The terrible hospital fire at an expensive private hospital in Kolkata is all the more unforgivable because it was preventable. It underlines not just complete system failure, but also utter defiance of all that is right. The system is to be laughed at or placated—who in their right minds ever bother with lights, wires, fire alarms, flammable materials, radioactive waste? That is all paperwork, saar.

The system and authorities are cheap commodities, it seems. They can be mollified with a few scraps from the immense benefits that accrue due to such callousness. Right? There must be some significant advantage to defying rules, or why would one do it? Personal machismo? Savings achieved? What is it that allows individuals and organizations to take on the moral burden of creating death traps wherever they go?

People evacuate patients after a fire broke out at a nursing home in Kolkata on 9 December 2011. AP

I learnt this in kindergarten—you make a mess, you pick it up. If the gas pipe people dig up a road, they must make it good. If the water pipe company does so—it becomes the company’s responsibility. Oh, and if you have a wedding or function in the family, please do not feel free to drill into the road. And if you do, please fill it up—exactly as it was. How would you like it if during a surgery, the doctor opened you up and refused to stitch you up again?

We have shamed ourselves, as a people. And we cannot keep blaming the system or the government—vile as it is when corrupt. It is up to us to create our environment, to build our communities in our own image. Look around you, and see your image reflected back. Do tell me if you like what you see. Or has learnt blindness taken over? We must not absolve the government, system or authorities of their responsibilities. Yet, it is the people who will have to lead the battle for self-respect.

Self-respect does not come from delegating responsibilities, whether to the state, the community or others. Self-respecting environments take effort to build and maintain. It starts with little things such as keeping things around you clean and in good repair, even if you don’t own it. Keeping service lanes clear. Behaving with courtesy. It does involve a little awareness of the needs of others in the community, and a clear sense of lines that must not be crossed. As a society, as a civilization, we do need to acknowledge and behave with certain maturity. We are not marauding nomads, we are a people. We build for the future, and what we build must last, so that our children may progress—not be destroyed by our callous fires and floods.

It is time to step up and shoulder our responsibilities and not expect to be policed into looking after ourselves. Each time lines on the road are replaced by cement barriers to prevent people driving on the wrong side, or cutting lanes, we know to our shame that we have been jailed. Each time taxes are paid only after an enquiry, we are feeding the police state. Each time a rule is broken by us the people, we create another reason for the state to treat us with mistrust and disrespect.

Our freedoms are ours to preserve, by our behaviour. It behoves us, for the sake of our self-respect, for our freedom and for our well-being to make the nanny state redundant—it is not their job to pick and clean after us. Let us not give them a chance to create more rules and forms that bind us. Let us not give them excuses to not do their job, just because they were busy firefighting and dealing with the consequences of our jugaad. Till we do that, do we even have the moral right to ask the state to do its job well?

Meeta Sengupta is an independent consultant in education strategy

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