When the financial crisis really began to bite in the UK we all did a lot of moaning. Then we looked for someone to blame, whinged about the bankers and the government, and then sort of sat back and did nothing, intermittently complaining about gas bills and fuel costs. Life handed us lemons and we sat and watched them moulder. The past week however I have visited a city that when handed lemons began the process of creating an entire lemonade empire.
Surat is the 8th or 9th largest city in India (the jury appears to be out on that one), with an official population of 4.5 million people. The additional number of people living in informal settlements in the city - unrecognised by official statistics - puts the total size of the city more accurately at around 5 million people. This is a city about the same size as (if not bigger than) Singapore, but have you ever heard of it? The city is a hive of industrial activity, producing 60% of all synthetic textiles in India and cutting and polishing between 80 and 90% of the world's diamonds. Yet it has not always been so. The city has seen extraordinary growth over the past few decades, since the 1960s and 70s, largely thanks to the arrival of millions of immigrants, who now vastly outnumber the native Surtis. With the desire to move to the big city comes a desire to make something of oneself (I write as one still desperately trying to achieve the latter!), and Surat positively fizzes with entrepreneurial energy. Everything is in development; skyscrapers are being flung up, brand new raised highways are in construction, industries are constructing shining HQs here. And business is booming. Sure, it's been hit by the economic crisis, but virtually nowhere in the world has sailed blythly through that particular disaster unscathed.
A brand new, mock French chateau belonging to a successful local builder sits incongruously amongst the tower-blocks and tents of Surat
However, Surat has witnessed two localised major disasters in the past 20 years which would have destroyed a lesser city. In 1994, 60% of the population fled Surat in an attempt to escape an outbreak of pneumonic plague which struck a city with the standard afflictions of much of India; low water quality, poor preventative healthcare and highly vulnerable communities living in risky areas. Built near an estuary mouth, Surat is split by the River Tapi; a wide, muddy, malodourous presence within the city. Not only is it a breeding ground for vector-borne disease carriers, and a source of highly polluted water, but it also floods the city on a semi-regular basis during particularly heavy monsoon seasons. And so in 2006 as the rains fell hard and fast the Tapi quickly rose, swamping slums on its banks, washing away belongings and entire livelihoods, causing vast property and stock damage in homes and businesses, and bringing the city's bustling activity to a crashing halt.
As a result of the plague in 1994, the Municipal Corporation had established a comprehensive health action plan which included disease monitoring, training and education efforts, and drug stockpiling. No plague returned to the city following the 2006 floods, and Surat is the proud owner (I know just how proud they are, I've been given the full guided tour!) of the sole city wastewater treatment plant in India. Yet for this piece of urban infrastructure to be such a novelty tells a sad tale of the country in which Surat is forging its own path to development.