To be or not to be a global city is an existential question that nips at the ankles of certain Mumbai policy bodies and bureaucrats every so often. The most recent example is an ongoing study of this mega city being conducted by the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and J.P. Morgan as part of the scrutiny of Globally “Fluent” Cities.

Mumbai First, a corporate think-tank, hosted two British experts, Greg Clark and Tim Moonen, the CEO and Director of Research respectively of The Business of Cities, a London group which traces the interdependence of cities and businesses, to hold a consultation with Mumbai bureaucrats and experts on 23 September.

The Business of Cities dates the origin of cities (re)entering a global path to as early as 1492-1650 with such cities as Antwerp, Genoa, Istanbul and Venice. A revisionist historian may well point to the exclusion of Asian cities in this time-line. The succeeding century from 1650 includes Amsterdam, Guangzhou, London and New York. Skipping the cities in centuries in between, Mumbai figures among potentially global cities between 1945 and 1973; Bangalore is listed between 1985 and 2007.

The initiative identifies ten traits of Globally Fluent Cities, including leadership with a worldview, an enabling government and a history of global orientation. As Clark observed, US cities are an exception to this rule because they primarily have a national focus: “they are successful without being international,” he asserted.

Other Asian cities which may conceivably compete with Mumbai for world status are Jakarta, Manila and Bangkok. The Philippines’ capital houses the Asian Development Bank, while Bangkok similarly has the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP).

By the traits yardstick, Mumbai port – now up for redevelopment – would have helped the coastal city earn its place in the sun as being globally fluent.  Bangalore would figure due to its umbilical link with the IT industry.  But the sheer profusion of financial institutions, from the Reserve Bank of India and two stock exchanges, and head offices of industrial groups and businesses, make Mumbai a more likely candidate for joining the elect group of world cities.

Mumbai Port. Pic: 

The clear winners in the early 1990s were only New York, London and Tokyo, according to Saskia Sassen in her authoritative book titled The Global City (1991). It would be interesting to examine whether Tokyo has now lost that ranking and other cities like Shanghai or Hong Kong have clambered to the top.

In their draft study which will be completed by December, Clark and Moonen cite how Mumbai is by far the most globalised city in South Asia. At the Mumbai consultation, J.K. Banthia, the former Chief Secretary of Maharashtra, noted that there are as many as 94 Consul Generals of foreign countries based in the city, more than perhaps any city in the world with the exception of New York, which has a disproportionately high number due to the location of the UN headquarters. “This gives Mumbai an extra advantage,” he said.

From February to March, Mumbai was literally besieged by trade and business delegations seeking to gain a foothold, or expand their presence, in the country.  Narinder Nayar, who chairs Mumbai First, wondered whether Mumbai had reaped any benefit of this.

Mumbaikars themselves need to be reminded, as the British study underlines, that it is home to South Asia’s biggest cultural industry and export in the form of Bollywood. It is seldom recognised that the film and TV industry here is the only world industry to pose a challenge to Hollywood. What is more, it appeals to developing and emerging countries across a wide swathe, including Eastern Europe, Arab countries and south-east Asia. A few decades ago, America’s biggest export in terms of value was its film and entertainment industry, including music, till it was dethroned by IT and allied industries and services.

In a greater scheme of growth

Mumbai is also the centre of regional growth as indicated in the triangle between Pune and Nashik, part of a new pattern of urban development which will mark India’s emergence as the world’s third largest economy by 2030. Prime Minister Modi and his government is setting the pace for such growth with his emphasis on industrial corridors, bullet trains and smart cities.

The Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor will be one of these catalysts for urban growth. Japan may be funding this initiative although, as participants noted in informal discussions, the location of a considerable stretch of this corridor in Gujarat – ironically enough, Modi’s “den” – may prove a deterrent due to its prohibition policies. No Japanese or any other foreign factory manager will countenance living in a state where consumption of liquor may be permitted at home but not socially.

Other corridors on the anvil are between Mumbai and Bangalore, while the capital of Karnataka will be similarly linked as an IT corridor with Chennai.  A worrying trend, as is self-evident from this listing of industrial corridors, is that these are almost exclusively concentrated in the west and south of the country, while eastern and central India, as well as the eastern regions of the Deccan peninsula, have been left out of this growth. Such lopsided growth does not augur well for the overall development of the country.

A great deal of discussion at the Mumbai consultation centred around what was needed to propel Mumbai as a world city. As we have seen, an enabling government is one of the requirements. Mumbai lacks a powerful city leader, like a New York Mayor.

Coincidentally, on the very day of the consultation, former south Mumbai MP Milind Deora published a piece titled “A CEO for this City, please?” in the Economic Times. He noted that all Mumbai agencies work at cross-purposes. On the other hand, London’s Mayor has been elected since 2000 and has a firm grip on the functioning of this world city. What Mumbai needs is greater devolution – not necessarily autonomy – and empowered leadership. We need a directly elected Mayor or a CEO (call it what you will),” he wrote.   

While the CEO title would grate on the consciousness of a democratic system, the elected Mayor, a far cry from the current sinecure, is certainly worthy of consideration. Mumbai’s new incumbent, from the Shiv Sena, is running foul of the municipal corporation for insisting on brandishing a red beacon when the corporation has ruled these out for all except a tiny minority of office-bearers.

Optimal planning

The role of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) also came under scrutiny at the consultation. MMRDA is the apex planning body which controls the much larger region comprising 4,355 sq km, nine times greater than the city proper.

If international comparisons are made, Moscow has a city government whose writ runs through an enlarged area, while London has the national government as its guardian. Paris has a strong regional government, while New York has robust authorities like the Port Authority which control a vital aspect of the Big Apple’s functioning.

The Metropolitan Commissioner, U.P.S. Madan, complained how slow the decision-making process is for city development, especially with regard to issues such as land acquisition. Nayar added how there were 17 agencies concerned with some aspect of the city’s development, with five dealing with infrastructure alone and no coordination –  a “good orchestra without a conductor”.  

The problem in ushering in an elected Mayor is that it calls for a constitutional amendment, which political parties will oppose tooth and nail.  In the current Lok Sabha, out of 543 MPs, only 178 or around a third are from urban areas, which underlines the anomaly that leaders with a rural background are calling the shots in cities.

On the other hand, this reflects the rural-urban divide in the population as a whole. What is more, although the tenure of key city bureaucrats should be three years on average, they seldom last in their posts for more than 18 months, which deprives the agency concerned of continuity.

The MMRDA commissioner’s task, even under the present dispensation, could be considerably strengthened if all records and procedures were digitised. No bureaucrat would like to be seen as inefficient under such a transparent system. Clark emphasized that state governments throughout the country could use a template based on global best practices. The thrust towards creating a hundred smart cities would perhaps lead to such a quest. Even areas within a mega city, like the new central business district of Bandra-Kurla in Mumbai, could be benchmarked by global practice.

The question that remains is whether policy-makers are putting the cart before the horse in contemplating the development of Mumbai as a world class city with an international finance centre. The city now suffers the ignominy of witnessing around 80 per cent of its employment in the euphemistically labelled “informal” sector. Unless that is attended to, the bulk of Mumbaikars will continue to eke out an existence outside the formal city. The corollary of this mass unemployment is the bleak fact that 60 per cent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums. No one who is jobless can obtain a housing loan.

Neither The Business of Cities initiative nor Mumbai’s bureaucrats and experts have paid sufficient attention to this severe disparity in a city which they want to propel to world status. One grim outcome of joblessness is that Mumbai, like Ahmedabad before it, has witnessed the eruption of communal riots like it did in 1992-93.  If any such major conflagration takes place again, it will put paid to any notion of Mumbai ranking among global cities since investors will be deterred from functioning in a potentially toxic environment.