MumbaiNaama: Has Mumbai Missed The Growth-And-Jobs Bus?

MumbaiNaama: Has Mumbai Missed The Growth-And-Jobs Bus?

Can Mumbai’s economic growth and job or work opportunities be taken for granted?

Smruti KoppikarUpdated: Sunday, March 31, 2024, 07:57 PM IST
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Representative Image | File

Amidst the myriad legends and folklore about Mumbai is the oft-repeated one that this land situated in the city is about wealth, work and enterprise, that the city has something in it to attract wealth and wealth creators. For centuries, this seemed to be true. Migrants flocked to the city with hopes of securing some work or a job, often discounting the poor quality of life as the price they paid to send money back home, paupers and others came here, a few saw their names in the lists of India’s most wealthy — even the world’s wealthy. This cemented Mumbai’s image as the city where the archetypal rags-to-riches story comes true. Writer and historian Gillian Tindall’s book charted a biography of Bombay and called it The City of Gold.

The colonial city that brought capitalists and migrants for jobs continued to offer opportunities through the decades till the 1980s as manufacturing soared and, was later, accompanied by a surge of industries and enterprises in finance, banking, trade, software and the creative sector led by the Hindi film industry and television. In the immediate after-glow of the liberalisation in 1991, business barons and industry associations aligned with the state government to transform Mumbai into a financial and corporate hub for Asia or Southeast Asia to rival Singapore and Shanghai.

The Vision Plan for Mumbai, drawn up by one of the big four international consulting firms, projected growth and jobs that seemed fantastical at that time. This transformation hardly had space for millions of workers in essential sectors like healthcare, education and manufacturing, or for nearly half the city that lived a sub-par existence in slums. The Singaporisation and the Shanghaisation of Mumbai turned into stale jokes but the city continued to grow economically — at a great cost to its natural environment, it must be mentioned — and offer jobs or work opportunities to millions.

‘The City of Gold’ seemed secure — or so it seemed till now. Can Mumbai’s economic growth and job or work opportunities be taken for granted? Have the Maharashtra government and Mumbai’s bosses already missed the bus for the next few decades? These questions demand urgent attention as corporates and businesses, especially the international finance and trade sectors, have shown a marked preference for the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, or GIFT City, near Ahmedabad in the last few months. “In the last six months, about eight of the 10 biggest Indian asset managers by assets have either relocated their business, or set up new funds or filed for permits to move to GIFT City, according to executives at these funds,” pointed out a recent report by Reuters.

GIFT City has been assiduously promoted by the Modi-led union government as a gateway for global capital and financial services; between the centre and the Gujarat government, they have offered a bouquet of tax-breaks and incentives, as Singapore or Dubai do, to have businesses and corporates decide on a GIFT City address. An official estimate put the number of jobs in the new city at around 25,000 and projected to multiply to anywhere between 60,000 to a lakh this year. Officials of the India’s International Financial Services Centres Authority (IFSCA), mandated to develop and regulate international financial services centres, are on record that "the institution is working with the central and state governments to attract businesses to GIFT City”. Shipping, one of Mumbai’s oldest trades, is making a beeline for the new city.

Mumbai’s diamond market located in old Mumbai and the Bandra Kurla Complex, which employ lakhs of workers and traders, moved in December last year to Surat’s Diamond Research and Mercantile City, an 800-hectare business district modelled on the GIFT City. The Surat Diamond Bourse had opened in 2010 with thousands of offices in high-rise towers but the move from Mumbai gathered momentum in the last year or two. About a third of the companies in the SDB so far are those run by Mumbai-based diamond merchants, reports say. The SDB also offers incentives to encourage the movement from Mumbai. This troubled former MP Milind Deora, who recently switched from Congress to Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena. He had pointed out that Mumbai’s gem and jewellery industry is a major employer and tax revenue generator, and “it would be unfortunate if Maharashtra loses this industry to Gujarat”. He, perhaps, thinks differently now.

So far, those in power in Maharashtra and Mumbai have sat smug in the belief that the city continues to attract a large volume of foreign direct investment and that corporate headquarters continue to be located here. But for how long, is the question they are unwilling to address. Given that greenfield cities like GIFT City and established ones in the south are luring businesses away from Mumbai, with tax incentives or the promise of a better quality of life for employees and workers, it would be utterly foolish to ignore or dismiss the moves from Mumbai. If the Maharashtra government and Mumbai’s authorities are serious about this, and have a vision for the city, they should step up now.

This is important not merely for Mumbai’s reputation as a premier or preferred city as a hub for businesses and commerce, but also for the employment potential. The share of educated unemployed has risen in India, especially in cities, and the youth form a staggering 83 percent of the total unemployed population, showed the recently released study by the International Labour Organization and Institute for Human Development. “This indicates that the problem of unemployment in India has become increasingly concentrated among the youth, especially the educated ones in urban areas,” the report said.

The study pointed to employment trends: a third of the people were self-employed, only one in every four had a regular job while many did casual jobs. While city-specific data is hard to come by, especially recent statistics, it would be prudent to consider this applicable to Mumbai too. Gig work has come to be a large part of the informal work opportunities in the city but, as studies have shown, it hardly offers substantive remuneration or satisfaction to the many who have flocked to it. Besides, the gig economy runs on the back of major businesses and industries.

Successive Congress-led governments in Maharashtra were too complacent about Mumbai’s pre-eminence while the recent BJP-led or Shinde-led governments have been happy to watch the flight of capital to neighbouring states and cities. They point to the city topping the list of Asia’s billionaires. In a recently released private list of the global rich, Mumbai displaced Beijing for the ‘honour’, adding 26 new ultra-rich names to the club taking the billionaires in the city to 92. Globally, Mumbai ranks third behind New York (119 billionaires) and London (97), according to Hurun's list.

This is hardly salve for the future of the city; if anything, it underscores the stark inequality in Mumbai, popularly known as the destination of the working class, aspirational entrepreneurs, and creative businesses. Where is Mumbai’s economy headed, how is its labour or job market changing, where will the jobs or work be in the coming decades, are questions that demand serious attention.

Smruti Koppikar, senior journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and the media. She is the Founder Editor of the award-winning online journal ‘Question of Cities’

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