What parallels can Mumbai draw from New York vs Amazon?
The svayamvar-style wooing of a corporate may not happen where Mumbai contends with dozens of cities but the city has given primacy to private interests over the public in different ways.Updated: Feb 21, 2019 07:37 IST
Eight weeks back, in the annual round-up of trends on urban issues, this column had traced the story of Amazon Inc being wooed by more than 200 cities in the United States for its second headquarters and how the company owned by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, had attempted to extract maximum tax breaks in return for bringing jobs and revenues to a city with its HQ2. A lot has happened since, which leaves us, wherever we may in the world watching and participating in urban issues, with important lessons.
On February 14, as New York wrapped itself in Valentine’s red, Amazon called off its relationship with the city for HQ2. New York’s Long Island City was one of two cities which Amazon had settled upon in November last year after more than a year of city-shopping; the other was Crystal City, near Washington DC. The murmurs against the Amazon deal had begun in sections of New Yorkers — residents, local elected officials — even as the company declared its decision.
The resistance gathered momentum as weeks went by. By mid-February, the sides backing and opposing Amazon were locked in a war-like antagonism.
There were two significant issues at the heart of the battle: $3 billion in subsidies and tax breaks that NY local governments were offering the giant corporate and it bypassing the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure and pushing city officials into a signing a non-disclosure agreement
Amazon would have squatted on at least 8 million sq ft across several buildings, created 25,000 jobs and given $27.5 billion in revenue over 25 years. New York governor Andrew Cuomo and mayor Bill de Blasio were steadfast in their support of the deal but local councils were not.
As the backlash escalated, Cuomo and de Blasio announced that a community advisory committee would be set up to solicit inputs from local stakeholders. The NY city council held two meetings with Amazon’s officials – both riotous – mocked the “Hunger Games-style bidding process” and passed a law that prohibits NY City from signing NDAs with corporates.
Eventually, Amazon pulled out saying “A number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward”. The backlash to the backlash has begun with conservatives mocking democrat socialists like NY congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her anti-Amazon stance. The last chapter of this saga is yet to be written.
What parallels could we draw in Mumbai? Of course, the city has not actively wooed any major corporate or signed off a large land parcel along with handsome incentives — yet. That’s on the face of it. The svayamvar-style wooing of a corporate may not happen where Mumbai contends with dozens of cities but the city has given primacy to private interests over the public in different ways.
The resonance from the NY-Amazon battle is about a city’s resources, how they should be distributed, whether elected representatives have a say in this, how much the city administration will bend over backwards to accommodate the wealthy and powerful, and importantly, if processes are transparent.
The story of how Mumbai got hardly any land worth its salt of the textile mills’ land spread over nearly 600 acres still hurts many of us. Central Mumbai could have rewritten the rules of urban development in the country, become an equitable place for all Mumabiites; it’s now a congested set of tall buildings along flyovers for the few who can afford the space.
The story is set to be repeated with Mumbai’s eastern waterfront, a nearly contiguous span worth seven Marine Drives and inner areas. The Mumbai Port Trust, in whose control it lies, will not hand over the land to be integrated into the city and comprehensively redeveloped. Less than 8% of the nearly 2,400 acres will be available to Mumbai’s citizens.
The Bandra Kurla Complex was developed with public funds but is an exclusive precinct now. Outside the city, large tracts or parcels of land have been bought by the powerful to make mega-cities and special zones. The civic body and state government have routinely written off taxes or not bothered to renew lease agreements made at a pittance with large landowners years ago.
The rules of engagement between cities and private wealth are being rewritten across the world. NY landed on the right side, the side of its citizens. What about Mumbai?