Business Today

City of pipe-dreams

Not much has changed in Mumbai. It's still the best city for business. It still stinks.

By Krishna Gopalan | Print Edition: August 26, 2007

Welcome to sky city 2015. That's Mumbai in its new-fangled avatar, with skyscrapers that dot a dazzling skyline and boulevards that thrust out magnificently from the seafront. Green spaces abound, thanks in no small measure to the freeing up of hundreds of acres of mill land, sea links built over the Arabian sea have made intra-city travel a breeze, a metro rail service and a mass-rapid transport system have helped ease congestion at hitherto choked-up points, and an expressway that leads into the heart of the city ensures that it takes just 10-12 minutes to check out of it.

Bandra Reclamation Road: An antidote to Mumbai's traffic woes

Elsewhere, a financial services Special Economic Zone is home to a clutch of global investment and commercial banks, Dharavi-at one time the city's non-concealable, stinging sore sprawled over 535 acres-has now been redeveloped into a spanking township that's home to five lakh households, and a storm water drainage project ensures that floods in the monsoon season are a distant memory.

Being home to Bollywood-where fantastic tales of triumph against insurmountable odds are created on celluloid every other day-may be just one reason for the delusion of Mumbai's grandeur created in the previous para. Yet it's no pipe-dream, although the tedious promises of creating infrastructure that will make the average Mumbaikar's life finally fit for habitation are increasingly beginning to resemble the last local on the Western Railway-virtually empty, and perhaps too late.

If CEOs, senior managers (and their spouses), and B-school students have put Mumbai on top of the heap, it's not necessarily because they're expecting a miracle out of plain brick and mortar.

Bandra-Worli Sea Link
Bandra-Worli Sea Link
It's just that their lives wouldn't be quite the same if they were in some other city. Mumbai after all is the hub for key industries like information technology, banking, education, media, accounting and consulting. The country's stock and commodities exchanges, and indeed virtually the entire financial services sector (including brokers, mutual funds, insurance companies) are based in Mumbai. It's not for nothing that Mumbai accounts for 70 per cent of the state's taxes (and just 2 per cent of its land mass and 22 per cent of its population). The upshot? If you aren't in Mumbai, you aren't anywhere.

That may not hold true for too long. Already, states like Gujarat are getting their act together, and numerous second and third tier cities are emerging as attractive options, not just from the employees' point of view but also that of the employer. As Nasser Munjee, Chairman, Development Credit Bank, puts it: "Eventually, business will go where people want to go…everything is slowing down in this city." Slowly but surely, the anger, despair and cynicism are spilling on to the potholed streets. "Are you sure," wonders an incredulous Hafeez Contractor, one of the city's best known architects, when informed that Mumbai is the Best City for Business in India.

"We need more accountability in the case of infrastructure projects," adds Ajit Gulabchand, Chairman, Hindustan Construction Company. Gulabchand couldn't have put it better. Projects like the Bandra-Worli sea link and the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) are running way behind schedule.

The government sure enough appears confident and is looking at a long-term vision for Mumbai. The investment on infrastructure which will include, among other things, a trans-harbour link, a metro railway network and better roads, tots up to a staggering Rs 2,30,000 crore. "The city cannot compare itself to Hyderabad and Bangalore. It needs to compete against Dubai and Singapore," says Sanjay G. Ubale, Secretary (Special Projects), Government of Maharashtra.

But there are scores of roadblocks that make that noble ambition sound ludicrous. "Some of the laws like the Rent Control Act are terribly archaic. What we need today are structural reforms and tax reforms," says Gulabchand. "Water, sewerage, public transport-they're all huge areas of concern," shrugs Munjee. "Hopefully, a lot will change over the next 4-5 years," he ventures. The government is upbeat. "The time for Mumbai has come and, by 2015, there will be some dramatic changes," says Ubale. Some 1.6 crore Mumbaikars are waiting with bated breath for a chance to breathe easier.

(With Tejeesh N.S. Behl)

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