Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Mumbai (Suburban)

On Monday I had the pleasure of visiting some folks in the Econ department at Mumbai University.

Their main campus is located north of the old part of the city, in the area referred to as "the Suburbs".  (The original campus, which is an architectural masterpiece, is reserved for administration, convocation, and so on, is located in South Mumbai.)  In fact there is really nothing suburban about this part of the city.  The Suburban Mumbai district is roughly three times larger than South Mumbai, both in terms of population and land area, and in fact an important new business district is located in this part of the city (the BKC.)

I met with Abhay Pethe, a major urban economist in India, two of his Ph.D. students, Vaidehi Tandel and Sahil Gandhi, as well as some of the researchers at the center that Abhay runs.  I was really impressed with their work.  I will highlight two examples.  First, a paper they published in Environment and Urbanization ASIA builds on Elinor Ostrom's IAD framework to explore the institutional actors involved with public land management in Mumbai.  This is a complicated issue as many government agencies do not even have good records of lands under their jurisdiction!  But although the issues are complicated, they are important, as various governmental entitles own a large fraction of land in Mumbai.  Their study contains a great deal of information, but more importantly, by leveraging the IAD framework, the information is synthesized and presented in a way that is useful.  

Tackling complexity head on is one reason that Elinor Ostrom is one of my intellectual heroes and it is always encouraging to see other economists building off of her work.  It is no easy task, and anyone who successfully pulls it off deserves to be commended.  It is an understatement to say not all economists appreciate the work of Elinor Ostrom (the wise Nobel committee excepted,) but Abhay and his students do.  These are my type of economists!

Another project their Center is currently working on involves estimating land price gradients for Mumbai.  The lack of data on land values is a serious challenge for urban economists who want to study Indian cities (like me!) but they have the data, and their regression results (and I got to see their preliminary results even though it is still a work in progress,) look fantastic.  There is much more I could say about their research but this blog post is long already.

All in all, the visit was a valuable learning experience for me and I was very glad to meet new colleagues and make new friends.

I took the commuter rail system to get back to my hotel.  The Mumbai Suburban Railway is one of the most famous in the world, both for the number of passengers who travel on it every day, and also because the density at which the passengers travel is notoriously high.  Luckily, going from the north to the south in the afternoon, the congestion is not bad at all, and the trip home was a breeze. 

One novel aspect of this rail system involves the privileges afforded to first-class passengers.  To buy a ticket, a second class passenger must wait in line (which at rush hour I estimate takes about 10 or 15 minutes).  However those buying a first-class ticket are allowed to skip to the head of the line.  Now of course, the passengers who have waited in line are not thrilled to have some rich guy cut ahead of them.  However, it is an example of efficiency in action from which the California Department of Motor Vehicles can learn a lesson.  Of course it is inequitable, but it is efficient, and the second-class passengers end up paying a lower rate as a result, as the rail system can charge higher rates to first-class passengers as a result of extending this privilege.