Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Maharashtra politics helps Delhi pip Mumbai….

Today’s TOI gives some census data which shows that the Delhi UA (Urban Agglomeration) has gone past the Mumbai UA in terms of population. While the Mumbai UA has a population of some 20.7 million, the Delhi UA has now gone to 21.7 million. Just ten years back, Mumbai UA was bigger than the Delhi UA. Frankly, I find nothing surprising in this finding. I find it entirely believable and true. Anyone who has been to Delhi and Mumbai repeatedly over the last ten years will know how true this is.

I left Delhi about 11 years back and moved to Mumbai for job reasons. At that time, Delhi had already started to change. The number of road projects, the huge expansion in the townships near Delhi (especially Gurgaon and Noida), the investments in the metro railway, the new buses, the preparations for the Commonwealth Games…..all of them bore early news of Delhi’s ambitions to become India’s biggest city. The fact that Delhi and NCR are pampered parts of the country (and rightly so….considering that it’s the capital of the country) only made sure that infrastructure growth in Delhi would continue unabated. The better infrastructure made sure that MNCs made Delhi their hub when they entered India. No wonder then, that the auto, durables, consumer electronics, telecom and even partly FMCG industries are headquartered in Delhi. With so much employment generation, and infrastructure creation, the population was bound to surge. Credit for Delhi’s growth in the last ten years must be given to Sheila Dixit for the work that she has done for the city since the time she took over in 1998.

It’s not that population growth alone is the way to judge the progress of a city. There are many other indicators. Take the percentage of population living in slums – More than half of Mumbai’s population lives in slums; the corresponding figure in Delhi is much lesser (I think it’s about 30% but I am not sure). Take quality of school and college education. Again, there are hardly one or two schools in Mumbai that can compete with the plethora of high-quality schools in Delhi. Leave alone academics, even in terms of extra curricular activities, Delhi schools are miles ahead of Mumbai, thanks to the much better infrastructure they have. Take colleges. Except for an odd St. Xaviers or an IIT or a NITIE, there is nothing much to write for Mumbai – while Delhi colleges typically tend to top the list of best colleges in every poll conducted nationwide by India Today and other magazines. Take public gardens. I am aghast that in Mumbai, even a Union Park or Jogger’s Park or a Nana-Nani Park (all admeasuring less than 1/2 square km surely!) are considered parks! If one takes out the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (which I’ve never understood what it is!), I have a feeling that all of Mumbai’s parks put together would be less in area that one single Nehru Park or one Lodhi Park in Delhi!

The reasons for Delhi going past Mumbai lie in the politics of the two cities. Delhi is a city-state and all of resources mobilized by the government of Delhi are spent on the needs of the city itself. In Mumbai, the city generates most of the cash for the Maharashtra government, but when it comes to spends, very little is spent on the city. Mumbai was always a big thinking city. The industrialists of Mumbai ruled the country in the old days and the world in today’s times. India’s biggest and richest businessmen still call Mumbai their home. But the government that runs this city is so small in its vision that it hardly reflects the aspirations of the people of the city. After nearly 10 years of being work-in-progress, the Bandra Worli Sea Link was thrown open. The second half of this project – the World-Haji Ali sea link is no where close to even a beginning. And it’s already several years behind schedule. It’s the same story with other infrastructure projects. A city that boasts of such a beautiful coastline has no catamaran service or any other form of sea transport. The Sewri-Nhava sea-link (a 24 odd kms long structure) has been in cold storage forever. The Mumbai metro project has been promised to be upgraded everytime but it goes into a limbo every single time. The only capacity addition that the metro has had has been in making the size of the train longer! Very soon we will have a time when the tail of the previous train touches the engine of the next one! Last year, Mumbai even lost the badge of being the busiest airport in the country – again to Delhi. Mumbai’s politicians could never bother about the need for another airport in time – it’s only when things got really out of hand that they scurried around to doing something. In contrast to Sheila Dixit in Delhi, Mumbai has always had weak political leadership both at the state and city levels.

The other problem that Mumbai faces is the threat to its cosmopolitan culture. Again the politics of Maharashtra is responsible for this. Ministers and MLAs elected from rural Maharashtra take office in Mumbai and bring in the culture of those areas into this city. Why RR Patil had to shut down the dance bars – rather than making them clean, better organized and centers of entertainment – is something that people in Mumbai can never understand. Why the government had to make the minimum age for drinking 25 years is something that irks Mumbai folks like nothing. For a city full of ambitious people, the government of Maharashtra is an anachronism…..steeped as it is 19th century traditionalism while its people move ahead into the 21st and 22nd centuries. One reason why the Maharasthra Cong+NCP government is able to take life so easy is the miserable condition of the opposition. The BJP is in total disarray with the recent Gopinath Munde episode almost dividing the party up. The Shiv Sena is a party that has never been able to recover from its split with Raj Thackeray’s MNS. No wonder then that the Cong-NCP combine continues to rule the state inspite of poor governance (its been ruling continuously since 1999).

It’s not as if everything is lost for Mumbai. The core Greater Mumbai area continues to be bigger than Delhi. The city continues to be the financial and entertainment capital of the country. The city’s GDP is far bigger than that of Delhi. The city is home to the biggest corporates – and contributes the most to the tax kitty of the country. What Mumbai lacks in infrastructure – it makes up in the attitude and quality of its people. Forever resilient, forever inspired, forever pushing ahead inspite of the hurdles, it is the people of Mumbai that make this city the Maximum City. That tag can never be taken away. The cosmopolitan nature of the city is unparalleled. Less than half the city’s population calls Marathi its mother tongue, the rest divided between almost all languages in the country. The only other city that comes close to Mumbai in cosmopolitanism is Bangalore – again a city that is becoming a melting pot thanks to the IT industry. Women are the safest in this city, making it the fashion capital of the country as well. There is a lot going for Mumbai……but it’s government is out to ruin all of it.

Whether Mumbai regains its glory or goes down the way Kolkata did will depend on what its political leadership does. The PM has already expressed his support to make Mumbai into a Shanghai. Whether the state government takes up the offer – and improves its record of execution – it finally has a good CM in Prithviraj Chavan – will decide whether Mumbai does become a Shanghai or ends up becoming a Dhaka. Mumbai has to exploit its cosmopolitan culture, its beautiful coastline, the secular fabric of its society, and the dreams of its entrepreneurs – if it has to regain its prima donna status. I am confident it can do so…..

The real truth is that Delhi benefits from being a stand-alone state. The mere mention of that for Mumbai leads to political uproar all over the state. Ideally Mumbai should be a separate state….but if that cannot be done, then at the very minimum, the state government must commit to investing in its growth – the way governments globally invest in their main cities. The city needs more than $200 billion of investments. The money is available. Is the political vision there???

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