Should Mumbai be a City State?

Originally published contra the case made by J.B. D’Souza on Should Mumbai be a City State? in TimeOut Mumbai, 10 April 2005.

There are several arguments routinely invoked about making Mumbai into a City State. They go something like this — for most of its modern history, Bombay was an island off the coast of India, a cosmopolitan port city with enterprising migrants and bustling industry and commerce — symbolic of India’s engagement with the world, rather than with its rural countryside.

This pre-Independence Bombay is now viewed with sepia-tinted nostalgia by heritage enthusiasts and the media as an innocent age of civic order, a beautiful city which existed before the filth and chaos of democratic politics. Bombay became the victim of narrow linguistic politics when Maharashtra was formed in 1960. Since then, the story goes, public culture has been parochialised by Marathi chauvinism and mismanaged by vote-bank-seeking politicians. The beautiful city is now a horrible mess, and this situation must be reversed through bold action, to make it a world-class metropolis again.

The economic rationale for creating a new City State is the counterpart to this narrative — that Mumbai is denied an equal share of the revenue it generates (which the Centre invests elsewhere in the country), that the city’s resources are otherwise plundered by rural politicians and illegal migrants who don’t care for the city, that new industries are locating elsewhere, and we cannot keep up either with Singapore or Shanghai, or even with Bangalore or Hyderabad. Something must be done to avert what the media have recently termed the “death of the city”, and statehood for Mumbai seems like a bold solution to a host of very real problems affecting the quality of life and governance in India’s biggest city.

Let’s take apart these arguments. Will statehood mean anything in terms of the everyday life of the metropolis and the issues that matter to most of us — housing, environment, infrastructure and the jobs? The advocates of statehood for Mumbai have a point when they claim that many of the city’s greatest problems remained unsolved because of Delhi raj. Much of the revenues generated and collected in Mumbai are skimmed off by the Centre for redistribution in poorer states and backward areas. But the city takes as much from rest of India as it gives back to it. Mumbai’s insatiable hunger for natural resources, energy, and human labour makes it a predatory force on its hinterland. The surplus the city extracts from the rest of the country must be invested back into the states, in the city’s own interest. This is not an argument for rural subsidies or charity. Boosting consumption and spending in the countryside is key to the city’s long-term survival and prosperity. Mumbai will grow into a world-class city by finding domestic markets for its good and services in rural and small town India, not simply by chasing back office services outsourced from America and Europe.

In this view, a Mumbai City State will make little difference to our economic well-being — healthy growth is as much about the distribution as about creation of wealth, and while cities are engines of growth, the fuel for this engine must be constantly supplied by labour and capital from outside the metropolis. Our taxes are paying for the fuel to which keeps the city humming smoothly. Let the Centre prime the pump by investing in states and rural areas where private investors don’t dare to tread — market forces will take care of Mumbai, which should contribute its fair share to the Centre, and should raise money for the rest of its needs in global financial markets. We need inspired leadership, not statehood, to achieve this goal. If we go by the example of Maharashtra’s finances, statehood for Mumbai will encourage profligacy and wasteful expenditures — whereas competing for investment in the world economy will impose fiscal discipline on the city. We should not keep begging for government handouts like a whining stepchild of the license raj.

Delhi raj in Mumbai is more onerous when it comes to other issues, such as land-use planning and the housing market. There is a widespread myth that the city doesn’t have enough space for everyone — particularly migrants and the urban poor. This is because of land monopoly, not land scarcity. The city’s three largest land-owners are Central Government bodies not accountable to anyone in Mumbai — the Central and Western Railways, the National Textile Corporation (NTC), and the Bombay Port Trust (BPT). Between them they have enough open space — at least two thousand acres in the Island City itself — to build new public transport, rehabilitate all slums, provide huge public parks and gardens, and create entire new business districts in Mumbai. But statehood for the city will make little difference here. Like the present Maharashtra Government, a new Mumbai City State would not necessarily have greater control over the Railways, Textile and Shipping Ministries and their land and infrastructure in the city. And we already have a well-funded agency for land use and planning, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), whose authority needs be extended beyond building roads and rehabilitating slums for the World Bank.

What about the local bodies that provide the infrastructure of our daily lives? Would a City State make a difference to these public institutions, currently run by the BMC? Municipal hospitals like KEM and Sion are some of the country’s finest, and their alumni staff the emergency wards and operating theatres of hospitals all over India and the world. Similarly, the BEST is perhaps the only civic agency to have successfully managed the city’s growth by its steady expansion of services throughout Greater Mumbai in the past thirty years. Because of the BEST, we are the only city in India which can really enjoy the basic freedoms of modern city life — affordable public transport and constant electricity. Delhi, which has been run both as a Union Territory and now a City State, still doesn’t come close. But a Chief Minister of Mumbai would probably seek to privatise these crown jewels, which have served us well for almost a century.

Will a Mumbai City State decentralise governance and give us greater say in our daily lives in the city, or is it just another move to centralise control over the city in another unaccountable and unrepresentative body like those which govern us now? McKinsey and other private lobbyists like Bombay First have recently advocated appointing a “chief executive” for Mumbai, who will run the city like a private corporation and coordinate between the patchwork of bodies which govern the city now — MHADA, MMRDA, SRA, MSRDC, and other agencies run by the invisible hand of bureaucrats, engineers and their political masters. What these and other proposals such as city statehood share in common is the desire to centralise control over the city’s resources, rather than to decentralise governance, giving us a greater stake in our lives in the city.

There are already a host of measures to change civic life which have been legally enacted, but which will take a serious fight to see implemented at the local level, and are more worthy of consideration than a new Chief Executive or Chief Minister for Mumbai. Foremost among these is representation at the local level by non-party ward committees and community organisations, which is guaranteed by the 74th Amendment but is barely implemented in Mumbai. Another long-standing proposal is to trifurcate the overburdened BMC into separate municipal corporations for the Island City, Eastern and Western Suburbs, to make it more responsive and efficient, and for the BMC to have an elected Mayor rather than a state-appointed Municipal Commissioner.

Yet another important law is the Right to Information Act, currently being used by activists to argue that the Mumbai Mill Lands should not be gifted to mill owners who have lately become real estate speculators. It is these various local initiatives which need to be supported to make world-class changes in our everyday life in the city, not the unrealistic fantasy of a Mumbai City State.