No Comparison

There is absolutely no comparison.

I am talking about the oft-invoked comparison between two great cities in Asia – Mumbai (erstwhile Bombay) and Shanghai. They are the commercial and financial capitals of India and China respectively.

I was in Shanghai the past few days, and the manner in which the city has been built out over the past decade or so is simply outstanding and truly amazing. It appeared to me that the government and private builders collaborated to really build out what has already emerged as one of the greatest cities of the world. The plan behind the global appearance of Shanghai was evident as one drives around the city. The amazing infrastructure of the city with neatly laid out roads and pavements, and world-class highways and buildings, the neatness of it all, will impress even the most developed country. And, all this has been accomplished in just about a decade or so. The magnetic levitation train from Pudong International Airport to the city and the beautifully laid out river front are examples of what can be achieved with true determination, patience, grit and commitment.

It is easy to brush away this stupendous achievement pointing out the government’s overarching powers in China to do what they please, and the complete lack of public discourse on topics of public interest, and non-availability of means to fight the government. I also used to believe in such factors as aiding the development of China in no small measure.

But, the fact is that today Shanghai has shown to the world what a vision combined with ambition can do to the DNA of a proud people and “old” society. Citizens are apparently proud of what Shanghai looks like today – like many other super cities of the world, but better in several aspects. They have a fabulous airport, the mag-lev train I mentioned earlier, one of the world’s tallest buildings (and another taller one coming up), fantastic road infrastructure, and gleaming hotels with good service.

I noticed how two women in late forties were cleaning a lane which had overgrown grass and stuff thrown into the grass. One of them was cutting the grass and aligning the grass to the edge of the lane, and the other was picking off the waste from the grass and throwing the same into her hand-held basket. I guess they were municipal workers, but they appeared to have pride in the work they were doing to keep their city clean, and there was probably a serious commitment to their work.

Compare with Mumbai. I am not going to write anything which will hurt people, but Mumbai will never look like Shanghai. Mumbai has its positives, but its infrastructure negatives overwhelm positive impression that a visitor would be trying to build upon. I did not see a single crater or a shaky ride on the roads of Shanghai, but we all know the state of roads in Mumbai. To prove my point, just try to take the exit road from Mumbai International Airport to get out of the airport complex, probably the first impact on any tourist, and then tell me if you are happy with the ride. I recall Mr Jeff Immelt, Chairman of GE, telling a business forum in Mumbai sometime ago about the great opportunities in India, but also asking the government to fix the airport access roads.

Geography of a city matters, but what is more important is a drive and true passion combined with a maniacal execution focus to convert Mumbai into a truly world-class city. We cannot just show the insides of five-star hotels to our guests and impress them. Let us understand that global investors make constant comparisons in their minds. Forget the investors, we as local inhabitants truly deserve a Shanghai out of Mumbai.

Till there is a focused execution plan, Mumbai will continue like what it is today, with improvements hardly getting noticed. For a complete transformation, look at Shanghai.


Vijay Srinivasan
16th October 2011


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