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Would you go on a boat ride or cruise if there were no life jackets?

I ended  the The Value of Life in India post with the question: “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?”

My wise biwi thought it wasn’t fair to leave the post hanging like that. Our ensuing conversation (transcribed below) inspired the sequel and yes – I have a good reason to title it the way I did:

Biwi: “What is YOUR answer to the above question? Why aren’t you including THAT in the post?”

Me: “Well! I do have an answer but it’s not quite baked yet..”

Biwi: “Also, instead of framing the question around ‘us Indians’, it might be more fruitful to pose the question to each ‘individual’ Indian.”

Me: “You mean like Gandhi-ji’s Be the Change You Wish to See In the World’?”

Biwi: “Kinda sorta. What are YOU (Indian, American, anyone for that matter) doing that’s potentially endangering your or other people’s lives?”

Biwi: “For example, when you are speeding down scenic Interstate 280 South at 90 mph, whose lives are you endangering?”

Which brings me to MY answer to the original question I posed – “Is it possible for us Indians to snap out of our collective amnesia and change our attitude?”

My answer is YES. But first… do you recall that scene in Satte Pe Satta where Hema Malini arrives at that pig-sty-of-a-house where Amitabh Bachan lived with his 6 other brothers? She exclaims “What a mess this place is! Where do I start?” The next 2 frames are a fast time-lapse so we don’t really get to see how she pulls off the gargantuan cleanup job. Replace the pig-sty-house with India (with its zillion problems — not just hygiene related) and you still have that question – where to start? I wouldn’t be presumptuous to say that we are at the beginning because there are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of civic-oriented initiatives underway which have galvanized citizens. But the reality is that if we are not seeing a difference (no, scratch that), if we are not participating in at least ONE of them, it is simply not enough. After all, we are talking about a billion-plus people here.

My other belief is that the granularity (or specificity) of the cause/initiative is paramount to eventual success — dotted on the way with tangible progress points. For example, “improve the safety standards of tour boat operators in India” is too lofty a cause whereas “ensure the sea-worthiness of tour boats in Kerala” or “mandate that boat operators in Kerala do not exceed the carrying capacity” or “mandate that all boat passengers in Kerala HAVE to wear life jackets while on board” are achievable goals. As I said, not fully baked so would love your feedback here…

Which brings me to the second question — “what am I doing that may be endangering myself and my family?” Before I answer this, let’s go back to the Thekkady disaster. Nearly all (if not all) who drowned that day weren’t swimmers. The survivors were either swimmers or were lucky enough to be close to swimmers who saved them. Turns out there were life jackets on board – nobody knows how many though. I haven’t read reports of passengers using any so clearly they weren’t handing them out at the point of embarkation. Which brings us to the personal responsibility question — Why didn’t anyone ask for life jackets? This, my friends, is the life-or-death question.

I’ll be presumptuous enough to answer the question. Nobody asked for life jackets because nobody was thinking of the probability that the boat could capsize, and if it did, the life jackets would really come in handy. We all go through life constantly making decisions based on risk – some are deliberate while most others are purely automatic. I will not buy a house with a swimming pool because that clever economist in Freakonomics convinced me that swimming pools are more unsafe than keeping a handgun at home. I won’t ride a motorcycle in California where the speed limits are so high and the car-to-motorbike ratio so high that if I get into an accident, it could well be fatal. I might ride a Bullet Classic 500 in Bangalore someday (after my slipped disc fully heals) because I will drive very carefully and don all my protective gear and if I do get into an accident, there’s a good chance it will be minor. And so we go on and on…

Why am I so sure that nobody asked for life jackets? Because I/we have  done the exact same thingjust 2 days before the Thekkady accident – on the Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad. The only difference is that our boat didn’t meet with an accident. Our family of four, my brother & his younger son boarded the boat with nary a thought about life jackets. Group size = 6. Number of swimmers in group = 0. Need I say more?

Would my wife or I board a boat or cruise ship in future if there were no life jackets? No. At least until the entire family learns swimming. In case you didn’t know, my goal for this summer is to learn swimming — in 7 days or less. A dear friend has promised me that it indeed is possible and he’d be my personal coach. I, on my part, have promised him a suitable guru dakshina. So shall it be written, so shall it be done!

Closing question: What % of Indians do you think know swimming? (knowing defined as “enough to save one’s life) I used to think it’s a lower percentage compared to the Western world primarily because of the low number of urban area swimming pools but.. 70% of India lives in villages where, due to their proximity and close habitation with water body, the swimmer % must be close to 100%. When you come to the cities and towns, again this might differ from state to state. A couple of Keralite colleagues (over lunch) thought the percentage for largely-coastal Kerala is probably 90%.

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