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[Jahan Alamzad] Mumbai can learn a lot from Seoul

I landed in Seoul for the first time some years ago and spent a good portion of a year working with one of Korea’s largest industrial complexes, a chaebol.  I not only learned the business attributes of Korea, but I also experienced the culture of the country, its rich history, and the nation’s incredible people.

I was astounded that Seoul had been rebuilt into one of the most prominent mega-cities in the world after it was turned to rubble just a couple of generations ago, beset by the Korean War. Only profound admiration for Korean people can do justice for remaking this ancient city, every corner of which has a story going back through the centuries.

I have had the pleasure of working recently with companies in India. That led to me visiting Mumbai for few days recently. My first time in India. I looked forward to that trip with exhilaration, and Mumbai did not disappoint.

As a management consultant, I have the good fortune of traveling extensively to various corners of the world. Over many years of traveling globally and meeting new people, I have recognized that we are all the same for the most part, strive for similar things, have parallel aspirations for happiness, and even hold analogous apprehensions. What unites us as global citizens is far stronger than regional differences.

While I was excited for my first visit to India, I expected a routine, short business trip. It was anything but. As a colleague of mine quipped later, “Mumbai is seductive!” That seduction got under my skin, for sure.

Kailash Satyarthi, a Nobel Peace laureate, said “India is the land of 100 problems, but is the mother of 1 billion solutions.” One does not fully grasp the meaning of this quote until seeing Mumbai. This marvelous city offers delight on par, if not beyond, any other major metropolitan area in the world. It is a global city in the truest sense.

An old Indian proverb has it that “guest is god.” That pretty much sums up how a foreigner is received in Mumbai, and in fact in India. This is a land with the most hospitable people. Not for a moment, would a stranger in Mumbai get the sense of being lost, and not for an instant is a harsh, impolite word spoken to a newcomer. This level of hospitality is not just rare; it is almost extinct in today’s selfish world.

The beauty graces Mumbai’s old city in the south. The sumptuous architecture is embedded in some of the 19th-century structures like the Victorian-era Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, and the newer Gateway of India monument. The statues of some of the local leaders in the streets of Mumbai add to the flavor of the past. In its unique ways, the city powers today’s vibrant life from the older rich legacy. It is truly awesome!

Mumbai is billed as the financial, cultural, and entertainment center of India, often described as the country’s heart. By India’s famed heritage standards, it is a newer major city, seeing its growth spurt during the colonial era. It has brought together many people from all over India who have sought opportunities in this transformative metropolis.

But the huge challenges Mumbai faces cannot be dismissed. It has incredible wealth and, right next to it, abject poverty and human misery.  Reflecting on Satyarthi’s words, that’s a huge problem, but Mumbai ought to be able to create many solutions effectively going forward. One pathway to solutions is to learn from Seoul.

The key stumbling block for India can be put in one word: infrastructure. In turn, infrastructure cannot be improved without discipline. Right after the intra-peninsular conflict, Seoul was able to start its incredible rebuild by focusing on infrastructure as the foundation for its industrial transformation. Mumbai must do the same.

India is now the second-largest contributor to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That’s due to the recognition that infrastructure is the nation’s most pressing predicament. The AIIB can help at the national level, but there also needs to be regional infrastructure banks for local developments.  A functioning one in Mumbai that would hold officials and contractors accountable at every step for steady progress can do wonders.

Mumbai city planners can also benefit from such solutions as Green Belt, which was used for Seoul reconstruct. That demarks Mumbai proper from sprawling catchments, and preserves the essence of Mumbai so that its other societal problems can be addressed as its infrastructure improves. Such a solution is also a platform for a measured transformation of Mumbai’s infrastructure.

Mark Twain said, “nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.” Visiting Mumbai for the first time brings quintessence to those words.

By Jahan Alamzad

Jahan Alamzad is a management consultant. He lives in San Carlos, California, and can be reached at -- Ed.