Inequality in Mumbai has inspired prize-winning photographs. Who doesn’t recall the clichéd one of a jet-liner flying in to land over filthy slums? It has motivated award-winning films. Remember Slumdog Millionaire, to name a recognisable one.
Inequality has formed the bedrock of numerous study papers and dissertations, including in premier foreign universities. It has spawned a cottage industry of blame-game, name-calling and victimhood.
But inequality has never made it to the one table that it should be at — the high table of political and bureaucratic decision-making, where grand plans and vision documents to transform the city into a global megapolis are inked. Often, it is not even articulated by name in the long list of criteria that planners and urban designers use to draw alternative plans for Mumbai.
Just how deep and pervasive is inequality in Mumbai? It remains a matter of projections, overlaying competing data sets, and anecdotal evidence in the absence of a comprehensive and authoritative study. In simplest terms, inequality denotes extravagant wealth and lifestyle of a few at one end juxtaposed by the daily struggles to access basic services by many. But the urban divide takes on physical, social and geographical aspects.
Oxfam, the anti-poverty charity, informed us this week that the world’s top 1% owns 48% of its global wealth, up from 44% five years ago, and will likely corner more than half the world’s wealth next year. The rest of us world citizens, the 99 percent-ers, must share the remaining 52% for now and less next year.
Mumbai was home to 28 of the 100 billionaires in India and ranked fourth in top 10 Asian cities in terms of their billionaire population in October 2014, the Billionaires Census 2014 by international wealth research and advisory firms informed us. The annual average income of a Mumbaiite was Rs3.54 lakh last year, stated an estimate by Forbes, the magazine that annually presents its list of billionaires.
But inequality is more than a gap in the highest and lowest income.
It is the difference between queuing up at 3.30am at the community tap for water and sloshing a SUV with 50 litres in a car wash. Or a family of five occupying 60,000 square feet when a large majority of families make do with a 100 square feet or at best 1,000 square feet. Or blowing up in a night of revelry so obscene an amount that it would pay monthly food bills of hundreds of families. Or civic schools shutting down as international ones open.
“The contrasts in living standards are of a magnitude not seen anywhere else in the country,” said the human development report for Mumbai six years ago, “Two distinct cities exist within one.” The report found wide disparities on social and health parameters like literacy, sex ratio, morbidity rate, family space, and mental stress between families at two ends of the economic spectrum. The contrasts must have sharpened since then, in keeping with the worldwide trend.
Inequality should matter to city planners and decision-makers for it impacts opportunity and mobility, especially for the poorest, in ways that other factors in urban areas do not. It has the capacity for social disruption and, eventually, urban disintegration. And of course, it is morally repugnant.
There is a heap of international literature on how a child’s neighbourhood affects his/her chances in life, how cities are being hollowed out by inequalities, and so on. The relationship between inequality, poverty, geography and opportunity in a city is now so stark that Mumbai’s decision-makers can ignore only at the peril of the city’s future.
In the early days of urbanisation, inequality had a spatial quality. Affluence was limited to certain areas of a city which in Mumbai would be pockets in the downtown and a handful of western suburbs.
As it sharpened in the last decade, inequality became fragmented and cut across space. It is now everywhere, though a lot more visible in areas that represent the lower end of the economic pyramid.
Economists say inequality is inevitable. In a marketdriven economy, it certainly is. Planners must go beyond such beliefs to imagine integration and inclusiveness as they plan for Mumbai. To not do so would be foolish.