The cost of being an expat in Mumbai

Aug 01, 2014, 07:22 IST | Kanika Sharma

As per the recent Mercer's 2014 "Cost of Living Rankings" survey, Mumbai tops the list of being the costliest city in the country for expats. Kanika Sharma quizzes a wide spectrum of non-Indians to gauge if they can feel the pinch in their pockets

Illustration/Amit Bandre

Susan Hapgood > Trustee, Mumbai Art Room
Hapgood settled down in Mumbai in the fall of 2010. In the three and a half years of her stay, she shares what the shift for her has been like: “The biggest challenge we faced was acclimating to a completely different environment — we found an apartment within two months, working with a superb real estate agent.”

Susan Hapgood

Treating her residence here as a ‘sabbatical’, the art curator soon set up Mumbai Art Room in 2011. “Coming from a career working only in non-profit museums and arts institutions in the US, I had a vision for an organisation that would provide a non-commercial platform for artistic and curatorial experimentation in Mumbai. The Charity Commissioner’s office informed me that I could not form the trust myself. Four Indian trustees — Zasha Colah, Saloni Doshi, Arshiya Lokhandwala, and Deepika Sorabjee — whom I approached to ask if they would help me set it up, officially formed the Mumbai Art Room.  The initial difficulties were what you would expect, basic bureaucracy and endless filling of forms, a much longer timeline than I initially envisioned. It took over a year to complete the process of forming this public trust,” she explains.

Hapgood also differs in opinion about the survey’s results, “Compared to New York, Mumbai did not seem like a costly city. Labour, supplies, rent, all of the expenses were far lower than I am used to, although I feel sympathy with the local who has to bear the costs of the steady inflation.”

Heather Saville Gupta > Author
Gupta, who published her book Becoming Mrs Kumar, capitulated the experience of being a British national in Mumbai. Having shifted here in 2003,  she terms her relocation as “a complete shock”, though soon enough she had a permanent job with one of India’s biggest advertising agencies. Now married to an Indian, she looks back at her transition, “I was given an apartment to live in by the company I was working for, which made things easier, but I still had to struggle with finding a maid, getting things in the apartment to work, and living in a building with no foreigners at all.”

Pic Courtesy/ Vivek Gupta

Gupta relished the economical pricing at the dhabas and had a simple lifestyle while being single. Seven years into marriage, she feels she couldn’t agree any more with the survey: “I have found that Mumbai has become more and more expensive over the years. When I first got here, more than a decade ago, the cost of living was way lower.”

She cites that despite having lower outgoings, no husband or children, if she compared the cost of grocery items, cabs, autorickshaws, electricity, eating and drinking in restaurants and bars, clothing, everything has shot up in price.

“Monthly budget is really impossible as I have gone from a single girl to a family of four, with two live-in nannies to feed as well! But I would say back then that I was living happily on no more than `30-50,000 per month, which is impossible to contemplate now. I now shop around for best deals, and I rarely go out to bars or restaurants especially as the taxes are excruciatingly high,” rues the 44-year-old.

Jeffrey Goldberg > Actor/director/scriptwriter
Jeffrey Goldberg is part of the faculty at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, School of Visual Arts and Fordham University in New York (NY). His first visit to the city as in 2006 to co-write a screenplay with Indian-French filmmaker Pan Nalin. Since then, he set himself up as a filmmaker and acting coach, and set up his studio in 2014. “I felt that the opportunities to work here and bring the style of training that we are used to in NY, and Paris to Mumbai was a wonderful opportunity,” he says. 

Married to an Indian, Goldberg was more than happy to shift here: “I got very lucky as I have been able to find a lovely, spacious flat in an old Bandra bungalow. As for food and leisure, there is just so much to choose from and there always seem to be more and more coming.” Though he rues about the city’s traffic, Goldberg doesn’t feel the need to consider the affordability factor.

D Wood > Music artiste
Well-known Jazz and Hindustani Classical music artiste and the man behind Whistling Woods Bandra Base/Andheri Base relates that his first experience of the city was  in 1984. “I came here to finish my Masters in Hindustani Music which extended due to the Full bright foundation. Then, I got married to an Indian woman and settled here permanently,” says D Wood, an American.

Pic Courtesy/Whistling Woods International

He shares, “Having a property here and living life debt-free, I see only the upside of being here.” Extending the que sera sera attitude to music, he says, “Good equipment has definitely become very costly to possess now. Especially because the rupee against dollar hasn’t strengthened in a while. But one has to be more patient and save up more to get good equipment.”

Gregory Kroitzsh > Founder, The Barking Deer
“I moved here six years ago from New York, where I was a banker. My wife is a journalist who grew up in Mumbai. So, when I found myself without a banking job in the 2008 financial meltdown, we took it as an opportunity to move our family here,” says the founder of the micro-brewery, The Barking Deer.

Gregory Kroitzsh

Having been familiar with Mumbai for 20 years, Kroitzsh assumed that the shift would be easy, he comments, “Simple things like getting phone lines, and gas tanks, were frustrating. And everyday life with traffic and noise can get a bit overwhelming.”

The 49-year-old American has been considering the given inflation: “Prices on bottled beer and spirits has been rising and unfortunately, we will need to make adjustments in the next few months. What worries me more is the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India labelling requirements, which are presently holding up imports on spirits.” He adds that no other country requires such labelling on spirits, and if the authorities are not flexible, many global brands may decide that the additional cost does not warrant the investment in India — a developing alcohol market. He observes that licensing is the most difficult aspect and many of the policies seem to work at cross purposes.

Costliest cities in the world
For expats:

1. Luanda, Angola
2. N’Djamena, Chad
3. Hong Kong
4. Singapore
5. Zurich
6. Geneva
7. Tokyo
8. Bern
9. Moscow
10. Shanghai

From high to low
In India, Mumbai was ranked the most expensive city at 140, followed by New Delhi at 157, Chennai at 185, Bangalore at 196, and Kolkata at 205.

Time to move here!
With the world economy set in a precarious balance, Karachi, Pakistan; Windhoek, Namibia; Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Managua, Nicaragua are the world’s five cheapest cities, in ascending order.
Source: Mercer’s 2014 “Cost of Living Rankings” survey

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