So really, what is the difference between a tsunami demolishing poor Indians' huts and the Bombay Municipal Corporation demolishing poor Indians' huts? Why does the first demolition result in middle-class India racing to loosen purse-strings, people volunteering to pick up the pieces (or burn them where necessary), guys like me blogging through the area, others putting together plans to "adopt" villages and talking sagely about the "long-term"; but the other demolition gets approval and support from the same middle-class India?
"Illegal" slums, of course; they had to be demolished. But so were the fishermen's colonies on the Chennai shore. Yet when the tsunami struck, we didn't sit back saying "right, they had to be demolished." No, we ran over to help.
What explains this schizophrenia?
Slums exist for good reasons. Cities are engines of jobs and economic growth: the very things most of us agree we want more of. This is why Bombay is awash in new malls and cinema multiplexes and so forth, all of which generate jobs. Jobs that need people to fill them. And sure enough, people stream from all over this country to fill them. This is just as it should be: this kind of economic energy, this constant creation of jobs, is what cities are all about.
Yet as one of Bombay's best known civil engineers, Shirish Patel, wrote recently, But with jobs must come homes. If they don't, then people will live where they can ... in slums. Not least because affordable rental housing in Bombay, as a result of the abominable Rent Control Act, is a real-life urban myth. So the jobs we create, that we in effect invite our fellow Indians to fill, are filled by people who have little choice but to live in slums.
And then we raze those slum homes; we, the very people who invited them to come work for us to begin with. (Consider that many policemen, whom we charge with protecting those we send out to demolish slums, themselves live in slums).
Where will they go once their homes are rubble? Much as in tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu, not very far. Because what they will not give up are their jobs, their livelihoods; and those jobs determine where they will live. Anything else, and we reduce them to poverty. In fact, there are studies that have shown that breaking down slums, even if the residents are haphazardly rehoused, actually increases poverty.
The recent drive on slums in Bombay has accounted for nearly 50,000 fellow Indians' homes. It has left some 200,000 fellow Indians homeless and devastated, weeping much as they wept in recently tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu.
Those numbers are comparable to tsunami-hit Tamil Nadu. What's not comparable, and it baffles me, are our reactions to these two disasters.