India 🇮🇳: Last stop Mumbai – Slums, Colonial History, Bollywood & Friends

I’d be lying if I’d deny that I was pretty happy to board the plane and leave Bagdogra for Mumbai. Returning the motorbike was all fine – the agent was just a bit disappointed that I didn’t return the evening before so we can grab a drink together.

Arriving in Mumbai – feels different!

The city immediately looks much cleaner and feels more organised. You see not only Tata and Suzuki cars, but other foreign ones such as Mercedes. Definitely more money here in the economic capital of India. Roads are better, there is a modern skyline and the location by the sea makes for a nice experience too. At least in the old town there are no motor rickshas significantly reducing pollution and noise levels. Nice, although it has to be said that me staying in the old town helps perception significantly. Many of Mumbai’s inhabitants live in slums… where things are different, naturally.

Mumbai’s economic muscle

Mumbai is still considered India’s economic capital though recent GDP numbers put Delhi ahead. Estimates suggest around $300bn (with a wide range) implying around 8- 10% of India’s total GDP. Mumbai is a large recipient of foreign investment, dominant in foreign trade (70% of maritime trade), is India’s main banking and insurance hub and home to Bollywood’s movie industry to name a few sectors. The city’s economic importance historically was always linked to its deep sea port  though initially maybe in a way that will surprise you.

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Mumbai’s docks in the 19th century

Going back to the 19th century, it all kicked off with the opium trade under British colonial rule. Parsi’s were mainly in charge on the Indian side (same Persian/Indian origin as the family of Freddie Mercury of The Queen). The Brits used India as a production hub for the opium they sold on to China and with that ‘enslaved’ a whole country leading to Anglo-China wars and the ‘lost century’ for China (a part of history that defines Chinese education to date). See Golden Triangle: How opium shaped world history for all the details of this amazing part of history. So I guess any Chinese with a little mind for history will not be the keenest fan of India.

Catching up with Yash

Although we had met not long ago in London, the most important item on my to do list in Mumbai was to catch up with Yash – my former team mate in Morgan Stanley Research who became a very good friend over the years. It was fun to delve into some old stories and hear about his successful life as entrepreneur and father (baby no 2 just arrived before I came to visit). Thanks for the amazing hotel and see you soon big man! This time we managed to take a picture together … not sure we will make it into GQ magazine, but at least we have a record to look at next time.

Checking out the old town

I took a two hour walking tour through the old town in an area called Walkeshwar (again just me and the guide – same as for slums & in Varanasi). The tour was very average and included place like the India gate (a gate literally built to welcome the British Royals), several locations of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 killing 168 people, the stock exchange and lots of stories around individual buildings be it Iranian cafe or jewish sponsored libraries.

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There are some lovely old fashioned buildings in the old town indeed, something unique and not common judging by my own India experience. You will find a strange mix of architectural influences – British, Portuguese, oriental etc.

Bombay or Mumbai? The longstanding name of Bombay given by the British was a poor (or anglicised) translation from Portuguese “Bom Bahia” mining good bay. The name was only changed to Mumbai in 1995 by Hindu nationalists though in local language (Marathi & Gujarati) it has always been Mumbai – a name in reference to Mumbā or Mahā-Amb, the patron goddess Mumbadevi of the native Koli community.

Bollywood

Bollywood is the nickname for the Hindi language film industry and by many measures the largest film industry in the world (number of movies produced, no of tickets sold etc). It aims mainly at domestic audience and almost always includes dance and song elements. Revenues in 2016 were estimated at more than USD2.3bn.

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An afternoon in the largest slum in Asia, A Positive Surprise

Slums can be found all over the globe yet few have reached the level of fame as the ones in Mumbai. The movie Slumdog Millionaire with its eight academy awards in 2008/9 probably helped a bit. Still, in my mind slums were some rotten areas of poverty so when I witnessed the significant commercial side of the slums I was positively impressed.

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Slums are a big part of India across the country though naturally more pronounced in cities. 9m people or 41% of Mumbai’s inhabitants life in slums. Nationwide, the number is 104m & 9% (data from population review, other estimates put people living in informal housing at more than 240m). Dharavi is the largest slum in Mumbai and the second largest in Asia (Pakistan leading the way). About 1m people live here implying 870,000 per square mile! The slums are not one area, but you have different slums across the city (see map).

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Map of Mumbai’s slums

I want to note here that while living conditions are poor, such as a lack of in-house toilets (instead 150-200 people share one toilet), very narrow streets without light or air and a rotten river that smells really bad to name but a few, the slums at times just look like poor neighbourhoods that you find all across India e.g. I expected worse just because of the name ‘slum’. It also felt reasonably secure (going with a guide helps I guess).

What I didn’t expect at all is that the slums are a powerful business engine. There are approximately 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories in Dharavi alone (the most literate slum in India at 69% – not far off the 75% national average and on par or ahead of many rural areas in Northern India). Over USD1bn economic output for Mumbai’s slums alone. It is estimated that poor Indians contribute 7% to urban GDP implying about USD140bn (although this includes more than just slums). Just for comparison, the GDP of Qatar is USD200bn. Main industries in Dharavi include leather, all sorts of recycling (plastic, carton, tins, rubber etc) and pottery.

Women only! On the way back from the slums I took again the train – the lifeline of Mumbai though a metro is under construction. At first I jumped into the ladies only compartment being bit surprised for I wasn’t aware such things exits (although they did exist in England until 1977). The women didn’t waste a breath to educate me probably feeling completely disturbed in their female privacy. So next compartment while the train was already moving … but then boarding a moving train is no longer a problem after two month in India. Skills!

 

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