The sense of shock in this city I live in is palpable, even several days after the great deluge. The interesting thing is, it goes beyond the tragedies, and there were plenty of those. No, there is a sense of betrayal, and not just because the Government let us down. The question on lots of minds is, how did this happen here? How did this Sensex-guided, confident spearhead of a new India go down to mere rain without much of a whimper? Great buckets of rain, yes, but rain all the same. Water. How could a few hours of it bring a humming metropolis to a shuddering, shivering halt?
The real answer, it seems to me, lies not so much in what happened that day. Not so much in Government failures on that day, dismaying though they were. It lies in the years gone by, in all that we've done and allowed to be done, in our attitudes through those years. And if you look at it like that, the calamity of July 26 was only waiting to happen. It's tragic that it took away so many of us. But if it spurs this city into doing things differently, maybe that will be a modest silver lining.
What am I talking about? Many things. Three, here.
One: Our relationship with garbage. That it is cleared so shoddily should outrage us far more than it ever has. Nobody, anywhere, should tolerate the huge stinking piles of garbage you can see on the streets. Yet somehow in Bombay, we do just that. (To be fair, in other Indian cities too). Efforts to hold the Municipality to their task of cleaning up never get more than token apathy from citizens. I mean, you can mention a Ram temple and tens of thousands of people will hit the streets in fervent passion. But mention garbage, which by any reckoning is more damaging to our health than a temple or the lack of one, and you'll be lucky to find two. Including you.
And it's that garbage left on the streets that ends up choking our drains, or set nauseatingly afloat by the rain.
There's another aspect to garbage too; our entire attitude towards it. It goes something like this: as long as I can get the stuff out of my house, I don't care what happens to it. Which means I feel free to toss out my trash, indifferent about where, uncaring about who will clean up after me. Cleaning up, after all, is someone else's job.
Time for that to change. Cleaning up is my job. Meaning I had better pay some mind to what I do with my trash, and where it goes after I get rid of it.
Two: Our ideas of "development." For too long, we've thought that word means merely building flyovers and ever-more-fanciful malls; that since in India we now can choose from a long list of cars, we must be "developed." What will it take to understand that these things are meaningless to too many Indians, besides being poorly thought-out by themselves?
After all, how many in Bombay, even in these days of cars flooding onto the streets, actually own or travel by cars? The great majority still commutes by train and bus. Yet while we build flyovers by the dozen, while we celebrate the arrival on our streets of newer and newer car models, who has stopped to wonder that our buses are essentially the same vehicles that plied the streets a generation ago? That you can say the same for the trains? Who has stopped to think of measures to improve commuting for that majority: dedicated bus lanes, for one?
To me, "development" must be about improving the lives of the many, not the few. Yet that's turned upside down in this city. One result of that attitude is the suffering of July 26: because we've cared little for the way most of the city lives. Yet that day was also the time when car-owning Bombay suddenly came face-to-face with the conditions that the rest of Bombay copes with all the time.
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When I got there, the first thing I noticed was that the slope was riven with cracks. Later, a rescue worker came up and said: "Please watch the hill and be careful. It may collapse again any time."
What was I to do with this warning? I watched the hill all right, but if there was another collapse, what would save any of us standing there? What could have saved any of those 75 unfortunates?
But if that was frightening, there was irony at the site too. Large earthmovers were at work on the boulders, lifting them in the search for bodies. The question asked itself. How did they get to this spot, when the slum all around is so congested that even walking is sometimes a squeeze?
Answer: the municipality drove a road through the slum for the earthmovers, demolishing several dozen more huts. That is, to get help to the victims of a landslide that destroyed a hundred or more huts, the helpers had to destroy still more huts.
What does that say about a city?
And consider all that destruction in the light of what happened last December and January. To great middle-class approval, the Maharashtra Government destroyed nearly a hundred thousand slum homes in Bombay, turning half a million residents of this city out on the streets, instantly poorer.
What does it say about a city that nearly half of its residents must live - have no choice but to live -- so desperately? That their homes are vulnerable not just to authorities intent on demolition, not just to a downpour and a landslide, but also to rescue teams?
And in fact, to me the terrible irony of Saki Naka captured in one muddy freeze-frame the dilemmas in this city: the attitudes, the policies, the indifference, the short-sightedness. And the calamity of July 26 was the price we pay for those dilemmas.
Where to from here?
There are innumerable problems in Bombay that need to be addressed. In the wake of July 26th, we've all heard plenty about the "spirit" of the city, and that it transcended every barrier we know. There's truth there, all right. But the true test of that spirit lies in how we will hold on to it and use it to tackle our problems in the months ahead. To me, if we can applaud transcending barriers and also applaud slum demolitions, the spirit seems rather weak.
We're all in this together, after all. The fury of the rain hit us all. Blame the elected officials and bureaucrats, yes, and let's find the steady outrage that will make them accountable. But also blame ourselves: every time we fling out a plastic bag; or gawk in wonder at flyovers and malls as the epitome of "development" without a thought for the millions to whom those things mean little.
If the rains bring about some of that introspection ... well, we can at least hope.