Mumbai and the Global History of Urban Disasters

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.

While continental monarchs were overthrown by the post-disaster polemic of Voltaire, three centuries later, disaster relief has become a golden opportunity for modern elected leaders to shore up their reputations, playing politics while appearing above it. Consider Rudy Giuliani’s live calls to the media from the New York Mayor’s Office hours after 9/11, and his constant and reassuring presence on live television in the days and weeks afterwards, constantly answering calls and questions from shocked and angry citizens. While George W. Bush seized this moment of crisis to repackage the his presidency as a permanent war on terrorism, Giuliani will probably now make a bid to succeed Bush in the White House in 2008, with the image of him in the days and weeks after the terrorist attacks still vivid in the public memory of 9/11.

Compare the response of our leaders and officials in Mumbai in the days and weeks since the flood disaster. Unlike in New York, the common man’s desire for symbols to assuage their grief, and faces to address their complaints, were conspicuously absent. On 26/7, the BMC shut its offices early, and its engineers and officers waded home, while politicians didn’t emerge into the limelight until days after the calamity. By then they were too late to do a Giuliani. For lack of braver faces, that weekend the newspapers ended up featuring two men on their front pages, both tottering on inflatable boats in the water-logged lanes of Kalina, on very different rescue missions. While Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray was evacuating himself and his family, Police Commissioner A.N. Roy was helping stranded families and overseeing relief operations.

It is a strange paradox of our democracy that our institutions remain faceless at the times when we most need them to respond with a human touch. In contrast, our leaders reach out the most when we least need them, staring down at us with their vote-bank agendas, while our institutions continue crumbling under their populist promises. Why do our institutions respond in this way?

During a visit to India last week, economist Amartya Sen argued that democratic institutions such as regular elections and a watchful media have banished the endemic threat of famine, a spectre which had plagued the Indian countryside since colonial times. By focussing pressure on politicians to act early to prevent such disasters, popular franchise and a free press have effectively regulated the performance of public institutions. However, Sen argues, while democracy has banished famines from postcolonial India, the state has been singularly ineffective in dealing with chronic undernourishment and malnutrition (in which India lags behind sub-Saharan Africa). Real development, according to Sen, means changing everyday conditions such as basic health, environment, and livelihood. The analogy with our own situation in Mumbai is instructive. For the public of the city, the monsoon flooding has provided an impetus to action, which could result in much wider changes. But while we can force action in the wake of crises like famines and floods, transforming our everyday life and infrastructure requires a much longer term effort at changing institutions.

The plague epidemic in Bombay in the 1896, which prompted an exodus of half the city’s population, and the demolition of most of the inner city north of the Fort and Native Town, gave birth to the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) in 1898. In the thirty years of its existence before being absorbed into the BMC in 1933, the BIT doubled the number of roads in the city, acquired and reclaimed vast lands for development, and laid the foundations for land and housing markets on which Mumbai still operates. Many of our best-known roads — Hughes, Turner, and Cadell — still bear the names of former BIT Chairmen and Trustees who had them built. The origin of such wide-ranging reforms, and the political will to develop modern Mumbai, was not in some lofty vision plan, or in the public spirit of prominent citizens.

The BIT was borne of the paranoid fear of the city’s elites of disease spreading to their bungalows from overcrowded slums in the inner city. The plague was an airborne disease, and the cure prescribed was to allow the sea breezes into the inner city, through new arterial roads and well-spaced building and plots. After ruthless demolitions of tenements and seizure of lands in the name of public health and open spaces, the BIT planned and developed most of what we still recognise as the Island City from Chowpatty and Lamington Road to Shivaji Park and Five Gardens. Crisis gave birth to change, and transformed the city in the decades that followed.

There is reason to hope that the recent floods in Mumbai, like the nineteenth century plague, could result in similarly wide-ranging reforms, in a city which has been lately preoccupied in debating its future as a global metropolis. There has been much attention given the public interest litigation (PIL) recently filed by prominent film makers and socialites on the failure of the state’s disaster management plan. What has not been pointed out is that three additional PILs, filed earlier this year on much longer-term urban development issues, are about to be given their final hearings by the Bombay High Court and Supreme Court — on land planning for the Mill Lands, on the protection of coastal mangroves and wetlands, and on redevelopment of cessed buildings as high-rises.

The recent infrastructural crisis will give a much greater relevance to these judgments, which impact policies meant at regulating the abuses of private builders, land speculators, and corrupt local authorities. Also on the cards is the National Urban Renewal Mission, a central Government programme for local urban bodies to reform through better implementation of laws already on the books, of which most citizens remain unaware. Most important among these laws are the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments on decentralisation of local decision-making to non-party ward committees, which municipal corporators and political parties have actively prevented from forming in the past five years in Mumbai. Ward committees would have been a much more effective mechanism for immediate relief during the floods, and a persistent watchdog on the local elected representatives and ward officers before and after the disaster.

Long-term changes such as these are often improvised in the wake of disasters, unaware of the historical script they may be following, or their origins in immediate crises. But there are real reasons to be optimistic. It was his horror at the 1943 Bengal famine, and the flood of refugees sheltering in his childhood home in Calcutta, that prompted Amartya Sen’s lifelong academic work on hunger. This won him the Nobel Prize more than fifty years later, when he is one of the most influential voices in policy debates on social development. The plague panic in colonial Bombay set in motion the formation of the modern city, through the agency of the BIT. Today, while everyone is raising their voices, we have yet to find our Sen, or even our Giuliani.

We can, however, take hope from Voltaire’s post-disaster philosophy of Enlightenment. His own literary response to the destruction of the medieval city of Lisbon in earthquake and fires scripted the next two hundred years of political change in Europe, and the birth of modern democracy. The protagonist of Candide stubbornly refuses to accept the explanations of the ruling priests and aristocracy that the disaster was ordained by either or God or Nature, mocking them with the repeated question “is this the best of all possible worlds?” It is our own answers to this age-old question that will determine the future of our shared institutions and everyday lives in Mumbai.