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The death of safety in India


Safety is subjective. What might be safe for someone else might not be safe by me. Difference in perception aside, every sentient being on this planet craves safety in some form or another. All modern societies are underpinned by 4 pillars. Trust, Safety, Empathy and Respect. The pace of development of a society is directly proportional to how safe its constituents feel. The animal kingdom as an example thrives and is at its productive best when it feels safe. Safety and trust are tightly coupled. If I can trust an individual, organisation or process then it engenders a feeling of safety and this feeling of safety allows me to put my best foot forward without any apprehension or inhibition. Businesses flourish when they are able to trust government policy and intent which fosters a safe environment to expand the scope and scale of commerce. It is not unsurprising therefore to find countries that are in the throes of war or civil strife at the bottom of the Human Development Index and those that are safe and stable leading the rankings across socio-economic indices. In this piece, I try to examine safety as a construct in modern day India on the back of the latest crime to have jolted the conscience of the nation.

How safe are our women? 

Even as the country attempts to come to grips with yet another act of depravity where a 28 year old Telangana veterinarian was allegedly gang-raped before being torched the charred remains of another woman has been discovered in the vicinity. The modus operandi of both incidents prima facie is chillingly similar. It is a grating reminder that these acts of extreme violence against women aren’t isolated cases of degeneracy of a few sick individuals but a reflection of a society which is unwilling to reinvent itself but merely pays lip service with every passing instalment. There was a predictable episodic eruption of the media outrage volcano when a Thomson Reuters Foundation Survey put India on the top of the pile of the most dangerous countries for women. When we were busy contesting the foreign surveys ‘designed to malign the image of our nation’ our very own government put out sobering data which indicates that 4 rapes are ‘reported’ every hour in India. Government data also showed that there was an 83% spike in crimes against women in the 2007 – 2016 time period.

Gruesome crimes like these are not only a barometer for the prevailing law and order situation but also a Weathercock which indicates the headwinds of an entrenched culture of male privilege, impunity and public apathy that hold society back. India has for far too long failed to provide her citizens access to basic public service infrastructure like a reliable emergency response apparatus. No wonder therefore that the deceased did not think it fit to call the Police helpline and instead reluctantly took the treacherous hand of help extended by the very people who would go onto to outrage her modesty and then snuff the life out of her. Our response as a society to what feels like episodes of a never ending and insufferable soap opera is one of disgust and outrage followed by shrill demands for meting out the capital punishment to the perpetrators. The outrage is understandable. The pain and suffering is all too real. The victim’s family deserve swift justice and closure (if there ever is such a thing). The problem is we keep treating the symptom and not the cause.

I believe the real target of our collective ire should be the the system that has failed us time and time again to deliver even the most basic of services like reliable roadside assistance, trusted medical emergency response and a dependable police force. This tragedy is as much an indictment of the societal apathy toward womens safety as it is of the failure of the system to provide us with basic services. The very services whose absence compromises the safety and well-being of men, women and children across this country and most likely led to this unfortunate and preventable tragedy.

How safe are our kids? 

Child abuse in schools across India keeps rearing its ugly head with alarming frequency. That said, the children are no less safe within the confines of the home. It feels eerily similar to the journey and narrative of womens safety in India. Both categories are treated by the male dominated society as precious and fragile commodities which are extremely vulnerable and thus in need of their protection. And yet the same male dominated society has not only failed to protect them but also preyed upon their vulnerabilities.  A study by the National Commission for Protection of child rights (NCPCR) in 2017 concluded that about 53 per cent of kids surveyed reported to have faced some form of sexual abuse. I think the damning results of the study ought to put in perspective the gravity of the situation in India. It is not always overt sexual, physical or mental abuse that endangers the safety of the child. Vehicular traffic coming to a stop for children boarding or alighting school buses or yielding to children crossing streets or putting helmets on or strapping kids in are other areas where Childrens safety is compromised if the aforesaid behaviour isn’t normalized within society. Investment in the buildout of safety infrastructure and processes, awareness campaigns in form of multi-channel PSAs and most importantly making awareness about sex (sex education) and sexual abuse a part of school curricula is critically important. Additionally, the proper vetting and training of personnel is equally important. Regrettably, all of these are almost often at the bottom of the priority list if at all.

How safe are our seniors? 

The ever-climbing graph of violent crime against senior citizens, the umpteen cases of abuse at the hands of either family or members of the public and the apathy in general of society for these ‘past sell by date commodities’ is another shameful human development statistic and a leading indicator of the health of our society. There is striking similarity in the manner in which society sermons loftily about women, children and senior citizens and the diametrically opposite manner in which it acts. There is policy paralysis at the governmental level and moral paralysis at the societal level on how to provide our senior citizens with a life of dignity in the twilight years of their lives. A dearth of quality senior living facilities (old age homes), lack of community policing, geriatric oriented public infrastructure, lack of awareness of existing resources (albeit meagre) combined exacerbate the problem. Lack of empathy within the public is the last nail!

How safe are our skies? 

The recent news that Indigo Airlines’ pilots were setting up the Airbus A320 Neo engines for catastrophic failure by revving up the engine thrust to the maximum level at takeoff in a bid to save fuel is a glaring example of how passenger safety is compromised for corporate profit. This is yet another strike in the infamous record of safety violations of the Indian aviation industry. In fact, an aviation safety audit conducted by the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) placed India’s air safety oversight score less than that of her South Asian neighbours like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and even North Korea in the Asia-Pacific region! It is widely believed that the number of near misses of mid-air collisions called ‘air proximity’ in aviation parlance is much more than what is reported. These frightening occurrences are being attributed to a combination of inadequate infrastructure, overworked personnel and a lax regulatory environment.

How safe are our roads, railways and waterways? 

Road safety has been an issue of intermittent debate for as long as I can remember and probably even before that. All the debating seems to have changed precious little on the ground. The Global status report on road safety 2013, published by the World Health Organization estimated that in excess of 231,000 people are killed in road traffic accidents in India annually. Approximately half of all fatalities are from the most vulnerable sections i.e. motorcyclists, pedestrians and cyclists. This shocking statistic is indicative of the fact that we as a society are apathetic and even predatory when it comes to the most vulnerable amongst us. It also shines the spotlight on the fact that majority of citizens are either sorely lacking in the knowledge of traffic rules and road etiquette or are wilful violators. Helmets and seatbelts are still mostly worn to escape fines and not as a safety precaution. Trucks, Buses and SUVs and other heavy vehicles monopolize roads and 2-3 wheelers are in a perpetual state of Brownian motion is a common sight on Indian roads. The result of this randomness and chaos is a foregone conclusion!

Indian Railways has statistically seen a gradual decline in the number of accidents in the last few years but accidents still continue to plague and haunt the mammoth organisation. The jury is still out around the safety at railway stations, in the train and on the tracks.

Dilapidated boats and ferries overloaded and lacking in basic safety equipment like life jackets and buoys capsize every now and then taking many lives to their watery graves. There is temporary furore, news anchors hyperventilate, politicians pontificate and then its all conveniently fades away only to be raked up with the next edition of a man-made disaster. Nobody dwells on the lack of bridges across rivers in many parts of the country which breeds these illicit boat operators in the first place or the lack of administrative oversight and rampant corruption in granting licenses to these unfit vessels. Passenger Safety again is not even a fleeting consideration.

I hope by now you are able to see a discernible pattern emerge with regard to the general state of safety in India. I will leave you to ponder over a few other questions within your own realms: How safe is the air we breathe?. How safe is the water we drink (includes water bodies and ground water)? How safe is the food we eat?  How safe are the animals in their natural habitat? How safe is our environment? 

The safety paradigm in India if not already dead is flatlining. It needs a societal defibrillator to bring it back from the netherworld. Who’s listening though?

“Government’s first duty and highest obligation is public safety.”

~ Arnold Schwarzenegger

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