The Paradox of Mumbai Slums, Stocks, Stars and the New India

By Erich Follath

Part 2: Part II: Manchester of the East


In 1668, the British Crown leased Bombay to the British East India Company. The company's merchants were the first to grasp the city's potential, turning Bombay into a cotton manufacturing center and calling it the "Manchester of the East."

In honor of Britain's King George V, London builders constructed the Gateway of India, a triumphal arch, at the city's harbor in 1924. Still a Bombay landmark to this day, the arch includes a plaque that reads: "Urbs Prima in Indis," or "Most Important City in the Colonial Empire."

Bombay was also an important site of the Indian independence movement, and Mahatma Gandhi was arrested here in 1942 for his non-violent campaigns against the colonial power. Nevertheless, the British were unable to prevent Indian independence five years later.

India's commercial center suffered greatly during the ongoing socialist experiments of various administrations in the Indian government in Delhi. Strikes shut down the textile factories and Hindu nationalists came into power. Rioting repeatedly crippled the city, even after economic liberalization in 1991. Bombay was once derisively called Slumbay, and the name has stuck. But nowadays the city is increasingly referred to as Boombay, as it transforms and reinvents itself -- as the world's service center, as a bastion of knowledge and as a factory of dreams.

Bombay is where Wall Street stockbrokers have their securities analyzed, hospitals from London to LA have their invoices checked and companies have their tax returns prepared. Credit card details are stored and processed -- and occasionally stolen -- in Bombay. Telephone customer service representatives with Western names like Mary (and with real names like Meenakshi) field calls here from Detroit to Düsseldorf about computer problems. The US film industry has cartoon cat "Garfield" animated here, and defense contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root recruits reliable kitchen help in Bombay for the American forces in Iraq. Dubai comes to Bombay in search of engineers and construction workers for the next generation of skyscrapers being built in the Gulf emirates.

Bombay is also increasingly becoming a magnet for scientific research, from nuclear power to genetic engineering to microsurgery. Outsiders are flexible, and everyone here is an outsider of sorts. It's as if India's rivers had merged irresistibly into this city's sea of humanity. It thrives, not on tradition, but on the drive and dreams of its inhabitants. It may reject many, but it hardly ever turns anyone away. Bombay is a city that belongs to no one and everyone at the same time.

Many wonder whether this can work, as Bombay, this bastard of Portuguese, British and Indian history, turns its crumbling textile factories into call centers, universities and art galleries, and as its slums are replaced by middle-class apartment buildings. Who are the political, economic and social visionaries who could tame this Moloch, and possibly transform it into a model for the world's other problem-ridden mega-cities?

Priya Dutt, 40, is experiencing one of those days when she asks herself whether it was wise to enter politics. She angrily pulls off her silver-striped slippers and dabs the sweat from her brow. She sits in her austere office, cooled by an ancient, barely moving fan and listens to her constituents' complaints. Dutt, a petite woman dressed in jeans and a blouse, says nothing as they argue heatedly with one another. Then she slams her fist on the table. The room quiets down immediately, an indication that Dutt is held in high regard.

A social worker by profession, Dutt had little choice but to enter politics. When her father, the famous movie actor Sunil Dutt -- a member of parliament and, until May 2005, a minister for the Congress Party in the cabinet of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh -- died, the family decided that his daughter would join the political fray. Priya's brother Sanjay, a star of Bollywood action movies, was hardly a promising alternative. He had been arrested 10 years earlier on the suspicion of being involved in a criminal conspiracy. In November 2005, Priya Dutt scored a landslide victory in the election district of her popular father, and has since served as a member of the Indian parliament in New Delhi.

Dutt is responsible for the well-being of at least 3.5 million people, in probably the world's most socially diverse district. Her voters range from billionaires to members of the middle class to vast numbers of slum dwellers. Naturally, their interests span an equally broad spectrum.

A wealthy industrialist, for example, had a member of his staff call Dutt before her weekly office hours to inform her that he needs a third garage and that the permit for the construction of a pool in his penthouse hadn't arrived yet. The "normal" constituents come to her office hours to air their problems directly. Dutt listens and weighs the arguments she hears. A half-naked guru receives a small donation in exchange for his blessing.

Those from the slums don't come to this bazaar of complaints. Instead, Dutt must go to them, navigating across ditches filled with a black, malodorous soup of industrial waste that separates two worlds: the exclusive Bandra neighborhood and the Santa Cruz slums. Dutt believes that it is her obligation to visit the poor, but she also knows that ignoring the poorest of the poor would be unwise. The slum dwellers are the ones who vote, while the upper classes usually stay away from the polls. And the poor have an uncanny ability to distinguish between those who attend to their needs and those who only pretend to do so. "Politicians in Bombay are usually part of the problem, not the solution," says Dutt, displaying her characteristic directness. "Many use their positions to fill their pockets with bribes. That's where I have an advantage: I was already wealthy when I went into politics."

She has had decommissioned computers donated by companies taken to an abandoned factory building in Santa Cruz, where she offers free courses for slum residents. The program, a great success, has already attracted 3,000 people, and Dutt hopes to begin offering English courses soon. "Without a basic understanding of the PC and foreign languages, you don't stand a chance," Dutt tells her students, a group consisting mostly of young people and, among them, a surprisingly large number of young Muslim women.

Some of Dutt's other experiments have failed. When she had dozens of outhouses installed in the slum, residents quickly sold the corrugated metal walls. One likely reason the program failed was that she had not coordinated it sufficiently with gang leaders in the slums. Not much functions in Santa Cruz without the gangs, who prefer to call themselves "companies," and nothing would work at all without the frequently corrupt police officers. This odd coalition jointly controls huge groups of voters, and who opposes it might as well abandon any thoughts of being re-elected.

Priya Dutt mentions the "huge frustration and despair" with which she is sometimes overcome. "Much of what I do is simply a drop on a hot stone," she says. "And this moving between worlds -- I thought I would be able to handle it, but now I'm finding it more and more difficult to bear." Her husband is an event manager for major industry conferences, and her brother is a glamorous Bollywood star. After spending her days visiting the slums, she often spends her evenings back in a world of glamour, where all anyone cares about are the biggest diamond, the most exclusive dress and the best plastic surgeon.

She derives moral strength from her young son. A Hindu, Dutt named her son Siddharta after the nobleman who became the Buddha. The family recently celebrated Siddharta's first birthday. One of his gifts was a temporary tattoo on his upper arm that read "Superman."

In parting, Priya Dutt mentions that she wouldn't mind being a Superwoman with supernatural powers if it could help her solve the problems in her district. She is exhausted, but Dutt still has an important date with Big Business. "The heads of the big family enterprise are one of the keys to Bombay's future," she says.

The Godrej family, together with the Tatas and the Ambanis, are the pride of the city. For one, they have made billions with their kitchenware, safes and furniture. But far more important to many Indians are their travels abroad, where they are showing the Europeans and the Americans how powerful their country is today. "We are conquering the world," the magazine Outlook crowed in a cover story about the global shopping trips of India's successful entrepreneurs. Among other coups, the article mentioned the Godrej empire's acquisition of Keyline, a leading British consumer goods company.

Adi Godrej, 63, the chairman of the Godrej Group, pensively pulls at his beard before answering questions is his office, furnished with heavy wood furniture. Cockiness isn't his style. Godrej prefers to give the impression of a modest, thoughtful patriarch. He firmly believes that his country has benefited greatly from globalization and that Bombay is the capital of this success story. "Indian companies like ours are among the most competitive. The world's economic force of gravity has shifted from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his self-confident exuberance, recently said: "Forget Shanghai!" But Godrej, a well-traveled businessman, disagrees. "We are still far behind the Chinese city when it comes to infrastructure." In his opinion, what Bombay needs most are a subway system, an airport that meets international standards and a courageous slum cleanup program. Indian's "indirect taxes" -- Godrej's polite term for corruption -- are another problem.

Otherwise, says Godrej, he is "happy that Bombay is not Shanghai." He points out that India has outstanding universities that are superior to most Chinese institutions, both academically and because English is so widely spoken. Besides, he adds, democracy in India is helpful in difficult situations. "As successful as China is at the moment, it has no valves to release pressure. Autocratically ruled countries can blow up, while those ruled by the people cannot."

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