The high-rise projects of Antop Hill, a neighborhood in the heart of Mumbai, were built to cope with a city whose population exploded through the 20th century. They were supposed to show what a new, modern India could do for its poor. Today they are a failure. A blanched monorail, which streams among the blocks, barely runs.
Below it, on the busy Shaikh Misary Street, rows of shops hawk anything from fish food to car tires. Most of them are illegal. Even Antop Hill’s electricity is owned by a local, small-time mob, whose child recruits tap government wires along the rooftops of nearby Sangam Nagar, one of Mumbai’s largest slums.
Antop Hill is just one of dozens of districts in India’s “Maximum City” that have moved little despite India’s blooming wealth. At the heart of their neglect is crime that has shifted in sync with India’s move from a poor, closed economy to one which is beginning, at last, to fulfill its potential, under a young government, and a capricious leader, aggressively chasing foreign investment.
For Antop Hill’s residents, that chase means next to nothing.
“Everywhere here is corrupt,” said Asim (who wouldn’t tell me his last name), a short, bearded man who chewed great handfuls of the city’s traditional karasev chips as we spoke. He and his family were promised a home in one of the district’s priapic new blocks two years ago. But recently the owner, already well behind schedule, put out word that Muslims, like them, won’t be welcome. He is jobless and there is nowhere to complain. The police, he told me, “aren’t worth the hassle. They’ll just want money.” He, his wife and two children will probably stay in their five-meter-square room for another few years at least. They’ve been there 10 already.
The slum kings
Twenty years ago the mafia ruled Antop Hill, just as it did most of Mumbai. Dons perfected Robin Hood personas in the aftermath of communal riots in 1992 and 1993 that cleaved the city along its two main religious lines: Hinduism and Islam. Some, like Dawood Ibrahim, head of the feared D-Company syndicate, became legends. The riots came only months after Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, working beneath Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, had masterminded the opening of India’s economy. They slashed import tariffs, deregulated markets, lowered taxes and welcomed foreign investment.
No longer was India a shut shop. The contraband which had fueled a black market since the British left in 1947 was suddenly widespread. The dons’ main revenue stream had ended. But for them, and an industrious new class of extortionists, racketeers and smugglers, there were now billions for the taking.
Crime in 1990s Mumbai became the premier route to social mobility. “Prince” Acchu (pronounced ‘ah-choo’) was 16 when the riots claimed three of his family members. Becoming a hitman wasn’t so much a moral quandary: It was a way for slumdogs like him to become kings.
It was a profession, too. Prince spent entire nights on the roof of his apartment block in Dongri, a low-income scrub of a district in the city’s south, shooting rounds with his German-made Mauser pistol. For close quarters combat he and others used homemade “desi,” or “katta,” guns.
His first job was in 1994. A man from the area approached him. There was no hesitation. A kill could earn him anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000, unthinkable sums in Dongri. By the time he was sentenced to eight years for murder, in 2003, Prince had racked up 35 victims. He told me he felt bad for them, when we met in the early hours in a car on an empty highway. “But a man works on his stomach.”
Sometimes Prince dressed as Hindu, other times Muslim, so that when eyewitnesses described his appearance the kill was chalked up as a religious spat, instead of a hit. One time a target was sightseeing near the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s landmark ceremonial arch. But he was with India’s then-cricket captain Mohammed Azharuddin: It was too risky. Prince turned down the kill. Four days later, he carried it out.
He was lucky to escape with prison. Thousands of fellow killers died at the hands of police endowed with new, controversial laws allowing them to shoot first and ask questions later. It didn’t matter that dozens of cops fabricated “encounters,” as media dubbed them euphemistically. Violent death had become so commonplace on the city’s streets that they barely made the news. Anyone who crossed the dons could easily be killed. Journalists, businessmen — even politicians — regularly wound up on the obituaries page.
Some cops gained a reputation as “encounter specialists.” One was Dhanushyakodi Sivanandan. In uniform, he killed hundreds. As the body count climbed, the mob dispersed. Dawood, once the king of the Mumbai underground, is now holed up in Karachi, Pakistan, hunted by India, and even the FBI, for his involvement in a string of Mumbai terror attacks, including a coordinated 2008 assault that killed 171 people.
Chhota Rajan, Dawood’s former lieutenant, was arrested in Bali last October after 27 years on the run, many of which were spent operating a drugs and extortion ring in Bangkok. Hawala, a worldwide, informal money transfer system, has now become the dons’ chief moneymaking avenue. But largely they, and the hitmen, have gone. Most of Prince’s money was spent on lawyers, he told me. But he’s still living off his bloodsoaked savings. “My past life didn’t help me much,” he said. “As we have earned is the way we have spent.”
Today Sivanandan runs a private security firm in Parel, Mumbai’s boomtown, whose Manhattanesque skyline pokes out among the city’s central slums. He still wears the thick, salt-and-pepper moustache of his cop days. He doesn’t regret the past one bit. “We cleaned this place up,” he told me. “We did whatever it took.”
Since the dons fled, however, India, and Mumbai, have completely changed. In 2015 alone, the country’s economic growth topped 7 percent, and it’s expected to hit 8 or 10 percent. That outstrips China. Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai have emerged as IT powerhouses. Their workforces are the envy of Asia. In 1995, as Bombay was renamed Mumbai, India’s middle class was estimated at just 25 million. Now it is over a quarter of a billion.
The Ponzi scheme
Power, however, has been concentrated into ever-decreasing circles. Like the oligarchs of post-Soviet Russia, Mumbai’s industrialists took advantage of the 1991 liberalization to make billions, propelling them into economic and political stratospheres never before possible. Companies like Tata, Reliance and Hindalco began to control vast wealth. With them came a new, highly skilled form of organized crime.
The networks of slumdogs and small-time racketeers of old have been displaced in favor of deep-set cabals of politicians, police officers, educated businessmen and tech geeks. By 2015 the graft had grown so much that it became one of the premier election platforms of Narendra Modi, leader of the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who swept to power in a landslide.
More than two years into his rule most Mumbaikars are just as skeptical of corruption as they ever were. “All big goons are politicians,” Nizam Shaikh, a career police informer, told me one overcast afternoon, outside an art-deco cinema in Lower Parel that was once famed for its porn flicks.
Shaikh’s paunch peeks out from a tucked-in checkered shirt and fashionably ripped jeans. His hatchback car, bedizened with badly fixed bodywork, blasts Bangra tunes. He told me he wanted to switch from informing to Bollywood acting. For two decades he has run a network of over 1,000 people in south Mumbai. But “it’s different now.” These days it is the rich, not the poor, who become Mumbai dons.
It is not surprising, considering the billions to be had. In 2013, Ketan Shah was one of about 13,000 investors who lost a combined $1 billion to a commodities fraud known as the National Spot Exchange Limited (NSEL) Scam. Shah, who lost a personal fortune of $2.5 million, has spent the past two years tracing the routes of the fraud, in which fake commodities were sold by NSEL, promoted by Financial Technologies India Ltd (FTIL) and owned by Jignesh Shah, a businessman who became a billionaire in 2007.
Jignesh Shah was a free market fanatic: a South Asian Gordon Gekko, with little of the lyricism. “Everything is fair in love and war,” he told associates. “And that applies to business as well.”
When it was discovered that NSEL was a giant Ponzi scheme, Shah backtracked, blaming executives and trading parties. Warehouses existed only on paper. Trading rules were bent with political connections. The scam was clear. But when Ketan Shah began to investigate, the paper trail, and police interest, ran dry.
The fleeing Shah had close ties with a former finance minister, a former agriculture minister and Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance and India’s richest man. He was only arrested in 2016.
A huge chunk of the scammed money was siphoned off to a subsidiary group in Mauritius, according to the CBI, India’s version of the FBI. Jignesh Shah is already looking to his next venture. “I will concentrate on something new,” he told Forbes India last September.
These days Ketan Shah spends each day poring through thousands of documents relating to the scam and trying to pry some cash back for investors. His office, a sun-bleached block on the city’s southern tip, looks down on the Gateway of India, Mumbai’s door to the Arabian Sea, through which the city’s early gangsters made fortunes importing Western goods during the closed economy years.
“It has been two years,” he told me, passing over a tranche of unanswered letters.The police “haven’t even checked phone messages or emails.”
India’s consumer affairs ministry knew about NSEL’s illegal trades in 2012 but failed to act. Its chief, Pranab Mukherjee, cast aside regulations. Dubious contracts were awarded in spades. “One thing is clear,” said local freelance journalist Arindam Mukherjee. “This one is a beauty. There is blatant playing of the system by … Jignesh Shah and the unhealthy stench of a politician-businessman nexus.”
“It’s just so… obvious,” added Ketan Shah. “The police are corrupt, and they’re so far behind these criminals.
Police had initially told him a crashed FTIL computer server was being picked up from Bangalore for analysis. Now, the people handing FTIL’s servers claim there never was a crash. “This proves a cover up,” he said. “There’s no money, and there’s no will.”
Commodities aren’t the only big-money industry to come under the aegis of organized crime in India’s new economy. “Mumbai has a land mafia, a water mafia, an electricity mafia — even a sand mafia,” Mamta Chitnis Sen, a journalist, told me beside Leopold’s, the bar made famous by Gregory David Roberts’ crime memoir Shantaram, about his collusion with Dawood in the ‘80s.
People who get in the way are often killed. In 2010, Satish Shetty filed a right-to-information (RTI) case to obtain documents about IRB Infrastructure, a multi-million dollar firm conducting what he believed was a land grab on the highway from Mumbai to Pune, Maharashtra state’s second city, located 90 miles southeast. Just 90 days later, Satish was stabbed during his morning walk. He died soon after, cradled in the arms of his brother, Sandeep, who has since given up work to hunt Satish’s killers.
It has been exhausting, Sandeep told me when we met at a fancy new cafe opposite the high court. Police dropped, then reopened, Satish’s case. Though six members of IRB’s board failed polygraphs and evidence pointed to their involvement in the killing, no arrests were made. Sandeep recorded a call with Anil Sinha, now director of the CBI, in which the latter admitted political pressure to drop the case.
“This is murder, not a financial scam,” Sandeep said. “We’re a democracy, not a banana republic. Yet.”
In January, police raided offices. But still, Sandeep told me, his teeth gritted, no one has been brought to trial. Neither will the police pick up his calls. “I’ve given up on justice,” he said. “But perhaps I can do something for my brother.” Maharashtra is the deadliest place to file an RTI: Ten people have been killed in the last 10 years after doing so.
Prince didn’t carry out any of those hits. When he left prison, in 2011, Mumbai wasn’t the same. Crime had professionalized. Some mafia bosses even employed teams of hackers to pull off seven-figure scams. Sources in the police and media told me that modern mafiosos prefer highly skilled assassins. They can fake natural deaths and manipulate hospital records.
The most technologically advanced Prince had ever got was a change of cell phone. He was under-qualified, surplus. There was no longer the need to spend a few thousand rupees on an uneducated street kid from Dongri. “Crime is for the rich kids now,” he told me. In modern Mumbai, it is said, the new wealthy class controls everything — even murder.
Antop Hill’s own network of crime has changed, too. There are still gangsters, but they’re shadows of the old bosses. “Iqbal is our biggest don,” Zubair, a local driver, told me as we sped past cockfights and drug dens one evening in the neighborhood. But when I met Iqbal later that night, he was little more than a small-time drug peddler, getting high on his own supply of charas, a local hashish. Dawood Ibrahim he most certainly isn’t.
Major organized crime, like the city’s wealth, has departed Antop Hill. Even the illegal “Matka” lotteries so many enjoy each evening are remotely run, from Dubai. “The police are the mafia now,” Mohammed, who runs the fish store beneath the monorail tracks, told me. Each day, at 6 p.m., a local officer stops by for his 200-rupee bribe. If he refuses, the shop will be destroyed or shuttered.
All the while Mumbai’s income divide is becoming chasmic. Slums grow while constructions of almost mythic opulence shoot up downtown. Antilla, the giant, Jenga-block home of Reliance’s Ambani, became the world’s first billion-dollar home in 2010. It is thought to be the second-most expensive residential property on earth, behind Buckingham Palace. Thirty-story JK House, the unfinished home of fabric magnate Gautam Singhania, is an odd facsimile across town. This “vast middle class, punch drunk on sudden wealth” has created a kingdom with “its own newspapers, films, television programs, morality plays, transport systems, malls and intellectuals,” wrote Arundhati Roy, India’s famous champion of the poor.
Meanwhile places like Antop Hill have hardly changed. Corruption has sucked money from its welfare projects. Even crime, and the dons, once offered a way out of poverty. “Today there is no way out of here if I play by the rules,” said Asim. “At least with the dons, you knew who was good and who was bad.”
When Narendra Modi spoke at Madison Square Garden in September 2014, crowds greeted him with feverish enthusiasm. He had mass appeal: a grocer’s son from a small, poor town in Gujarat, who rose to become a fierce, populist technocrat. He promised more money for the middle classes, better businesses, services for the poor and a war on corruption, which, he would later tell crowds in Delhi, was eating away at the country “like a termite.”
His electorate, and the press, cooed. Perhaps this self-made, polymathic political bruiser could finally cut out graft. Spray away the termites. There was even a pledge, made alongside Barack Obama, to finally root out Dawood, who has, according to intelligence reports, now cultivated ties with extremist groups like al-Qaeda.
But by his next U.S. visit last September, Modi’s sheen had worn thin. As he visited tech heavyweights Google, Facebook and Apple, protesters held up placards denouncing an “agenda of hate and greed.”
“A lot of people are realizing there’s no magic wand, no formula that this government can do anything radically different,” said Stanford South Asia Studies professor Thomas Blom Hansen. Modi’s everyman image has taken a battering. It’s easy to see why.
India has crept up Transparency International’s Corruption Index, from 94 in 2012 to 85 last year. But its overall score has decreased from 38 to 36 out of 100, and the country is still placed just behind Burkina Faso, Morocco and Mongolia — hardly the mark of a great democracy. In 2013, social reformer Anna Hazare successfully lobbied for a lokpal, or government watchdog, and a Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, which many thought would be a major counteroffensive against corruption.
But it has been over a year since both laws were passed, and Modi’s government has already been slammed for not implementing it. The CBI, entrusted with the lion’s share of high-profile corruption cases, is woefully understaffed: One thousand positions lay vacant against its sanctioned size of 6,676 officers. A select committee recently declared its fear “that if this situation persists for a long time, this may adversely impact the quality of investigation.” Even anti-corruption groups have become corrupt. In April, the Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party was mired in claims of favoritism and bad practice.
Modi’s own cabinet, too, has come under fire. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje, chief minister of Rajasthan, have both been accused of impropriety in dealings with shamed cricket magnate Lalit Modi. Even the prime minister has checked his own vision of a New India, avoiding talk of large-scale job creation and urbanization. Opposition leaders have seized on his perceived fall. Rahul Gandhi, a high profile parliamentarian, has already called Modi and his party “anti poor,” adding, “They want to keep their suits centerpiece.”
That is not to say India and Mumbai don’t have their good guys. Mumbai Votes is a civil society group set up by Vivek Gilani, an environmental entrepreneur who grew tired of the government’s constant posturing. “Corruption doesn’t work alongside the system,” he told me. “It is the system. People here need to be shown how endemic corruption is in Indian politics.” Mumbai Votes lists spurious election promises on its website and even distributes a yearly magazine which chronicles local officials’ rap sheets. Almost none are clean, and offenses range from parking misdemeanors to fraud and even assault. “If people actually knew,” he added, “perhaps they wouldn’t vote in these crooks.”
Others, like Police Reforms Watch director Maja Daruwala, believe the power politicians have to directly influence the careers of policemen and women is causing the biggest problem. Perhaps one day soon, she said, Mumbai will have a police force that finally lives up to its British Raj-era billing as the “second-best on Earth behind Scotland Yard.” It’s still, she admits, a long way off.
On a macro level, the costs of corruption in the world’s largest democracy are eye-watering. Numerous estimates place the opportunity costs to be $50 billion yearly. A Council on Foreign Relations report recently suggested corruption could cost India $200 billion, or around 10 percent of its GDP, by 2017. Even former prime minister Manmohan Singh has been investigated as part of an alleged coalfield scam. Dozens of people told me that the crimes of India’s political and business elites are far more damaging to the country than the dons ever were.
“There’s a huge cognitive dissonance here,” said Ketan Shah, looking out across Colaba’s variegated skyline. “From outside you’d think India was an investor’s haven. When you get here, though, the whole place is a mess.”
Back on Antop Hill, Asim’s view has always been from the ground. It is the night before Ganesh Chathurti, a Hindu festival when locals gather to worship huge homemade Ganesha idols before walking them into the Arabian Sea. Each neighborhood builds its own centerpiece. When I visited Antop Hill, its own 10-foot-high statue was being rolled into place on the back of a rusted pick-up lined with disco lights and dancing boys — like a psychotropic Thanksgiving parade — before its 10-day worship and watery demise.
Asim looked up from a crowded spot on Shaikh Mishary Street. The empty towers that stood as steel-enforced monoliths of a hope he, and millions, have lost. Traffic piled up behind the elephant god’s ride and the Hindi music accompanying his arrival was almost drowned out by a swell of car horns. The scene reminded Asim of Modi’s government, he told me: all very fun and exciting when it turned up but, ultimately, no one is going anywhere fast. The blood of Mumbai’s criminal past may largely have washed away. But that crime has moved upstairs and fortified.
Asim and his friends went off to celebrate Chathurti, laughing and smoking cigarettes bought individually. Around us topless men tore parts off old cars and women walked by in hijabs and brightly colored salwar khameezes, along the wooden planks above rat-infested sewers that wind among warrens of one-room homes. Life here is far from India’s power high-rise. And, for almost everyone, that divide will likely continue to grow.