To whom does Mumbai belong? This is a question that has simmered for years and has now blown up into a major national controversy. For Mumbai, it is a question that is fundamental to its very existence as India’s pre-eminent financial, commercial and cultural hub. At a time that India is re-emerging as a major player on the world stage, its response to the above question will decide whether Mumbai will run with Singapore, New York and London or will languish as tomorrow’s Kolkata. The slope is slippery.
The age of global cities
The world is not flat as Thomas Friedman would have us believe. It is spiky, with large concentrations of population and economic activity clustered around a network of cities. These cities act as inter-connected nodes in the social, economic and cultural network that characterises the post-globalisation world. At the pinnacle of the hierarchy of cities are a handful of “Global Cities”. These hubs have become so important that the 21st century will probably be known as the “Age of Global Cities”. Indeed, it can be argued that London is today more important as a centre of finance and commerce than it was during the height of British Empire.
Most leading global cities of today are in the West — most notably London and New York, but also smaller hubs like San Francisco, Boston and Paris. However, there are now centres like Singapore and Hong Kong in Asia, as well as new competitors like Shanghai. A country derives enormous economic advantages (not to mention cultural influence and soft-power) from being host to a global city. As an aspiring world power, India needs its own global city.
What makes a successful global city?
In recent years, researchers have studied the phenomenon of global cities and have tried to explain their success. Each city has its special advantages — good universities, location, historical links, institutions and so on. However, a common theme is their openness to new ideas, external cultural influences and “outsiders”. Imagine New York without the waves of immigrants – Irish, Italian, Jews and, more recently, Asians and Latin Americans. Similarly, consider the relative trajectories of Tokyo and Singapore.
Till the early 90s, Tokyo was the most important urban hub in Asia. It was miles ahead of Hong Kong and Singapore. Yet, Tokyo is today merely a large Japanese city that has little influence on the rest of Asia. We cannot just blame this on Japan’s economic decline. After all, London has survived Britain’s decline to remain the world’s premier financial hub.
In contrast to Tokyo, tiny Singapore has self-consciously attracted foreign talent, invested in culture and created international linkages. The results are plainly visible. Singapore is not just one of the world’s largest ports, it is a formidable centre for banking/finance, education and even medical treatment. Once considered too straight-laced, it now enjoys the most vibrant night-life in Asia (sorry Hong Kong). More than 10 million foreign tourists visit it every year — double the number received by India, a country with 250 times the city-state’s population.
The decline of Kolkata tells the same story. Till the mid-60s, the city was the most important cultural, intellectual and commercial centre in India. Its industrial hinterland was the largest in Asia, excluding Japan. The city was a multi-cultural mix of Bengalis, Marwaris, Biharis, Anglo-Indians, Europeans, Jews and Armenians. It even had a vibrant China-town. However, attitudes changed from the 60s — multinationals were squeezed out, new technologies were discouraged and the teaching of English was banned. Even the works of Rabindranath Tagore could only be performed according to strictly-prescribed formulae. The result was not a renaissance of Bengali culture. Instead, Bengal has never again produced individuals of the calibre of Tagore, Satyajit Ray, Vidyasagar, Vivekanand or Subhash Bose.
The lessons of Kolkata are important for Mumbai, especially since its own rise was partly helped by its rival’s decline in the 60s. Many of the companies that drive Mumbai’s current success were originally headquartered in Kolkata, and, in some cases, are still registered there. The self-proclaimed protectors of the Marathi Manoos may want to consider what happened to the Bengali Bhadralok. Today, the Bengali middle class (including me) lives in “exile” in Bangalore, Delhi-Gurgaon, New York, London and even Mumbai. We were not exiled by foreign rule or by the invasion of migrants but by close-mindedness and the lack of imagination.
Our heavy-weight champion
Two generations after it lost its empire, London allows Britain to have a disproportionate influence on international matters. China already has two serious financial centres in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Its capital Beijing has been an Olympic host. If India wants to play on the world stage, it needs at least one heavy-weight global city that can be a financial and cultural nerve centre. Mumbai is the obvious candidate with its combination of financial muscle and Bollywood. With just 1.6 per cent of the country’s population, the city dominates India’s economic and cultural life.
Mumbai’s future is part of national strategy and we cannot allow local politics to derail it.
Nonetheless, we should recognise that legitimate local aspirations need to be accommodated. This is not just an issue for Mumbai. We are entering and era of rapid urbanisation that will see 350 million people absorbed into urban India in the next three decades. Frictions between locals and migrants will soon arise in Bangalore and Gurgaon, and eventually even in Lucknow and Patna. We need to create mechanisms that help the “locals” compete in the rapidly-changing urban environment (for instance, by investing in vocational training), while at the same time making it clear that street violence will not be tolerated.
I hope that Mumbai will eventually make the right choice. If not, the mega-city of Delhi-Noida-Gurgaon will have to take on the burden of becoming India’s heavy-weight champion. Perhaps, Kolkata will grab the opportunity to make a comeback!
Sanjeev Sanyal is the author of The Indian Renaissance: India’s Rise after a Thousand Years of Decline, published by Penguin