Portals of Globalization: Repositioning Mumbai’s Ports and Zones, 1833–2014

By Megan Maruschke

Social scientists tend to talk about globalization as a challenge to nation states; its threat, especially to developing states, is often illustrated in special economic zones, export processing zones, free trade zones and other manufacturing and warehousing enclaves. National or regional taxes, environmental regulations, tariffs, and labor laws often do not apply in these spaces. Zones epitomize deterritorialization processes and make class, race, ethnic, and gender inequalities visible on a global scale, as female workers struggle to earn a daily wage while laboring in notoriously unsafe conditions. In the 1970s, there were just a handful of these zones; now, there are well over 4,000, a number that keeps rising.[1] The recent expansion of and enthusiasm for the policy in many states are even more puzzling. The various UN agencies that promoted zones in the 20th century no longer officially continue to do so.

Megan Maruschke,Portals of Globalization: Repositioning Mumbai’s Ports and Zones, 1833–2014, Dialectics of the Global 2 (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2019).

Despite the supposed novelty of the zone linked to contemporary globalization processes, plenty of social scientists as well as policy makers claim that the zone has a much longer past: today’s special economic zones stem from the free ports of the past. This narrative helps policy makers to make the zone palatable by pointing to its long and successful history. These historical narratives tend to sit uneasily with contemporary depictions of the erosion of the state, and instead stress the enduring links to romanticized Hanseatic league and Italian renaissance free ports. Uncovering and questioning this history is one aim of this book. Focusing on Mumbai (formerly Bombay), I reveal how free ports and zones have accompanied global and national critical junctures marked by new forms of state organization and integration in (trans)regional markets. I use the concept “portals of globalization” to examine the contemporary narratives of zones as unbundled from national space and sites of global flows.[2]

Some excellent historical research has looked at zones in contexts of weak, postcolonial states and the fall of empire in the 20th century; others have stressed its implementation by US or UN institutions in the context of the global Cold War. That research does not fully explain the use of zones in other contexts, including India. India was hardly in the same negotiating position as the postcolonial Caribbean states. Its early zone debates drew from a number of precedents, and officials continued to monitor zones and shift Indian policy over time. This longue durée approach reveals that there was not a single policy transfer. Between the 1960s and 1989, India used zones to connect to its non-resident Indian diaspora investors in Western markets, incidentally leading to trade with Eastern Europe and the USSR. Statistics compiled by the well-known study, The New International Division of Labour, did not account for these dynamics.[3] For this reason, the history of zones around the world deserves further scrutiny.

One-way traffic at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust. Photo: private

This book centers on the past and present of zones and ports in India’s major trading city, Mumbai. I chose this city as a focal point for this book due to its significance to India since the mid-nineteenth century, though in terms of world trade its positionality has remained secondary. Bombay has hosted zones for decades, including India’s second export processing zone (Santacruz since 1973). I investigate this city’s ports and zones, focusing on three broad periods of global and regional change: Bombay’s transition from an enclave to a capital of a territorializing province and the institutionalization of the British Raj (1858); India’s national independence and its particular economic strategy to cope with the world of Cold War competition (1947); and finally more recent attempts at economic liberalization (1991). I try to reconstruct this past by, wherever possible, referencing a century and a half of administrative annual reports from a number of agencies and local business chambers: Bombay Port Trust, Kandla Port Trust, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, Ministry of Shipping and Transport, Indian Merchants’ Chamber, and Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, among others. I found that Mumbai’s ports and free trade zones are sites through which state and nonstate actors have channeled and connected their globalization and territorialization projects; Portals of Globalization seeks to show how these merchants, companies, families in the diaspora, the province of Bombay, the state of Maharashtra, and the Government of India have negotiated shifting spatial orders and dealt with new national strategies at a local level.[4] In turn, they reposition Mumbai in these transregional frameworks that include state territorialization projects.

How does the free port of the past relate to the special economic zone of today? Portals of Globalization provides some insights in two ways. First, there is not a straight line between these policies, but the early to mid-twentieth century appears to be a period in which the semantics of “free ports” shifted to “free zones” and other variants. The 1970s and 1980s were also a major shift, at least in India, to the zone projects we know today with reduced or eliminated workers’ rights and extensive tax breaks. Furthermore, this book sheds new light on very early debates, starting in 1949 – very soon after Indian Independence – on whether siting a free port or foreign-trade zone (a new scheme in the US at that time) at Bombay would be useful to Indian commerce and shipping. Over time, this debate morphed into Kandla Free Trade Zone (now Kandla Special Economic Zone), finished in the 1960s near Kandla port. This is not just a change in semantics. There are real differences between free ports and free zones, starting with the fact that zones are both warehouses and factories (and financial, legal instruments) that no longer need to be housed at dry or wet ports. But, and this is the second insight, it can be useful to abandon the notion that there is a single origin and policy transfer between free ports and zones that historians can trace. Historical research in the Indian context points to several simultaneous transnational policy transfers. Instead, thinking about these spaces as spatial formats, one can see in what way the norms of this format – its performance, its routinization, its institutionalization, the actors involved and the processes of spatialization it enables – allows historians to, over the longue durée, ask how this format is so entwined with the territorial state in a way that transcends 150 years, even if some of its content shifts overtime.

View of Mumbai Port docks from the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and
Industry building on the Ballard Estate. Photo: private

For TRAFO readers, chapter 6 might be of most interest in conceptually laying out the stakes of “transregionalism” in researching zones. At the most basic level, throughout the book I show how “global” connectivities imagined for the zone policy as well as the resulting business networks (which do not always match those imagined by policy makers) are targeted to specific countries, regions, or groups like the Indian diaspora. Likewise, these plans link to infrastructure projects inside India that connect through Mumbai. “Transregional” can better stand in for “global,” a term that hides many of the specific spatializations the zone enables. In chapter 6, I explore in what way these targeted projects since the 2000s impact South Asian regionalism. The ports in Mumbai are meant to link up to an Indian-managed – jointly managed by authorities stemming from Kandla and Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, which is India’s first experience with managing foreign ports — port-zone in Iran. On the Iranian side, transport infrastructure links this port to Indian corporate interests in Afghanistan. Iran is not a member of the South Asian Free Trade Area, but as Indian companies could not cross into Afghanistan over Pakistan (both also regional members) due to ongoing tensions, they needed an extra-regional pathway to pursue regional trade. Further insights show how Japan and Japanese companies sponsor infrastructure projects within India to increase trade to particular regions like Africa and West Asia, linking through Mumbai’s ports. Transregionalism is not only useful in specifying cross-regional connections, but also in exploring how these connections rework concepts of regions/regional organizations while also refashioning city regions at a scale below the nation state.

This book argues that zones have a more complex, connected, and ambivalent relationship with the state than social science research describes. Through the example of Mumbai, India, I demonstrate a longer history of using place and creating enclaves as part of both territorializing and globalizing projects. The zone links the territorializing projects within the state to transregional networks and mobilities outside the state: that is, it fosters re-territorialization. I hope that readers may find some inspiration in how the concept “portals of globalization” can be methodologically productive in transregional research.


[1] “Special Economic Zones. Not so Special,” The Economist, 04 April 2015, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2015/04/04/not-so-special

[2] For an overview of the concept and its origins, Claudia Baumann, Antje Dietze, and Megan Maruschke, “Portals of Globalization – An Introduction,” Comparativ: Zeitschrift für Globalgeschichte und vergleichende Gesellschaftsforschung, 27 (2017) 3-4, pp. 7-20.

[3] Folker Fröbel, et. al., The New International Division of Labour: Structural Unemployment in Industrialised Countries and Industrialisation in Developing Countries, trans. Pete Burgess, Cambridge University Press, 1980.

[4] The city administration is mostly managed by regional state agencies; the Port Trust is owned by the central government but managed and financed independently.


Megan Maruschke. Portals of Globalization: Repositioning Mumbai’s Ports and Zones, 1833–2014. Dialectics of the Global 2. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2019.


Megan Maruschke is a senior researcher in the SFB 1199 “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition” at Leipzig University and a member of ReCentGlobe. She is working on a book on American boundaries in the long 19th century, which explores how these boundaries were part of the production of a variety of spatial formats, beyond bounding the nation state. She teaches global history at Leipzig University and Addis Ababa University.


Citation: Megan Maruschke, Portals of Globalization: Repositioning Mumbai’s Ports and Zones, 1833–2014, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.07.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24415.


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