When I was checking in for a flight in New Zealand last week, the whole airport stopped work and observed a two-minute silence in remembrance of 29 coal miners who had just lost their lives. The tragedy had dominated television for weeks. Sorrow and shared pain were etched on faces round the airport, including those of first-class passengers. All New Zealanders, rich and poor, grieved together for the lost miners.
I could not help thinking that this would be impossible in India. British expert Stirling Smith estimates that a thousand workers die every year in Indian mines (all minerals, not just coal), but nobody shrugs a shoulder. The TV-viewing middle class can get worked up over Jessica Lal or Ruchika Girhotra but not over dying miners —these are seen as a lesser breed, whose deaths are unfortunate but not catastrophic.
The Mumbai suburban train system has killed 20,706 in the last five years, six times the immediate death toll of 3,787 in the Bhopal gas disaster. The toll of the entire railway system amounts to several Bhopals, but nobody cares. I highlighted these facts in a recent column, but there was little reaction.
India remains a callous, unaccountable country. Deaths caused by negligence are too often shrugged off as “chalta hai”. Nobody demands that heads roll in the myriad government organizations where criminal negligence is a way of life.
Now, some will say that I exaggerate. Surely the media and middle class should be congratulated for howling for the blood of the killers of Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo, and forcing a semi-moribund legal system to provide justice?
Yes, this is indeed a positive development. Yet it is not enough for middle-class viewers to support middle-class victims. We also need empathy for miners dying in mines, or pedestrians killed while crossing railway tracks. These are from the poorer classes, and we are so used to treating them like dirt that we do not mourn their passing.
Road deaths are rising fast, and India has just overtaken China as the biggest killer on the roads. In the US, drivers are the main victims in car crashes. But Professor Dinesh Mohan of IIT Delhi says that up to 70% of road deaths in India are those of pedestrians. Does anybody observe a two-minute silence for them? No. Instead, we get demands to improve the safety features of cars, like air bags. These will preserve the lives of middle-class car owners, but will do nothing at all for dying pedestrians.
We see a similar pattern in terrorist incidents. No incident ever raised so much emotion as the 26/11 killings in Mumbai, which media coverage converted into reality TV. There was much middle-class outrage over the incompetence and corruption of politicians. But fewer people were killed in 26/11 than in earlier bomb explosions in several cities. The difference was that the 26/11 carnage occurred in the Taj and Oberoi hotels, the aspirational Meccas of the middle-class.
Another major outpouring of public outrage came over the Bhopal gas disaster, with TV channels competing to discover which villain allowed the Union Carbide chairman to leave India unarrested. The Bhopal victims were ordinary low-income folk. Public outrage in this case was huge, not because the class divide disappeared but because the villain was a foreign multinational corporation. The lives of the poorer classes are usually treated as cheap, but not when they provide the chance to extract millions from a multinational.
You never see such outrage when a public sector behemoth kills poor folk, certainly not from left-leaning NGOs campaigning against Union Carbide. Apart from the railways, state electricity boards probably electrocute more people every year than Union Carbide did in 1984. No NGO demonstrations or TV campaigns highlight this.
Socialism is enshrined in the Constitution of India. By contrast, New Zealand is among the most free-market economies in the world. Yet the mining tragedy showed that the rich and poor in that country constitute a true brotherhood. Such a brotherhood cannot be engineered in India by Constitutional amendments or political sloganeering.
In those two minutes when New Zealand mourned the dead miners, i tried to grieve for the millions in India who die unnoticed and unknown; for those kept illiterate and sick by government staff that skip work with impunity; for villagers robbed daily of their entitlements by an army of corrupt officials and politicians. But for all my trying, I could not match the shared pain i saw on the faces of the mourning New Zealanders all around me.