When dhandho leaves Mumbai

The business capital of India is losing its place to Delhi, and grumbling will do no good. The resilient city must help itself before it’s too late


Geetanjali Minhas | January 4, 2017 | Mumbai

#Urban Development   #Delhi Economy   #Business Centre   #Mumbai   #Delhi   #Economy  

Mumbai is a proud city. There are two kinds of pride. The first kind is fairly common, more so in India. It’s inherited from one generation to another, it’s transmitted by mere association and reflection in its glory. The primary characteristic of such pride is a sense of entitlement and an illusionary self-indulgent premium-ness. Think of the sundry minor royalties gracing page 3 glossies. Also think Lucknow. The second kind is uncommon, more so in India. It’s built by enterprise and hard work, it’s transmittable only if you prove yourself and reflection is at best a by-product. Think Ranveer Singh, Shah Rukh Khan, Dhirubhai Ambani. Also think Mumbai.

READ: How a sarkari city overtook Mumbai as a business centre

Mumbai is going down a rabbit hole, sliding rapidly into an abyss. The city and its people know it. For a city that is proud about the way it has built its pride, it’s a bucket of ice cold water poured over its head. The highly respected Oxford Economics report on Future Cities 2030 is yet another crystal warning shot that the city is losing its unique perch as the financial capital of India to its long-time competitor and seeming nemesis Delhi. To admit the loss of top position is not easy for a proud city that’s runs on immense self-belief, enterprise, can-do spirit, open arms and a vibrant culture.  Not the last two anymore, say several Mumbaikars, who are tough as nails and as no-nonsense as the city. 

READ: The mind, the heart, and two great cities

“The first downfall of Mumbai was initiated by Shiv Sena in the 1960s,” says Anita Patil-Deshmukh who is the executive director of Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research (PUKAR), a civil society organisation that works extensively with marginalised communities to empower them to take control of their spaces and environment. “Bombay was an island city of Koli fishermen and Pathare Prabhu communities. It had no industry and everyone was a migrant. After the British brought the textile industry into the city it became a city of migrant workers, diverse in character, spirit and culture. The mill owners, who were originally only lease holders of the land, broke down the mills after realising that the value of land had risen. Around the same time, the Shiv Sena came about and said that Mumbai belonged only to Maharashtrians.”

Anita’s knowledge comes from a knowing that can only be experiential. She and her family have lived in the city when it was truly open and secular Bombay. She has also seen her sister, the late actress Smita Patil, fiercely fight for the city’s cosmopolitan values, humility and secular spirit through her films, theatre and social work. Her father Shivaji Rao Patil, who was awarded a Padma Bhushan, and her mother Vidya Patil are well known social and political activists who have upheld the values of equity and social justice through their lives and struggles.

This relatively recent ostrich-like approach of Mumbai, a trait that’s now a sore thumb, is not only making the city seem unwelcoming but downright forbidding to approach. In short, people are finding Mumbai to be an alien city. Such a sentiment finds a more concrete echo in environmentalist and true-blue Mumbaikar Rishi Agarwal’s insights into a transforming city. “The parochial attitude is harming Mumbai and making it very alien,” says Agarwal, who has worked extensively in protecting and preserving the unique mangrove ecology of the city.

“Mumbai has to maintain a very cosmopolitan character and has to be tolerant, acceptable and inclusive to all in India. In the 1950s, Calcutta lost many jobs to Bombay when it turned inward looking,” warns transport expert Ashok Datar. “Mumbai still retains the title of the film, television and entertainment capital of India. If we don’t protect it properly, we may lose that distinction too.” 

Some of the reasons for the downfall of a once vibrant city are absolutely non-cultural and non-attitudinal in nature. In short, the city’s infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with the demands of a global India. “Unlike bold leadership in Delhi post-liberalisation, when they wanted show the world that Delhi can match up to London or Washington, in Mumbai, the political leadership has been incredibly poor,” points out Agarwal, who is now part of several task forces looking at sustainable transportation solutions for the city.

A city, however, is only as good as its engine. And the engine of any city is the local economy. If the economy is chugging along fine, the rest of the socio-cultural and political pieces fall into place easily and nicely. “Mumbai needs to have economic growth and the government needs to focus on that. The Maharashtra government needs to invest in infrastructure so that the city is made attractive for investors and business houses,” says Ramesh Nair, chief operating officer and international director of the global real estate consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle. “The Maharashtra government must give financial support and incentives for businesses. Economic growth will come only if more companies set up their research and development facilities in Mumbai. When the new chief minister Devendra Fadnavis came to power, he promised five central business districts in Mumbai. However, we have not seen much progress on that front.”

Nair is right in thinking that economic growth propels the demand and supply chain like no one else can. He contends that if more companies come into Mumbai, the prices of real estate will rationalise and fall down as these companies will automatically diversify the central business districts. “One Nariman Point or a Bandra Kurla Complex is not enough for a city like Mumbai,” he says, “Economic growth will ensure that at least 10 big central business districts will be established. The logic of markets will ensure that.”

Professor of economics at Mumbai University Abhay Pethe has been studying the financial architecture of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) for close to a decade, from the time when MCGM was called the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. He has also been invited by both the World Bank and, ironically, the MCGM to study their financial systems and give clear-cut recommendations to make it effective and efficient. 

“Even when investors come to the city none of our leaders who matter tend to turn up to invite or welcome them for any type of investments  or offer concessions,” points out Prof Pethe. “The capacity to absorb funds and translate them into meaningful investments is very low. Capacity building, policy reforms, processes and protocols are the building blocks of good governance, along with IT-enabled platforms, and they needs to be adopted on an emergency basis.”

Urban planner and former chief town planner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) VK Phatak feels that the high cost of land is distorted by a floor space index (FSI) regime, which is not rationally determined. FSI is the ratio of a building’s total floor area (gross floor area) to the size of the piece of land upon which it is built that is indexed to reflect the price or quantity compared with a standard or base value. The base usually equals 100 and the index number is usually expressed as 100 times the ratio to the base value. 

“The average real estate rental in Mumbai is Rs 120 psft per month. In Navi Mumbai it is Rs 50 psqft per month as compared to Bangalore which is Rs 70 psqft per month,” reveals Nair. “Delhi is Rs 80 psqft per month and Chennai is Rs 50 psqft per month. If you create real estate which is at Rs 50 psqft per month in the suburbs of Mumbai it can attract many more IT and tech companies and e-commerce companies.”  Agarwal takes that argument forward. “All money is spent on luxury apartments and more than half the money is black. We just don’t have enough affordable roofs over our heads. Why should people stay back if they are going to spend a substantial portion of what they earn on housing?” he asks.

Ashok Datar points out that the city’s infrastructure priorities are skewed, with expenditure on infrastructure being either not enough or being wrongly spent. “More than investment, it is the income and availability of jobs that is important. A city really prospers when highly educated, qualified or skilled people aged 25-35 come to city and stay back. They have to find the city affordable,” says Datar. Our BEST bus services were considered one of the finest in Asia. In the mid-eighties, 4.5 million people used to travel in these buses daily; today only 3 million people  take these buses daily. These people would not be able to do their jobs or pay taxes if cheap mobility was not available. The government has not been able to build up the capacity of the bus transport system, and as a result, service standards have deteriorated.”

Agarwal agrees wholeheartedly with Datar. “The world over, the purpose of public transport is to provide public good and not make money.

The losses are offset by congestion tax and parking fees. BEST makes Rs 200-300 crore of losses every year which are piling, but our government is perfectly fine spending thousands of crores on beautification projects,” he says.  Nair also agrees. “We need to improve mass transport infrastructure and we need to make various government authorities more accountable for results.”

Environmentalist and author of several books on Bombay, Darryl D’ Monte is distraught at the way the city has been overrun by cars.
“Everybody across the world is preventing cars coming into the city. The long delayed metro train network and the almost willful disregard for improving the public transportation system has led the city to be taken over by cars,” he says. It’s a point of view that finds resonance with Phatak. “Having a sea link without public transport will not change much. The public transport strengthening so far is trying to meet the backlog. The metro network is almost running parallel to railways and can only attempt to meet the existing congestion levels, but not create new land for housing and urban development. Unlike Delhi, Mumbai has a natural constraint on contiguous land being available, and in such a case, you can open up new land only by investing in public transport.”

While Mumbai suburban trains on the Western, Harbour and Central Lines carry 7.5 million people every day, the 11.4 km Andheri-Ghatkopar metro line carries only 3.5 lakh a day. The Delhi metro, in contrast, carries 2.5 million people over 300 kilometres.  Speaking on the rail transport network of both cities, Datar says, “The quality of Delhi metro is better than Mumbai suburban first class trains. Travelling on Mumbai metro is very expensive and cannot be subsidised much.’’

On the long delayed Mumbai Trans Harbour link for east-west connectivity of the city, Agarwal minces no words. “The Mumbai Trans Harbour Link should have been ready 20 years ago. Yet the government has funds to construct the Rs 3,600 crore Shivaji statue. Instead, the government should utilise the money on the coastal road for the trans-harbour link so that people from Ulwe and Panvel who work in Worli or Sewree in Central Mumbai can directly come there and work.”

Pethe says that as an island city, Mumbai has certain advantages. “Power and water supply is good and compared to most other places, public transport and health care is better. But given the real estate prices, it will not be able to attract new capital unless the state government and local civic administration are proactive,” he says. “Mumbai does not have a single-window system for getting any kind of permissions and proper data is not available  to ascertain where a particular piece of land is properly titled. Except for some projects with central government or multilateral help there is no investment. Within MCGM different departments do not talk to each other. “

Anita Patil-Deshmukh agrees. “Today Mumbai has 13 different administrative organisations and one does not look at the other. There is no cohesiveness,” she says.  “This would not have happened if cities like Delhi and Mumbai had been left as independent administrative units.” Nair adds that red-tapism must reduce. “The government can create a Mumbai infrastructure fund. Why can the city not have a single governing body or a CEO?” It is a good and probing question. “For the last 15 years or so, a certain amount of despondency is felt at the Mantralaya. There is too much political interference in what bureaucrats do, and as a result, for their own survival, bureaucrats pair up with ministers, which is not good. The bureaucracy has to stand up for the city, which is not happening of late,” says Pethe.

“It is a failure of political representatives and the bureaucracy to reform the policies and do something solid for Mumbai,” observes Pethe. “For the past decade, we have been saying Mumbai has become a milking cow for politicians from interior Maharashtra and narrow parochial politics. This has also stopped unleashing of the economic potential of city.” Deshmukh too agrees that Mumbai is managed by politicians who get elected from Latur, Vidarbha and other interior areas of Maharashtra. “Their votebanks are in those areas and not in Mumbai. So who will speak for Mumbai?”

It’s as much a question, as a cry for help. Mumbai knows it’s crumbling, and like any proud city it is asking for support from its own people, politicians, bureaucrats, corporators, business houses, activists and citizens. Maybe, it’s time that all of India extends a helping hand to a city that’s a true representative of the potential of the country.


(The story appears in the January 1-15, 2016 issue)



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