May 29, 2020
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Life Is Cheap

Kargil and the cyclone stand out in recent memory. We celebrated one, dared the other. A few profited from both.

Life Is Cheap

Apathetic, morbid question; asked every morning, every day. So who died today? Was it a little child, life twisted out by a machine no one knew how to stop? An old couple, battered senseless for a few pieces of gold? Perhaps a young woman, victim to the carnal desires of a self-centred male? Or a traumatised widow on a funeral pyre; a battle-dressed warrior stepping into a bullet’s path; an unprepared farmer blown away by a roaring gale?

Two carnages stand out in our recent memory, but seen through different visions. The first was the Kargil ‘war’, thousands thrown into a series of bleak, numbing skirmishes, hundreds returning to their homes in anonymous bodybags. The second was the Orissa ‘supercyclone’, lakhs tossed about by tremendous energies, thousands perishing in unknown wind and water. By all ethical standards, the first was truly demonic, unleashed by human beings, bereft of sense, violent, a means without end. The second was part of the divine, bred by nature, cyclical force expending itself, an end returning to stillness. But we celebrated one, and dared the other. A few, of course, made money from both.

How can such opposing visions stand together? Is it fatalism? Is life cheap? When the opposing armies stood face to face, Krishna the charioteer told Arjun the warrior: "He who in action sees inaction and action in inaction-he is wise among men."

There was that night of August, when two express passenger trains rammed into each other near Gaisal. Over 300 souls died in the crash. One man, a train driver, was singled out, not only for his own death but for those of the rest. But, much later, the enquiry report clearly indicated the truth. The track was known to be dangerous, there had been repeated warnings, and the railway management had ignored them. Does this sound familiar? Isn’t that what happened in Bhopal, where 2,000 suffocated in toxic gases? In Lal Kuan, where 58 were scorched alive in chemical fires? At Alang, where 15 die each month breaking up hazardous ships? In which inaction lies action?

There was the girl who burnt herself, after being ‘allegedly’ raped by an acquaintance. This is suicide certainly, but what is the compulsion? There are an estimated 95,000 suicides, ‘allegedly’ caused by ailments, quarrels, and failures. But where does this trinity come from? Remember the factory worker who committed suicide, because he lost his job? That was a Supreme Court order, which closed down 168 industries in the name of a ‘green’ city. But now 90,000 industrial units are slated to close down. Does that mean another 535 workers are heading for their graves or funeral pyres? And who will be the "alleged" culprit then?

Every street now has a warning against sexual liberty. The perceived danger, of course, is aids. The ‘action’ against this menace, which has killed an estimated 6,000 people till today, is promoted by a Rs 450-crore budget, much of it from the benevolent World Bank. Will that money take care of the 2,00,000 who will die tomorrow and their social and economic needs? That question conceals the ‘inaction’ against a similar menace, Hepatitis B, for which they cannot find the money. Leave alone the funds for tackling kala-azar in Bihar, diarrhoea in Andhra, malaria in Rajasthan, or filaria in Kerala. So where does wisdom exist?

Urban youth, say the harassed police, are driven by crime impulses. But what drives crime? The thieving, assaulting, killing youth are-again according to the police-mostly from well-to-do families with strong support systems. In other words, they have money and influence to get away with it. They’re aggressive, live in a competitive world, value power. Isn’t that what our modern, market-driven society wants? Is this then the real impulse that drives property disputes and gang wars, political vendettas and police brutality, domestic violence and national wars?

Doesn’t anyone care any more? Of course they do. They take blankets to Ersama, bandages to Dras. Some campaign against degradation, others appeal for an end to unemployment. And a few take up the cause of human rights, to put an end to human beings killing other human beings. These are the true volunteers. Those who bury the dead no one else will touch, who touch the living no one else will look at, who see the face of anguish beneath the beauty of queens and the pomp of leaders. But, here too, action and inaction are intertwined.

For the appeal to voluntarism has always lain in the values attached to certain concepts. Words like ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘self-reliance’, ‘democratic governance’ have simmered at the core of our discourse. Language has clothed the heart as it acts freely in the giving of itself. So, if words are twisted, they give new meaning to the act. Does this explain the transition from 1960 to 2000, from ‘social reformers’ to ‘non-government organisations’? Does this tell us why the term ngo, originally used for Ford and Rockefeller charity, has been transplanted on to those dabbling in ‘participation’ and ‘awareness’? There’s a price to everything in the ‘free’ supermarket, even human concern.

So, finally, is life too cheap? The dead man ‘allegedly’ hit by a rich man’s BMW in Delhi got Rs 10 lakh. The Kargil widow was given Rs 1 lakh. The factory accident victim in Thane was lucky if his family could claim Rs 10,000. The cancer patient in Mavoor got nothing, not even a correct diagnosis. This is the societal market where one can bargain for the price of a life. Where the fattest survive. It’s cheaper to pay compensation than to provide safety, a better economic proposition to treat than to cure, more profitable to buy and sell freedom than to free people. Ultimately, it’s death that’s too cheap.

The author is co-ordinator, Hazards Centre, New Delhi.

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