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The buck stops, in the kingdom of the rich

South Mumbai, a politics-proof island of affluence, was disconnected with the world outside. Now it comes face to face with real life: a terror attack, civic issues and the downturn. Sweta Ramanujan-Dixit reports.

india Updated: Mar 19, 2009 01:05 IST
Sweta Ramanujan-Dixit

You always think it’ll happen to someone else, especially if you live in south Mumbai.

In desultory conversations over brunch, CEOs, stockbrokers and diamond merchants joke about the crumbling infrastructure, the corrupt officials, the ever-present terror threat.

At election time, the jokes continue. Only 44 per cent of the 6 lakh-odd voters registered in the heart of the financial capital came out to vote in 2004.

The rest usually get into their luxury cars and take their families to see a movie.

But 10 terrorists walked into South Mumbai last November with AK-47s and laid siege to Maharashtra’s capital — and in the rattle of gunfire, a slumbering electorate awoke.

As the charred dome of the opulent Taj hotel continues to hang over the pampered heart of India’s commercial capital, there is a growing anger against a system that has failed them.

“26/11 and the global downturn have shaken things up here,” says Indrani Malkani, a citizen activist and resident of plush Malabar Hill.

Malkani spends the days before every election going from door to door urging people to vote. This time, she hopes her job will be easier.

More than 50,000 new voters have been registered in the South Mumbai and South-Central Mumbai Parliamentary constituencies between October 2008 and January 2009.

South Mumbai alone saw over 36,000 applications from people wanting to register.

As a tide of rage culminated in a massive rally outside the Taj hotel a week after the 26/11 attack, chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh — the head of the Congress-NCP government in the state — was hurriedly shunted out.

Security remains a massive poll plank in Mumbai. The other burning issue is the economy. The Skodas and BMWs may still be cruising along the streets here, but it’s getting harder to get the once-extravagant townie to spend.

The three sectors this area thrives on — real estate, diamond-trading and financial services — are feeling the heat of the global meltdown.

The diamond industry has suffered a 25 to 30 per cent drop in trading figures and wants a bailout package.

Property prices and rentals have dropped by 30 per cent in the last four months as even the wealthiest tenants in one of India’s wealthiest cities flinch from paying lakhs in rent every month.

“The only place money is flowing is into safe instruments like fixed deposits,” says fund manager and Malabar Hill resident Rajiv Anand.

At a plush café overlooking the ocean, 31-year-old Amit Ahuja's (name changed) life is changing too. “I never thought about my spending. And I never imagined I would be out of a job,” he says. “I was expecting the good times to continue.”

Ahuja was earning a hefty salary with an investment company. He is now willing to work at call centres and is preparing for the long, crowded commute to the suburbs every day.