for about the same number of residents.
“It’s miniscule compared to what the national building norms recommend,” Punj said. “It recommends four acres [1.6 hectares] for every 1,000 people, but what we have is 0.03 acres. Space isn’t a luxury. It’s absolutely mandatory and essential for a person’s well-being.”