T N Ninan / New Delhi July 12, 2008, 0:00 IST Mumbai has long prided itself on being the country's commercial capital. Maybe the time has finally come for it to give up such notions. For, a news report last week said that, for the first time, there are more airline flights operating out of Delhi than Mumbai. That does not clinch the argument, of course — because if it did, Atlanta and Chicago (both of which have busier airports than New York's) would be claiming to be America's premier city and that would be absurd. It is just that the information on air traffic caps the mounting evidence of a shift in the centre of economic gravity.
Track the new businesses being started up in the country, and if they are not in the tech sector, the chances are that they are located in Delhi/Gurgaon/Noida. The majority of FMCG companies other than Unilever are in the Delhi area: Nestle, Coke and Pepsi, Dabur, Gillette, GSK Consumer Brands, etc. The same is true of the newer consumer durables companies, like Samsung and LG. More ad budgets are now determined in Delhi than before, and certainly Delhi/Noida is the capital of the rapidly growing news business, with the leading TV news companies (NDTV, Network 18) and print giants (the Times group, HT Media) located here. It has also long been known that Delhi leads in auto sales; indeed, Delhi is said to account for more car sales than Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata combined. This is not to argue that Mumbai leads in nothing. It remains the unchallenged king of the financial world, which means banking, insurance, the stock market and much else. It houses the big four of the corporate world (Tata, Kumar Mangalam Birla and the two Ambanis). And Mumbai still has many of the charms that it first acquired as a presidency town: a can-do spirit, an excellent work ethic, civility in daily exchanges between people, safety on the streets, a cosmopolitan air that survives the assaults by the Shiv Sena, and a practical approach to living and dealing — all of which compare favourably with Delhi's more complex mix of aggression and brash self-confidence. But it is an interesting point that even where both cities have big players, as in real estate, it is the Delhi companies that have shown more aggression — the big listed real estate companies are those from Delhi: DLF and Unitech among them. What tilts the scales decisively is the quality of life in the two cities. Delhi has constantly improving civic infrastructure, affordable housing, more sensible rental laws, and reasonable commuting times, whereas Mumbai looks increasingly down at heel and overwhelmed by its problems, and is now unable to cope with its monsoon showers. Indeed, it is the city's civic failures and its hopelessly expensive housing that have driven most of the new businesses in the country to alternative centres like Bangalore and Hyderabad. Mumbai could have developed itself as an international financial or commercial centre, but it has already been upstaged by Dubai, which is fast gaining acceptance as a regional hub. Companies like Western Union and Pepsi no longer have their India chiefs reporting to Singapore or Hong Kong; instead, it is now Dubai. The harsh truth is that no city can continue to prosper and grow if it is not a transport hub and if it is not a preferred place for living and working, as Dubai has become. As for Delhi, by 2010 it will almost certainly have the bigger, busier and swankier airport, with a smoother ride into town assured by a new expressway. Almost any visitor's first impressions will be better in Delhi than in Mumbai, and that is half the battle.