Learn from Kiwis how and why to grieve

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.

11 thoughts on “Learn from Kiwis how and why to grieve”

  1. Just amazing!!!

    Sad but very very true.
    There is a Devanand’s song whose last verse is
    “kaun rota hai kisi aur ki khatir ae dost,
    har kisi ko apni hi kisi baat par rona aaya”

    It is true that when people dont have to struggle for basic things, like in NZ, they become more humans. It is no excuse but as Raj kapoor said
    “aasman par hai khuda aur zameen par hum,
    aaj kal woh is taraf dekhta hai kum.
    aajkal kisi ko woh rokta nahin,
    chahe kuch bhi keejiye, tokta nahin,
    jub usi ko ghum nahin,
    hum kyun ho ghum.”

  2. Dear Sir,
    I am a big fan of yours. I became die hard fan of times of india only because of your articles. The best thing about your articles is facts and figures weaved so well with the actual narration. Here you mentioned that 20,000+ people died in last 5 years in train mishaps. This is astonishing figure and put me in a deep sorrow mood. These facts and figures should be highlighted to awaken the masses to fight their lungs out on these grave issues which otherwise went dead because only poor and low profile people are involved in it. Thank you Sir for enlightening our lives.

  3. Your comments and observations on the callous attitude of the government re the railway system did not go entirely unnoticed. I may have been a lone voice, but at least the voice was there to support your views. Somewhere you made a difference.

    I have long contended that we have become immune to corruption and brutality. With over one billion Indians fighting for space, livelihood and dignity, is it of any surprise?
    If we had lesser numbers to deal with, perhaps human life in our country would be held in higher esteem.
    And as for the ‘chalta hai’ philosophy , that’s in our blood. Until an incident affects us personally or is high profile, we Indians are casual about it. It’s not our problem. Thousands and thousands of jawaans are sacrificed on the altar of politics…but it is ‘chalta hai’; millions of tax payers money is pocketed by politicians involved in scams..but it is still ‘chalta hai’… and after all this, we dream of becoming a super power.

    The system cannot change until the curriculum in our schools is revolutionized. Emphasis on critical thinking and healthy reasoning over rote learning and grades must be laid. More time should be given to students to debate over issues directly affecting them instead of the usual cramming and regurgitating of stale ideas.
    Teachers themselves should be subject to a series of rigorous evaluation procedures to ensure that they are indeed capable of molding young minds.

    Bertrand Russel said “Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education”.
    We seem hell bent upon actualizing this quote.

  4. I think it would be wrong to say that we don’t mourn people’s death. While I think your emotions are correct, but the portrayal is wrong.

    But what could probably explain this behavior the is the amount of population. India is very big and there are far too many people here. As it would be explained in Economics, the ‘scarcity value’ of human life is rather low and hence, we do not mourn like NZ. But this is not to say that human life doesn’t deserve better in our country.

    But whenever a tragedy has occurred, Indians do stand together and act/emote, be it big or small. Entire nation may not stand together and grieve but the loved ones and the local community does.

  5. Sir,
    I could not agree better with you. I was of the thinking that you are one of those upper class white-collar intellectual snob after watching the video hosted in this page. But, this blog of yours shows you are a truly compassionate person making your own efforts in whatever way possible to change the world a bit towards betterment. You are definitely making a difference through your writing. ‘And they also serve who only stand and wait’.
    Aarthi Srinivasan,Washington,D.C

  6. Sir,
    As you’ve very vividly painted a picture of how ephemeral our empathy with the sufferers are,you’ve brought into light the issue of how we throw the poor intoour quotidian dustbins.
    Even today if you find a hundred rupee note missing most of us will point fingers at our poor domestic help.
    The truth is that socialism is just another word in our preamble much like so many other words in our constitution and preamble with no effect and no meaning.

    I have been a Swaminomics aficionado right from the time I was in class 9th. That was the time when we were asked by teachers to read editorials.Though the black and white page with no pictures or illustration seemed to be quite boring initially,but SWAMINOMICS caught on and kindled the reader and then the blogger in me.

  7. The attitude of middle class Indians to the deaths of lower class Indians is due to the caste divide. I would request Mr. Swami to anlayse the deaths by caste and I suspect one would find that the proportion of upper castes in these death tallies are lesser than their representation on the general population.
    The caste system is so pervasive in india that we do not even sense it in our daily life. We take it so much for granted that we do not allow our “bais” a weekly off while expecting such and other benefits from the employers we work for.

  8. I am a huge fan of yours. I almost read all your articles since 2006 and it helped me to enhance my views over various subjects. Current topic of discussion is for the people and country who secured from basic amenities. We indians fighting to get end meals can not care about some people die in a mine somewhere 2000 km from there at any unknown place. We have 30% population below poverty line and they care most about their foods and basic amenities.

  9. Dear Sir,
    I am very much impressed by the theme of article, ‘The Great Indian Apathy’ and I have felt the same at times. But I would not blame on the Indians irrespective of the group they fall in.
    The question is why? The answer is pretty much clear that India and here fore Indian have enough problems to worry about. Let me see it through your example, ‘70% of accident kills pedestrian’, the stress I feel should be on the system of Indian road transport and improve the safety conditions of people. Coming to ‘Railway accidents’ again I would like to see a better Railway system in place and same for Electricity board. I would not like to involve in the rampant ‘blame’ game but would ‘suggest’ on improvising the efficiency of these respective departments. I would also attribute the failure to lack of Civic sense, which I believe is achievable through education system, which has it motto to ‘Spread knowledge’.
    I wish at least the coming generations of India should not, by any chance, face the same issues as we do. let then not only mourn but also smile for every Indian.

  10. This article clearly depicts what is the value of life in our country. In this auspicious occasion of 62nd republic day lets try to became true socialist lets think for the real Indians in India who are bereaved of even the basic amenities and for whom there are no one to cry.

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