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The Value of Life in India

(I started this post in Oct 2009 a few days after the tragic boat accident in Thekkady, Kerala ~ 5 month gestation period)

“The quality of life in India is great but the value for human life is not”, uttered my cousin Sridhar. We had stopped for a few days at his Germantown, Maryland residence on our Farewell USA Road Trip in mid-2008. I kinda-sorta knew what he was talking about but it really hit home in the past few months – as I reflected upon three tragic events with a common refrain.

Incident#1

Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. Four years ago, my attaya (dad’s sister) left her home in the evening to go to the neighborhood grocery store. Earlier that day, she had bought some biscuits for her grandchildren but she had erred in picking the grandkids’ favorite flavor so she headed to the store to exchange. She never returned. Her husband, her daughter & family, her brother (my uncle) began a frantic search. Several hours later, her body was identified in a hospital and changed her family forever. An auto-rickshaw had slammed into her at high speed just as she was crossing the road to enter the grocery store. She most likely died before reaching the hospital from the massive head wound suffered from the impact. A woman in perfect health her entire life and who had never seen the inside of a hospital in 55+ years was dead in a freak accident. A woman who walked a mere 200 meters from her house (a route she had taken a zillion times in the past 10 years) was dead because a rash and callous auto driver wanted to reach his destination a few minutes sooner.

Incident#2

Panipat, Punjab. It started out as a normal morning at our friend’s parents’ house in Aug 2009. Auntie woke up early morning and left the house at 6am for her morning prayers at the nearby temple. She would normally close to 7am when it would be Uncle’s turn to head to the temple. On that fateful morning, Auntie returned home to find the door ajar, their house burgled and Uncle dead. I don’t know the gory details of the homicide but it wasn’t a difficult case for the crime branch to crack. The door wasn’t forced open so Uncle had to have known the person(s) he let into the house which narrowed down the list of suspects substantially. The investigation trail eventually led to one of the domestic help employed in Uncle/Auntie’s house for years. A kind and gentle grandfather/father/husband was dead due to greed and a cold-blooded deliberation on the part of someone who (until recently) was a loyal employee.

Incident#3

Thekkady, Kerala. We were on a week-long visit to Hyderabad and had gone to visit my cousin Saroja (whose mother is my Attaya in incident#1 above). She was driving us to my uncle’s house nearby. At the precise moment when Saroja was pointing out the spot where her mother had died, my wife was on the phone with a Bangalore friend — and learned that the Thekkady boat tragedy had claimed the lives of a Raheja family we knew – Aishwarya (my older son’s classmate from his Vivaa International kindergarten days) and her parents (Raj and Senthil). 45 people (out of 76) on board a double-decker tourist boat drowned when it capsized. The driver suddenly steered the boat to ostensibly respond to a crowd of passengers having rushed to one side of the boat to catch a glimpse of a herd of bison. You can learn more about this tragedy on this Wikipedia page or this collection of links put together by The Hindu.

The answer to “why did this happen” in incident #3 is more nuanced than the previous two. Had the passengers displayed more common sense in not rushing to one side of the boat, the boat wouldn’t have become unbalanced and the driver wouldn’t have had to swerve suddenly to one side. But this makes no sense. Surely the boat wasn’t water-worthy if it went off-balance so easily when passengers crowded on one side (an expected eventuality if the objective is to sight wildlife). And what about the competence of the driver? And what about the life jackets that were allegedly on board but passengers were never made to don them? In a country with arguably the lowest percentage of swimmers, shouldn’t it be mandatory for boat riders to use life jackets? Not to mention the total absence of life guards. Who regulates the water-worthiness of tourist boats? And certifies the qualifications of the boat operators (especially the driver)? The plot of this pathetic tragedy is so full of holes, is it a surprise that so many people died?

In terms of the perpetrators, incident #1 can be summed up as callousness, incident #2 as cold-bloodedness and incident #3 as cluster-of-indifference. Ok – so that last word doesn’t exist – I made it up. Cluster-of-indifference refers to the whole gamut of things that are simply broken in India – safety standards are either not codified, or if they have been, are brazenly flouted, the citizens too don’t demand any of these things because sab chalta hai – at least until such a time when it’s too late for them personally. Leaving aside hand-wringing and chest-beating that typically follow tragedies (be it personal tragedies involving family members or large-scale accidents), it’s not as though we Indians learn anything from it. This is the collective amnesia of the Indian society – it’s as though every morning Indians wake up having completely forgotten the events and lessons from the previous day, not at all different from Lucy Whitmore’s amnesia in the movie 50 First Dates.

Dear Readers,

What do you think? Is it possible for us Indians to snap out of our collective amnesia and change our attitude before the next major calamity or the minor tragedy? I firmly believe that changing our chalta hai attitude is a necessary prerequisite before we start demanding more from the elected and appointed officials at all levels of government.

Next post in this series: Would you go on a boat ride if there were no life jackets?

 

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