Sunday, July 31, 2005

Cheapening Lives To Reduce Their Cost

This past week has been one of multiple Indian calamities.

Hundreds lie dead of cloudburst; tens of thousands more stand marooned from their already wretched lives. Offshore, three hundred hard-toiling oilmen, digging wealth out from under the sea, found themselves facing death. Even the privileged found little respite from nature's wrath & --paraphrasing our favorite songwriter, Leonard Cohen -- the widowhood of our government.

Still, our desensitized lives went on undisturbed. Some even asked what was special about Mumbai's sorrow?

While such cynicism is without doubt unseemly, there's a perverse point here somewhere. Afterall, don't multitudes die perennially in cloudbursts & famishment, accidents & gunfire, dirty water & dirtier syringes, botched abortions & dowry fires, Kalahandi & Kashmir, tsunami & terrorism, and God only knows how many other hellfires in this our India? On this continent-sized canvas of Indian horror, Mumbai's sorrow were, alas, really nothing new.

Bad things happen everywhere; what's remarkable is that, in India, people die in bunches and suffer obscenely when bad things happen. This should bother us a lot; it rarely does.

The reason it doesn't is because we all understand that, given our limited resources, our culture takes shortcuts in all things; we have become such experts in cutting corners & trimming costs that those who don't are mocked. If we were to plan our lives the right way with due consideration for human safety and quality-of-life (that is really tested in extreme circumstances such as what's unfolding in Mumbai), we'd simply not be able to afford all the things we want in our lives. In effect, our culture trades-off a certain quantum and quality of human lives in return for our being able to go on with our (consequently endangered) lives -- we cheapen our lives so as to reduce their cost.

Let's stipulate also that we're all sufficiently cynical that none of this bothers us very much -- except when the sewers flow back into our own neat little make-believe sanctuaries. If the reader isn't grossed out by this mystifying chalta-hai attitude, there's an interesting question that emerges from this that he/she might wish to consider.

How does anyone know that the horrors we witness everyday are consistent with the trade-offs we signed up to? This is to say if, in a perfect world, no one were to die from a cloudburst such as we witnessed last week, what should our expectation be given the trade-offs we've presumably signed up to? Is it 500 or is it 1000? Is there any benchmark for the wretchedness we've presumably accepted in the trade-off?

This is not an academic question. Consider this for instance. It's relatively easy to judge the performance of a government, corporation, and individual in places (like America) where (generally speaking) no such trade-offs are in place. There exist quantifiable metrics on people's expectations for all manner of services and things that constitute life. There is a well-developed tort system that imposes heavy cost on those who fail their performance metrics -- thus, a strong economic discipline keeps everyone in line. There's no way to take short-cuts because, in the long run, people who consequently get hurt end up extracting significantly more punitive damages than the accrued cost if the short-cut had not been taken.

In contrast a culture like ours, which trades-off human safety for cost, has no benchmarks whatsoever to calibrate our expectations apriori (because our metrics were compromised when someone, somewhere elected to cut corners without telling the rest of us what corners they cut) and there is no meaningful ex post facto remedy mechanism where civil and/or criminal burdens can be levied on whoever is shown responsible for the short-cut.

So, because we don't know if it was 500 people expected to die of the cloudburst given the (predictable) structural conditions they were in -- in which case someone should be made to pay since over 800 actually died -- or was it 3000 people expected to die -- in which case someone should be given a medal -- we read news accounts, blog about them, then move on. Everyone who's responsible for the unfathomable and unmeasured horror has a get-out-of-jail-free card because the rest of us are all in the dark.

Is there a solution? Well, for one, if we had a robust tort system, it'd be a good start. Maybe we can't avert dying in bunches but we can impose really harsh cost on whoever is responsible. This will surely increase the cost of our lives but it will enhance their value as well.

Perhaps Mumbai will take a lead in this. We hope the people of the city will sue for serious damage and extract a precedent-setting punitive award from the government. Sure, it isn't all the government's fault, but they are at least partly to blame and we know their address. So, Mumbai, how about serving your government a tsunami of summons? Don't settle for the pathetic compensation packages they will offer. Beat them in court and show India a new way of doing things.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in. Leonard Cohen

1 comment:

Kaunteya said...

Well said Sir. On the same subject,I remember a classic exposition by India Today's Swapan Das Gupta titled 'The Ugly Indian'; an essay where he surgically teared the Indian middle class mindset.
The cover of that edition of India Today showed a (seemingly) educated middle aged gentleman peeing in a public place.
Point in case of how we Indians have taken the nation so much for granted. This attitude is somewhat related to what you wrote. The 'taking for granted' mentality has now been deeply implanted into our psyche. We have simply assumed that whenever rains fall there would be a 'few' casualties. We have assumed that Government is inept so no point in bothering anyways. We have now assumed that it does not matter that bombay will have a 'few' bomb blasts here and there, a 'few' riots here an there and a 'few' deaths due to rains here and there. Its now all taken in 'stride'. We have assumed that every year hundreds of our youth (barely in their 20s) will die in Kashmir for having to put up with follies commited by someone in the past (read Nehru). We have now taken for granted that Bihar will always be ruled by Laloo and his family whether he's voted for that or not. We have simply taken this for granted that Underworld will be a part of our Bollywood, will mint money at our costs and than attempt to destroy our own institutes,... so on and so forth..

I think somewhere along the last 50 years of our so called freedom.. we have somehow lost the ability to question... to ask.. to react..


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