To understand why the urgent rejuvenation of Mumbai is central to what Barack Obama called “India assuming its rightful place in the world”, it’s important to take a look at a little plaque near the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel.
“Urbs prima in Indus.” The primary city of India, says the plaque affixed to the Gateway of India, the towering basalt arch symbolising a city that for more than 150 years has embodied a nation’s dreams, desperation, perils and possibilities.
More than 60% of Mumbai’s 18 million people now live in slums. You get a shabby one-bedroom flat for the price of a Singapore penthouse.
Prithiviraj Chavan, like almost all the seven chief ministers in 11 years, has been imposed from New Delhi.
Yet, from his glass-walled office, offering a panorama of South Mumbai’s high rises and a shimmering Arabian sea, Rajiv Anand explains how he and hundreds of companies in India’s newest and largest sector cannot move to any other city in India — not just now.
Obscured by the noisier but smaller manufacturing and outsourcing industries, financial services, managed by some of the brightest global and Indian minds, now drive decrepit Mumbai and generate a fifth of India’s $1.3 trillion gross domestic product (GDP).
“We are the oil that drives the economy,” says Anand, managing director and CEO of Axis Mutual Fund.
Stately, old Bombay was built on muscle and machine, flourishing in the late 18th century as an entrepot situated on
the world’s premier trade routes. Today’s Mumbai, despite its collapsing infrastructure — upto 15 people pack into a square foot of space on its rush-hour trains — is similarily positioned in the geographical centre of the world’s money markets.
“Few cities have been blessed with more by nature,” writes historian Mariam Dossal in her recent book Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope.
It’s 2 pm in Mumbai when the money markets open in London. It’s 6 pm when New York starts trading. Singapore, Hong Kong or Dubai, none of these great cities can match Mumbai’s great advantage in striving to be the world’s next global money centre.
Maharashtra’s new chief minister can now take Mumbai down one of two routes: further into decrepitude or towards global financial stardom.
“If Chavan means business, he’s going to have to urgently clean-up a vastly corrupt and inefficient administration that is profitably but horribly intertwined with the multi-billion-dollar lobby of builders,” said the Managing Director of one of India’s leading automobile companies, speaking on condition of anonymity.
This profitable relationship between politicians, bureaucrats and builders has pushed up property prices to levels that are topped only, in part, by Hong Kong, London and New York.
Unlike the old Bombay, a city-state much like Delhi today, modern Mumbai’s biggest problem — like Bangalore, similarily in decline — has been that its politicians, elected from the state beyond, Maharashtra.
So, unlike Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit who is directly elected by her city, her party counterparts in Mumbai feel no pressure to perform, only to profit from a city that generates about half of India’s income-tax revenues.
In the decade Delhi threw up a world-class metro system, Mumbai has managed just one new mega-infrastructure project: a 5.6-km coastal expressway, the Bandra-Worli Sealink. Last month, seven months after all its eight lanes were opened, it experienced its first traffic jam.
Those who pay up and keep Mumbai going are now looking beyond.
“In the next 10-15 years, if this city’s decline continues, could financial services move out?” asked Anand. “Yes.”