The Indian dream, part 3: Down and out in the Maximum City
Joe Leahy and James Fontanella-Khan follow the trials and triumphs of migrants arriving in India's financial hub, from the day they step off the train to their first tentative steps towards finding housing and a job.
For migrants, Mumbai is really a tale of two cities. For the majority, it is a place of unforgiving hardship. For the lucky few, it lives up to its promise. Unfortunately for Subash and Damindra, the dream is short-lived. They did get work quickly, earning INR 250 a day repainting a shop. But the shop owner later reneged on paying them. The final blow comes when the area in which they live is redeveloped. After only a month in Mumbai, they catch the train home one night with barely a rupee in their pockets.
The same goes for Hassan. He also struggled to earn a living and returns home with only INR 1,500 in savings, about a tenth of what he had promised his family.
Shahid, who has already been in Mumbai for two years, stays behind. But he sums up his own and other migrants' disappointment with life here.
60-year-old Shiv Charam lives on the pavement outside a middle class flat block with his three sons, three daughters-in-law, eight nieces, and one nephew. He earns a living washing the cars of the people who live in the flat block. When he moved to Mumbai 40 years ago, he had no idea this is how things would turn out. His only hope now is that his grandchildren will do better.
Krishna Murti Pillai also arrived in Mumbai 40 years ago from a village in southern India. However, his story is very different from Shiv's or the boys from Uttar Pradesh. After working for more than two years as a tea maker in Dharavi, Krishna convinced his wife to use gold they were given for their wedding as a seed investment to start producing snacks and sweets. Today, they have turned that initial investment of INR 5,000 into a small snacks empire with a turnover of INR 1,000,000 per month.
Whatever their fortunes, one thing is for sure. Migrants will keep coming to Mumbai, and the city needs them. While they are blamed for many of the city's problems, such as congestion and slums, they are also essential to its progress and to India's economic miracle.
It's easy to pass the buck or the problem on the heads of the migrants rather than the city planners or the politicians owning it and addressing it in a serious way. That is, I think, lacking. And things are getting politicised because usually just sentimental when it comes to the question of religion, cost, and language in this country.
Mumbai faces a choice, cataclysm versus economic success. Indian politicians are fond of talking about the demographic dividend. In Mumbai, that has taken the form of a migration dividend. The thousands of young villagers who come here every month provide the low-cost labour that has made this city the engine of India's growth story. But in return, Mumbai needs to deliver to these people decent standards of living in the form of jobs and education for their children. If it fails to do this, it will be overwhelmed. And social tension will be inevitable. But if it should succeed, Mumbai's place as a global financial centre will be guaranteed. Joe Leahy in Colaba fisherman's village for the Financial Times.