Tale of India’s Financial Capital: Mumbai, The City of Riches and Rags


American photographer Johnny Miller recently captured some brilliant aerial shots of Mumbai, as a part of his ‘Unequal Scenes’ series, depicting the two extremes of the 12th richest city in the world having clear lines of demarcation between the rich and the poor. 

The aerial shot above shows the Mithi river separating the Bandra Kurla Complex, one of the wealthiest regions in Mumbai housing financiers, media executives, real estate professionals on the left and world’s largest slum Dharavi on the right. Any Slumdog Millionaire Deja vu? 

Mumbai, the seven-island archipelago of dreams and dread, of silks and slums, comprises the most unique yet least homogenous urbanity in India. The financial capital of India became the only city with $960 billion worth of wealth to feature in the top 20 wealthiest cities in the world, as per a 2019 New World Wealth’s October report. In parallel, we have the largest slum population in any city across the globe living in Mumbai.

How Did Mumbai Evolve into a Financial Capital? 

Before we delve into the dichotomy that the city of rags and riches portrays, let’s do our homework regarding its background and location. 

Formerly, Bombay, Mumbai is located on the southwestern coast of India. It is the capital of the state of Maharashtra and is India’s principal port on the Arabian Sea. It is the most populous city with a population of 20 million and has the most expensive housing market in India. The financial and commercial hub has long been the center of the cotton textile industry and is fast becoming a significant IT center. It is the home to the Bombay Stock Exchange, the 10th largest exchange in the world. The Indian Atomic Energy Commission headquarters lie on the outskirts of the city.  

In the early 19th century, Mumbai burgeoned into a booming economy when the Parsi merchants from Mumbai and Gujarat entered the opium trade and the textile industry. Mumbai flourished under the Petits, Wadias, and Tatas, given its economically beneficial geographical location. It proved to be a major port on the west coast, opening the trade window to the west. Millions found employment and home in the city brimming with life and cinema. Next, Mumbai’s Jhaveri Bazar and Shaikh Memon Street became India’s largest bullion markets. It also became a leading center for banking and insurance.

 By 1914, almost 50% of the private investments were being made in various industries in Mumbai and 87% of the total capital investment in India was concentrated in Mumbai alone. Mumbai, now, stood at the altar of all business and financial activity in India.

Fast forward to today, the textile industry has lost its sheen to a number of manufacturing industries such as metals, chemicals, food processing industries among others.  Wiki summarises Mumbai’s current economic contribution as follows:

Mumbai generates 6.16% of the total GDP. It serves as an economic hub of India, contributing 10% of factory employment, 25% of industrial output, 33% of income tax collections, 60% of customs duty collections, 20% of central excise tax collections, 40% of India’s foreign trade and ₹40 billion (US$560 million) in corporate taxes.

The Income Divide in the Rags and Riches City

The highest number of High Net Worth Individuals including India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani reside in Mumbai’s highly concentrated affluent pockets such as  Colaba, Churchgate, Malabar Hill, Breach Candy, Worli Sea Face, Juhu, Andheri West, etc, surrounded by less affluent neighborhoods and slum dwellings. For instance, Antilla, Mukesh Ambani’s residence and the second-most-expensive building in the world, after Buckingham Palace, stands next to Golibar slum in Central Mumbai. 

The not-so-affluent neighborhood of the wealthy has over 41% of the 12.44 million Mumbaikers residing in slums with subhuman living conditions. These areas lack access to electricity, clean water, sanitation, and public transport. The slums are also the workspaces to second-generation migrants that earn a living by doing semi-skilled and unskilled jobs like that of artisans, tanners, weavers, soap makers, washermen, drivers, etc. There’s a huge recycling industry that thrives in these slums. These small businesses alone add around $1 billion to the ever-swelling economy. 

“The contrasts in living standards are of a magnitude not seen anywhere else in the country. Two distinct cities exist within one.”

~An All-India Institute of Local Self Government Report

While the high-rise suburbs paint a rosy picture, the better part of Mumbai life trudges in the muddy waters and overflowing sewers during the monsoons. Every year hundreds of people lose their lives in the Mumbai floods. The inequity existing in the world-class city ‘is the unbecoming spectacle of Mumbai’. 

The HDI report on the quality of life in Mumbai points to the vast gap between the rich and the poor, even though the city tops the income-generation charts in the country. The economic polarisation has spilled over to the social and physical aspects of life in the city:

  • Sex ratio: The sex ratio in the slums stands at 750 against the 859 in the non-slum regions. 
  • Fertility rate: it is 1.9 in slums against 1.4 in the non-slum regions.
  • Sanitation: An average of 81 persons share a single toilet seat. The ratio can go as high as 277:1 in other parts.
  • Water: One in every sixth house has access to piped water supply in the slums. In contrast, the city’s average stands at 50.7% of households with piped water supply. 
  • Crime: Every 4th woman in slums is a victim of domestic violence while the percentage is 15% in non-slum areas. 

The unique geography of the slums in the heart of the urban economic center that Mumbai’s landscapes present is an anomaly in itself. The magnanimous Bombay Stock Exchange standing tall and mighty amidst the worn-down single-story shanties covered in blue tarpaulin presents a metaphorical reality of the existing divide in the city. Each year Mumbai embraces a heavy influx of migrants with their baggage of dreams and struggles wanting to make it big while often getting lost in the fast-paced life here that forgives none.

But development isn’t just an average per capita number or annual GDP figure. Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, in his theory on welfare economics, quoted, “Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systemic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states”. Mumbai needs to fulfill its promises beyond the economic contribution striving for all-inclusive growth bridging the gap just like the under-construction bridge on the Mithi river- a physical symbol of the connection between the two distinct worlds existing in the same geography.     

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