Mumbai was recently anointed as one of the 35 most powerful cities in the world, the only Indian metropolis in this elite club. While many factors contributed to the growth and prosperity of the city, it can be safety said that the basis for this growth was its location that enabled it to act as an effective link between the hinterland and the outside world.
The reason why Mumbai became an important center for trade and commerce was its sheltered bay (the Portuguese named it the Good Bay). The Eastern waters not only provide deeper draft, but are also calmer making it ideal for maritime activities. However, for the Portuguese, Mumbai essentially provided a docking point. The real trading centers were Vasai and Surat.
In 1661 the Portuguese handed over Mumbai to the British in dowry. However, Mumbai was ruled not by the government but a corporate entity, the East India Company with its headquarters at Vasai. Being a trading company, its entire effort was in protecting its trade with the outside world. Surat and Vasai were always vulnerable to attacks and plunder. It was therefore decided to shift the headquarters to Mumbai in a fortified area, now known as Fort.
The growing prosperity of Mumbai attracted more and more people in and around the walled city. The main difficulty was the lack of connectivity to the hinterland. With the advent of motorized transport, it was necessary to link the islands and the mainland. This marked the beginning of infrastructure development in Mumbai.
The first such initiative was to establish the Thane creek bridge. On April 16, 1853, the first rail track was established in India connecting Bori Bunder and Thane. This can also be said to be the first Public Private Partnership project in India, where an annual return on investment was promised to the Construction Company after commencement of operations. To facilitate the export of goods the Victoria and Princess Docks were built.
The next wave of prosperity came in the wake of the civil war in America. Textile exports from America dwindled and Mumbai saw a large number of textile mills dotting its landscape. Increase in population led to extensive land reclamation and merging of all seven islands. The tram system was introduced in the year 1874 initially drawn by horses. A small airport was established at Juhu more for strategic reasons. The commercial airport at Santa Cruz was connived only in 1940.
The largest impact however was made by the elaborate rail network in the city. From a single line connecting Bori Bunder (now CST) and Thane, the rail network expanded many times, connecting far flung areas to the businesses districts. It is ironic that the Thane and Virar lines, now the lifelines of Mumbai, were installed to carry goods, not commuters.
Post independence, we have little infrastructure development in Mumbai worth talking about. The railway liens were electrified and the network expanded, but some public transport systems were actually taken off. The tram system was closed as it came in the way of vehicular movement.
This is not to say that pre-independence, there was any greater love for the people of Mumbai. Infrastructure development followed the logic of economic development. The fact is earlier infrastructure development initiatives were taken by the East India Company only shows that it made business sense to build it. This shows a good lesson to our present ministers.
The second wave of infrastructure largely catered to the needs of a growing city. Mumbai itself began its transformational journey to being a major consumption center. Mumbai could afford to relax, while the other cities in India preferred not to challenge its supremacy. But not any longer to sustain itself as a major consumption center Mumbai needs to evolve further. It needs to move up the value chain to become a new and unique center of economic activity in the country. It is possible only if we can develop world class infrastructure.