Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Surat: the not-so-little city that could

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. 
Whilst many cities would have languished beneath the flowing waters and succumbed to disease, in 2006 the Surtis themselves took to the streets, and amassing 40 JCBs and several hundred able bodies they cleared the streets themselves; manning the diggers 24 hours a day in teams.  In three weeks time business and everyday life had resumed as normal.  Inhabitants of former slums on the floodplain were relocated by the Surat Municipal Council to new apartments far from the risk of fluvial flooding; a designated public space is now replacing the slums to prevent resettlement and exposure to risk again.

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.  
Looking out on the zipping motorbikes on the dusty roads, the shacks built from corrugated iron and tarpaulin, the wandering stray dogs and the eclectic skyline, Surat still has some way to go before the rest of the world even recognises its existence, let alone its extraordinarily inspiring spirit and resilience.  If the Thames rose and flooded London tomorrow I wonder how many of us would take to the streets and unite with our fellow citizens to get our city moving again.  I have a sad feeling that most of us would be far too absorbed with our own personal losses to realise that we would also have lost something of our city.  Yet a culture of community action, and a deep sense of pride in this city to which many inhabitants have moved in order to contribute to its economic growth, is not something which Surat lacks.  And it is these unique social characteristics which are contributing directly to its flourishing wealth.  Maybe this is where the world got a bit lost with the economic crisis, as we all forgot that behind true financial success lies social cohesion and personal sacrifice.  If you disagree, go and  visit Surat.  I bet it could change your mind.


  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I enjoy reading about travel and hidden gems. I am checking the literary restaurant at the V&A this weekend.

    Also, I have tagged you. You´re it! :)

    1. Glad you're enjoying my travel pieces, Londonerfromafar. And hope you enjoy the Reading Rooms. (And thanks for tagging me!)

  2. It looks like you went off the beaten tracks here. What an uplifting description of a city that manage to get over the many obstacles in its path! You have got to love such resilience. Thanks for sharing, Accidental Londoner!

    1. Indeed you do, MuMuGB. It was an inspiration to see...and it didn't make coming back to London any easier either! Why do we not have the same energy to improve our city and our society?


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