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Mumbai meri jaan

February 2, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

[Note to the reader: this is a hyper-local post in the context of a recent rise in xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment in the city of Mumbai.  It was prompted by a Facebook discussion and the title literally means “Mumbai, my love.”  However, it  addresses the more universal issue of dealing with immigration.]

Dealing with the cultural confusion, squalor, and indigence wrought by decades of immigration into an island city is not easy.  Local sentiments of resentment and protectionism headbutt into the energies and aspirations of trainloads of young immigrant workers who move into this city everyday, adding to its 20M+ souls, most of who do not have a place to live

Those who are already here, resent the influx but also want access to cheap labor to work in their factories,  clean their homes, watch their kids, and drive their cars.   The immigrants keep costs down for the larger population but they need to live somewhere within an hours commute of their workplace.   This has given rise to shanties and slums all over the city.

It is easy to take a principled stance about locals vs. immigrants,  and that the  slums and shanties are an eyesore, but you cannot ignore the underlying economics.   I have personally heard the city described as “one big slum with a few highrises and apartment buildings sprinkled in.”   I would love for the slums to be gone but the local economy needs all these folks here to work in our shops, factories, and homes.  Even the illegal hawkers who peddle cheap wares on the street are a necessity:  someone who pays Rs 20,000 per month in rent for a legal stall cannot sell tea for Rs 5 per cup to your driver who has to make ends meet for a few thousand rupees. And without that driver you cannot get to work in a city which has no place to park your car or lacks humane transportation options.    The shanty dweller is a critical cog in the wheel so you can add to the city’s GDP in some significant measure.   No matter where they come from, immigrants are an important part of our economy.

I am already seeing evidence of Mumbai losing its advantages: manufacturing jobs have long left the city , service jobs are now going to low rent locations like Gurgaon, Chennai and Hyderabad. What Bombay has had is a good labor pool and the balance needs to be maintained for us to continue to thrive in services and trading.  A sudden policy shock can gut the city of its economic power.

The solution probably lies in waiting: India’s tearing growth will trickle down to lower levels and their quality of life will improve .  The shanties will disappear over time like every developed economy has seen. There is enough evidence of this now: cellphone use is common, but access to doctors, mass entertainment, vacations, and the dream of home ownership is not unusual among those who live in shanties.  Over twenty years ago Bangkok was probably as bad as Mumbai now is; a lot of investment (Japanese in that case) and good patient policy can produce wonders.   It will take longer given the size of the population here but I have hope for our city.

Categories: India, Life
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