The Horns of the Bull

Written by  //  December 13, 2011  //  National Politics  //  Comments Off on The Horns of the Bull

[Manav Bhushan, follows on from my earlier post on the AMRI Hospital Disaster in Calcutta, and argues how it was caused by Indians’ collective failure to value human life]

What happened in the AMRI hospital in Calcutta is terrible, and what’s worse is that instead of feeling anger directed at someone, what I feel is complete and utter dejection and helplessness.

Although I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed by Arghya in his earlier article,  my take on how to tackle this problem would be a little different. In order to take the bull by the horns, we first need to figure out where the horns are. The main problem, according to me, is that “We as INDIAN citizens, do not respect human life” (rather than only the lives of others). And to be more specific, actually, we don’t have ANY respect for health and safety norms.

And I’m saying this because of the way that even I myself scoff at safety measures- how most Indians even in Oxford don’t wear a helmet/bike lights while cycling (even though they are actually risking their own lives, rather than others’ lives), how we ALL scoff at fire-safety drills, etc and regard the ‘western’ societies as being paranoid about safety. And in India, of course, this reaches another level altogether- where people think helmets are unnecessary even on motorbikes and seat-belts are for sissies, where people think fire-safety drills are a joke and fire-exits are totally superfluous. The truth is, that none of us (at least I speak for myself and others who have had a similar level of education) actually understand the importance of these safety measures, or have a feeling for the damage that their violation can cause.

When we are going over the speed limit, our principal, and indeed, ONLY worry, is whether the cops will catch us. We don’t for a moment think about WHY the rule exists in the first place, and that by over-speeding, we are endangering lives (others as well as ourselves). And the reason for that is that none of us actually have a feeling for how much more dangerous it is to travel at 80 kmph instead of 60kmph. For example- in the UK, if you get fined twice, you HAVE to attend this mandatory course which tells you how the reaction time reduces by an increase of even 5 mph, and which shows you, through video simulations, how much easier it is to have an accident at 65 instead of 60. And of course, I didn’t attend this, but a friend who did, told me “After taking that course I always travel at 10 mph less than the speed limit”.

I am only using speed limits as an example, but the same logic extends to fire-safety, as well as all other health and safety norms. Even in the best schools in India, people are not given ANY kind of feeling for how their ‘probability of instant and painful death’ is increased by violations of health and safety norms. And apart from the lack of education, there is, of course, a universal disregard for rules and regulations and total acceptance, if not encouragement, of their violation. For example, almost ALL the restaurants in Khan market in Delhi (including Big Chill, Barista, and all the ones on the 1st floor) are in GROSS violation of fire-safety norms, because you are simply NOT allowed to have a functioning kitchen anywhere but on the ground floor. Further, most of them don’t have ANY fire-exits etc, and are HUGE fire-safety hazards (just imagine a fire in Big Chill or Barista and that one narrow staircase to go down for everyone). Now they all exist (obviously) by paying off officials on a monthly basis. Similarly most schools and cinemas in Delhi do not conform with fire-safety regulations, and hence make it entirely possible for a repeat of gruesome tragedies such as the Uphaar cinema fire in 1997 and the school fire in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu in 2004. Because the one thing we Indians are very good at is forgetting tragedies and why they occurred.

And there are two reasons why these problems exist, and  why no-one gives a damn: a) people don’t know what the fire-safety norms are, and b) Even if they do, they don’t give a damn, because they still don’t understand WHY these safety norms exist, and the general attitude is “Abbe, kuch nahi hoga”, and let’s get on wih our lives and let’s not bother with these mundane details. And I think that THIS is the attitude which we need to target and change- by MAKING them realise that these mundane details cost people their LIVES (and they may well cost you your own life as well).

And whether this needs to be done by showing people videos -of how their ‘death probability’ goes up by 50% when they go 10 kmph faster than the speed limit, or by making it mandatory in syllabi, etc, I don’t know, but it is HAS to be done NOW. And the approach needs to be nuanced and intelligent- for example, people don’t learnt anything by watching a video of HOW to tie your seat-belt in a car or airplane. They WOULD learn to tie a seat-belt in a car if you showed them how a human body can go flying through the windshield and get plastered on the side-walk if one doesn’t wear a seat-belt. Similarly, they would learn to build fire-exits if you showed them a video of people dying in a stampede caused by a fire and a lack of fire-exits (instead of showing them a video of what a fire-exit looks like and how to build one).

Many people will argue that in a country like India, there are bigger problems to worry about- like poverty, starvation, malnutrition, corruption, etc, etc….the list is endless. They will argue that because of these bigger problems, we don’t have the time to worry about health and safety regulations. Well, it is true that we have bigger problems to worry about, and that is PRECISELY why we can’t afford to die while crossing the road or because we didn’t build a fire-exit or because we ‘forgot’ to tie our seat-belt or wear a helmet. We need to first solve the problems for which the solutions are staring us in the face. Only then can we start solving the problems for which the solution is far more complicated, though even more urgent. And in fact the statistics for road and fire-related deaths in India is mind-numbing, so no sane person would call this a ‘minor’ problem to start with. So let’s first shift our attitudes from “Abbe kuch nahi hoga” to “Kuch bhi ho sakta hai”, and then start working on the prevention starting NOW.

[At CriticalTwenties, we propose to come up with and discuss some effective, easy-to-implement, hard-hitting ideas on how to sensitise citizens to fire safety norms. If you want to contribute with an idea, drop us a line at and we’ll carry the discussion forward with you and others who are interested]

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