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Mumbai & New Orleans: A Tale of Two Cities
September 15, 2005
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the initial reaction of people all over the world was one of empathy and sadness at the sheer magnitude of the disaster unfolding in New Orleans.
However, it did not take too long for a subtle sense of schadenfreude to make its way into the dialogue. German Environmental Minister Jürgen Trittin kicked off the proceedings by asserting that Hurricane Katrina was linked to global warming and to the US refusal to reduce emissions.
And an op-ed article by an Indian journalist in the Middle East went so far as to talk about 'some sort of poetic justice in this appalling tragedy.' This is not to suggest that US environmental policy or its actions in Iraq are above reproach, but the rush to sit in judgement seemed rather premature.
The Indian press and Indians in general had a special reason to relate to the flooding in New Orleans, having just experienced a deluge of unprecedented proportions in Mumbai. 37 inches of rain came down in 24 hours on July 27 in the worst ever rainfall total on record in any city in India.
The citizens of Mumbai, including those living in the slums, came forward to help the hundreds who were stuck in cars and buses for extended periods. There were tales of Mumbaikars who helped the elderly and others walk through the deep waters using ropes. It was an example of a tragedy bringing out the very best in human nature, and India was truly shining.
The contrast to what transpired in New Orleans could not have been starker. It was horrifying enough to watch the flood levels rise in the city as the levees that held back the waters of the surrounding lakes and canals were breached in multiple places.
However, the ensuing scenes of looting, rape, and murder, and the utter chaos that descended on a major city in the richest nation on earth came as a shock to everyone. All the resources available to a superpower could not prevent the anarchy that prevailed in New Orleans. President Bush continued his vacation as bodies were seen lying in the open, and thousands remained desperate for food, water, and medicine.
If this narrative were to end right here, it would be an appropriate commentary on what had just transpired. A poor third world nation had shown that the power of humanity can triumph even in a terrible calamity. And the richest nation on earth can be humbled by Mother Nature, and by the incompetence or indifference of its leaders.
But as always seems to be the case, the chattering classes of the world did not stop there, and the schadenfreude parade marched on. The e-mails and the articles began making their rounds amongst Indians and NRIs, turning New Orleans into an example of how the United States was wrong about almost everything, and how (pick your country or region) was the shining example of how to respond to a disaster.
The basic theme of many of these commentators was that of America as a decadent society which deserved what it got, and the despicable behaviour of some citizens of New Orleans somehow became representative of American society at large.
One particular e-mail making the rounds of the Internet refers to how '48 hours later, New Orleans is still waiting for relief.' while '48 hours later, Mumbai is back on its feet and is business is as usual (sic).'
New Orleans is not Mumbai. Getting assistance into a city which is 80 per cent under water which is 20 feet deep in places and has nowhere to go is quite different from ankle-deep, waist-deep, or even neck-deep water, which drains away albeit ever so slowly. A city drowning in a lake is not the same as a city flooded by admittedly unprecedented levels of rain that floods the drainage system.
And 3 to 4 days of waiting in futility for food, help and rescuers to arrive may well turn even the most high minded people who are now sitting in judgement to turn to robbery and theft, or even worse things in the case of the lawless elements that exist in every society.
As T V R Shenoy points out in his column on rediff India Abroad 'the mayor of Banda Aceh in tsunami-struck Indonesia admits that he himself indulged in a bit of criminal activity immediately after the tragedy.' Moreover, it is important to note that this kind of mayhem was not seen in most of the other instances when the US has been hit by a hurricane or an earthquake.
As for the incompetence of the powers that be, both before and after the hurricane, that too is not something that the US has a monopoly on. In an eerily prescient article in the Times-Picayune written in June 2002, the authors had predicted that 'a major hurricane could decimate the region, but flooding from even a moderate storm could kill thousands. It's just a matter of time.'
But the authorities ignored all the warnings and never took any of the steps needed to avert the inevitable. In the case of Mumbai, an equally prescient report on the Bandra-Worli Sea Link Project by IPT (http://www.iptindia.org/) stated in July 2001 that 'by... redrawing the geography of the Mahim Creek, the link has gradually upset the flow of effluents and floodwaters that drain into the Arabian Sea. Experts say that this... may cause the Mithi River, which starts upstream at Powai and runs along the Andheri-Kurla Road, to back up and cause inordinate flooding along adjacent areas.'
Public polls in the US are showing how unhappy the nation is with the way everyone in authority from President Bush on down failed miserably in fulfilling their responsibilities. But even a casual Google search will show how angry many Mumbaikars were about what led to the Mumbai flooding and the immediate response of those in authority, including Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.
And hardly anyone talks about the suffering of the poor people living on the Konkan coast, in places such as Raigad, Chiplun and further south, who lost everything they had and for whom life has hardly returned back to normal.
The moral of the story is that all those who are in such a hurry to lambaste the US and Americans, and paint a rosy picture of India and Indians, should stop and look in the mirror first. Neither country is perfect by any means. And each has a lot to learn from the other. The American tendency to be condescending about conditions in the Third World with its poor infrastructure and corruption is just as regrettable as the Indian sense of moral and spiritual superiority.
In some sense, the Indian reaction to New Orleans is symptomatic of a nation that has gone from self-deprecation in the stagnant 1960s and 1970s to self-glorification in the roaring 2000s. While it is undoubtedly true that India is a rising power, with an economy that is growing at a rate that is the envy of all nations, it is way too early to sink into hubris. China continues to stay focused on becoming a world power, and anyone who counts the US out in the long run is in for a rude surprise.
The destruction in New Orleans and the Mumbai floods both point to a more fundamental problem that needs to be focused on. Politicians and leaders in the largest and the richest democracies in the world ignored warnings from experts, and pursued their short-sighted goals of winning elections by pandering to special interests. It is time for the citizens of these two great democracies to hold their elected leaders accountable for their actions.
Ram Kelkar is an alumnus of IIT Bombay with an MBA from the Wharton School. He is a senior risk management professional at a financial firm in Chicago.