Saturday, November 06, 2010

Why does Bombay have abysmal governance?

The resource curse

For many years, economists have been puzzled at the way things have gone wrong in countries where natural resources were discovered. In 1993, the economist Richard M. Auty coined the phrase `Resource curse' to convey the extent to which natural resource finds are a curse and not a blessing. But the idea had been kicking around well before that. I suppose it was an obvious conjecture after watching the failures of the Middle East, where trillions of dollars of oil revenues were squandered by not one but many countries.

In the 1970s, when oil was discovered in Venezuela, former Oil Minister and OPEC co-founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonzo said: "Ten years from now, 20 years from now, you will see, oil will bring us ruin." His phrase for oil was: "the devil's excrement."

Why are resources a curse? In a country blessed with no natural resources (think Japan), the only way forward for the ruling elite is the slow hard work of building public goods, so that GDP builds up, which then feeds back into the power and importance and utility of the ruling elite. When the ruling elite gets their wealth for free, without having to do the hard work of building public goods and thus GDP of the country, the rulers emphasise the wrong issues. That's how Venezuela ended up with Hugo Chavez.

On one hand, rulers get focused on finding ways to maximise their rent from the underlying resource flow, without developing the knowledge about how to build a State that delivers public goods. In parallel, competition between politicians becomes an unpleasant process of trying to grab the riches by means fair or foul, rather than a process of competing in doing better on public goods. If there are XX billion dollars to be grabbed by becoming head of state, fairly unpleasant tactics get used by rivals aiming for that job.

Bombay's resource curse

I just read Maharashtra's Audacious Chief Ministers by Ashok Malik and it is a chilling story. It made me think: Why did governance in Bombay go wrong so comprehensively?

Maybe the story runs like this. Winning elections in Maharashtra does not require serving the citizens of Bombay. A party can do various things in trying to win seats in the legislature across Maharashtra. Once this is done, the ruling party gets the rents that come from control of Bombay.

The wealth and prosperity of Bombay is like an oil well which is gushing out cash for the ruling party in Maharashtra. They did not earn it. The slow, long, hard work of learning how to run a State, of building public goods: these things do not matter for the ruling party in Maharashtra. They get a rental cashflow from Bombay for free.

In (say) Jaipur, the Chief Minister and his ilk do not have an oil well gushing cash at them. Their incentives are to worry about public goods, and grow the GDP of Rajasthan. The importance and rental cashflow of the leadership in Rajasthan are primarily about the GDP of Rajasthan. Their hard work in improving public goods in Rajasthan feeds back to them as a higher rental cashflow.

People often compare the problems with Bombay with the decline of Calcutta after the Left took charge. The two stories are similar in that parties which won rural votes got to run a great city into the ground. But the Left did not take rents from Calcutta on this scale. That was an age where the GDP of Calcutta, while impressive by Indian standards, was still small change. Bombay of the last 20 years is in a different league altogether. This connects with the middle income trap meme: when capitalism first bloomed in India, some governance problems got worse and not better.


I think this suggests that the right to govern a prosperous city should not be based on elections taking place somewhere else. If Bombay were a full fledged state, as Delhi is and as the four big cities of China are, then elections to control Bombay would require persuading voters in Bombay.


  1. This is by Salil Tripathi.

    Ajay, this is fascinating at several levels. Some countries that are endowed with resources have either escaped the curse (think Norway, Canada, Australia) and some others, while cursed with it, have created public goods (think Indonesia, Malaysia). I'm not trying to look for a cultural/anthropological reason behind this. Even in Africa, while Nigeria
    is the poster child of resource curse, Botswana is doing fine, in sharing wealth relatively fairly. But oil's pernicious impact on poorly-governed societies is a fair point to consider. Terry Lynn Karl has done some good work on this.

    Now, turning to Maharashtra - when the Shiv Sena first came to statewide power, Darryl D'Monte - who opposes the chauvinism and parochialism of the
    Sena - astutely noted that it was the first time in India that a party primarily representing urban interests and concerns had come to power for an
    entire state. Sundar Mumbai Marathi Mumbai - now we may balk at the second part of that slogan, but who could complain with the first part of that
    slogan? Anyway, once in power, while the Sena politicians did not have connections in the sugar belt, and indeed, their pro-Marathi rhetoric became
    meaningless beyond Bombay, but they left no legacy of urban improvement. What improvements we do see have happened in a haphazard, sporadic manner - Bandra Kurla complex or the Sea Link have little formally to do with Mantralaya support, but with central priorities as well.

    The minor point in what I said above is that even an urban-centric party will try to bolster its position and seek rents. The major point is the one
    you make - that Bombay should be a separate state. While Meera Sanyal did not go so far in arguing for that during her candidacy for South Bombay, she
    was the first candidate of some credibility to champion the city's interests. (Caveat: I supported her campaign). And the logical extension of
    her argument - as indeed yours - is for the city to be independent of Maharashtra. At one level, the Sena should love that - because it will get
    to call the shots - but its leadership is devoid of imagination - and more important, Bombay deserves something far better than Shiv Sena in perpetuity, with occasional interruptions by the Deora clan.

  2. the argument for city as state is familiar one.But what about the city governance by the elected municipal body itself? MCD,e.g. has not covered itself with glory either even though its a city state; with thousands of ghost workers and demand for taxes for non existent services.
    Not sure about BMC, what is demanded of 'non-City voters elected government', is the same demanded from Municipal coporation as well? Is it put under the same scrutiny?

  3. I feel that this is a flawed and counter-productive proposition, have summarized my arguments against in this blog post:

    There are two main points:

    1) From a cultural identity standpoint, a state capital in India has the same importance as the capital of a European country.

    2) Every major state with no big metro area in it has a very low HDI. States deprived of their economic engines suffer when it comes to overall development.


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