When it was still called Bombay, Mumbai unquestionably represented India's future. It was an unparalleled magnet for Indians from all over the country; it looked forward and outward. In many ways, Mumbai is this still. But certainly, it has lost some of its sheen. Delhi is now pre-eminent, and smaller cities like Bengaluru have more dynamism. A good proportion of Mumbai's worries comes from its regressive and extractive politics. But that is not the sole reason. It is also the case that India's western port city, once an easy place to live in, is now being strangled with creaking infrastructure, inadequate to its needs. Meanwhile, real estate continues to spiral away from affordability. Forget about purchasing a house, even renting a house can be unaffordable. Naturally, under such circumstances, creativity suffers. One cannot incubate start-ups, run small enterprises, in the absence of decent infrastructure and where real estate is priced out of reach.
The new Maharashtra government has shown encouraging signs of understanding the nature of this problem. At the recent Mumbai Next conclave, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis made several promises. One was that the floor-space index (FSI) in Mumbai would be increased. That index is at present formally between one and 1.33 in much of the city - meaning that if floor space of more than 133 square metres is wanted on a plot of 100 square metres, a special exception or some exemption will need to be found. This is an unusually low FSI. Many international cities, Mumbai's peer group, permit FSIs of over 10 automatically. This choice is born of political and non-governmental organisation pressure. Politicians like tough rules and arbitrary exceptions; that increases their power. And some citizens' groups fear that increasing the FSI will merely strain infrastructure. A higher FSI will, of course, put some pressure on existing infrastructure, but that pressure can be eased with higher expenditure on creating new and better infrastructure facilities. What the opponents of higher FSI, which include existing residents, do not realise is that low FSI also makes the city unaffordable - and, over time, kills it.
Together with going upwards, more infrastructure is definitely needed. Mr Fadnavis spoke of a new coastal road, of speeding up the second airport and of making the clearance system easier. These are all welcome steps. Over the past 15 years, the development of Mumbai has been held hostage to various alternative schemes, to a shortage of money and even as a consequence of private-sector squabbles. Significantly, several industrialists based in Mumbai, with experience of both successes and failures, spoke at the conclave on how to learn from the failures of the past. It is possible, therefore, to feel a moment of optimism that most stakeholders have understood the problems of the city, and also sense the time is right to overcome those problems. Much depends on the decisiveness that Mr Fadnavis shows. He must be able to empower his officials to take major decisions, while supervising their honesty carefully. The collateral benefit of a clean infrastructure push will be that Mumbai's politics, long poisoned by the corrosive influence of real-estate money, might have a chance to clean itself, too.