Ten years ago, the city of New Orleans was 80% flooded by pouring rain that swept across the city for days and nights, converting roads into rivers and residential compounds into shallow lakes. Electricity was cut off from more than a million residents, while the police preferred to remain within their precinct offices, not daring to challenge the fury of nature in the same way as they did the many criminal elements within the city. Emboldened by the switch in focus from the prevention of crime to the preservation of lives, not only criminal elements but numerous individuals, who till then had been law abiding, took advantage of the catastrophe to loot shops and houses. New Orleans descended into the sort of chaos that viewers of television channels in the US had thus far seen only in Baghdad, once that city was “liberated” by troops ordered into battle by President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. It was an indicator of the failure to reform the fabled penal system of the US, the country with the largest population of jailbirds on the planet, more than the country which has 1.3 billion people under the authoritarian control of the Chinese Communist Party. Months afterwards, a similar disaster hit Mumbai, with an unprecedented amount of rain sweeping across the city and sending it into paralysis. Unlike so many in New Orleans, Mumbaikars kept their calm and saw to it that a breakdown of law and order similar to that which occurred in the other city failed to materialise. Indeed, even robbers and thieves joined with other anti-socials in taking a break from their activities till such time as the city went back to normal.
Mumbai was followed months ago by Srinagar, where too chaos was avoided despite a high level of devastation. Residents of that beautiful city ensured that anti-social elements were not allowed to take advantage of the confusion which accompanied the freak weather events. This month, we have witnessed another tragic example of the fury of nature, and the city which fell victim to such a catastrophe was Chennai. A city known for its high degree of learning and culture has been battered by rain in extraordinary quantities for days, leading to the cutting off of power and water, and with even telephone communications snapped for days, even as frantic friends and relatives outside the affected zones sought to get information on those they loved. Several contacted media outlets, who in turn passed on the requests to the concerned authorities, hopefully to some effect. Residents of Chennai, many hundreds of thousands of whom lost their homes in the rising waters, and millions of whom were cut off from water, power and provisions for days together, nevertheless showed the quality which makes Chennai special, which is a commitment to the civility which defines civil society. Looting was absent, while tempers were kept in check despite the privations endured. Those living in Chennai showed themselves to be of a mettle which the country can be proud of. They have shown not only their courage in a time of flood but their resilience and good spirit. Most importantly, they shamed those who seek to segregate the population of India into religious denominations by unitedly facing up to the challenge. Chennai deserves a rousing cheer for its fortitude.