This essay was written the day after the catastrophic floods in Mumbai on 26 July 2005 and was published as Some Reasons to be Optimistic, or, Mumbai and the Global History of Urban Disasters in TimeOut Mumbai Vol.1, Issue 26, 26 August to 8 September 2005.
Whether you consider the recent floods in Mumbai to be either a natural disaster, or a man-made crisis — or a bit of both — most will agree that we have just been through the biggest social crisis to face the city since the communal riots and bomb blasts in 1992-1993. It is not often in history that an urban disaster prompts wide-ranging public reflection and institutional changes. There are many contemporary lessons to be drawn in Mumbai from the global history of urban disasters, from floods and famines to terrorism and riots. Crises such as these prompt immediate action, but often the most sweeping and epochal changes they inspire happen once the original impulses to act are forgotten. These impulses are buried away in subsequent events and history, obscuring their effect in prompting wider, often revolutionary changes.
The catastrophic earthquake which destroyed most of the Portugese capital Lisbon in 1755 and wiped out most of its population — and the philosopher Voltaire’s satirical reflections on its causes and consequences in his novel Candide, or Optimism inaugurated the Enlightenment in Europe, the tradition of thinking which questioned the divine right of kings and priests to rule.