When is a disaster a disaster? Is it when the impact is sudden?
Yesterday, as a Bihari rickshaw driver drove me to work from the airport, the thought was bothersome. Much later, as I went to bed, it went to bed with me, and enmeshed itself with other thoughts in a noisy head. On waking up this morning I peered outside and, beyond the winter mist, took in the sight of ambitious skyscrapers rising beside roads that needed first aid. The mangrove trees nearby were fighting a losing battle against bulldozers determined to make way for a golf course. Stray dogs wandered lazily, pausing to bark at passing cars. A pile of garbage burned beside a skyscraper, smack in the middle of a residential area.
Then came the epiphany. What if disaster had struck already? What if it had crept up so stealthily and so gradually, we didn't know we were in the middle of it?
The last night of my visit to Tamil Nadu was filled with revelations. If only the Sacred Heart school had received notice from the government about the education meal scheme four years ago, the villagers would have one less meal to worry about everyday. If only the villages had received one phone call, asking them to run like the wind. If only hospitals were nearby. If only we had our tsunami warning system ready. What happened all across south Asia was shocking because of the sudden loss of human life. Losing 150,000 people in one go is pretty much Nagasaki.
But what if all the people in those six digits died gradually to things like: a) an ambulance not reaching a hospital in time because of a massive and regular traffic jam, b) fire extinguishers not working on the upper floors of a high-rise on fire, c) you name it. Would it still be a disaster? No. We'd be calling them unfortunate incidents that highlight apathy. It would be news for a few days. I'd be one of the first to forget.
But Bombay, being close to a faultline, is in a geographically precarious position. When an earthquake hits, we might not be ready for it. Already Tamil Nadu and other affected regions are spoken of tragically with 'if only's. Will Bombay's story be the same? If only builders complied with safety norms, if only the sewage system was cleaned regularly, if only trash wasn't burnt in the middle of the city, if only 5000 people weren't jam-packed in a single train, and if only that train had doors that shut.
I wonder if I'm being pessimistic about this city. It has survived and kept its nose above the water for a very long time. But the water levels are rising. And as anyone in Cuddalore, Naggapatinam, Galle, Phuket, Sumatra and Nicobar will tell you, when the water rises, keeping your nose above the water is only a start. You then need to find a way to get out of it altogether.
Everywhere people in traffic jams wait and wait and wait with unsmiling faces. We move, swerve, hit the brakes and cuss. We continue to wait for the next green light. And so we remain motionless, hoping that someday change will come. That someone will change things.
It is tragic that many don't believe that 'someone' can be them. It's not a triumph of pessimism. We've just forgotten what it feels like to be a hero.