Indians seem to love the circus of a rescue more than saving people | Mint

Indians seem to love the circus of a rescue more than saving people

The primary rescue mission had tried to reach the trapped workers by using machines to cut through rocky debris, but suffered setbacks towards the end as hardware broke down.  (PTI)
The primary rescue mission had tried to reach the trapped workers by using machines to cut through rocky debris, but suffered setbacks towards the end as hardware broke down. (PTI)

Summary

  • For all the energy devoted to the recent tunnel extraction and earlier covid pandemic, India appears okay with some kinds of deaths—such as those that occur when nobody is looking. Or counting.

The way India rescues Indians, it is as though the nation values life. But India, in my view, cares very little; it just likes the spectacle of a rescue. A rescue by India is like a frantic ambulance carrying a man it had run over in the first place.

A few days ago, 41 construction workers were rescued 17 days after they were entombed in a collapsed tunnel. As they emerged, they were cheered by a festive crowd of people who belonged to the same social classes as their masters, some of whom chanted compliments for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Among the receivers of the workers was Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami. The rescue had been a news drama for days. What was not news was that India had, in very Indian ways, probably put the workers in danger.

India has given us very little information about the cause of the tunnel collapse, which was probably caused by a landslide, exactly the sort of danger some people, including a panel appointed by the Supreme Court, had warned of. The tunnel is part of a highway project in a fragile section of the Himalayas, which is prone to landslides and flooding. The project attracted environmental and safety concerns, which the government overcame through a ruse it has adopted to defeat activism. The New York Times reported, “The government had chopped up the project into 53 pieces, each under the 100-kilometer requirement for mandatory environmental impact assessments." The government also invoked national security, as the road is vital for military movements.

We can say accidents do happen everywhere in the world, including places that assign a high value to life. And there is a reasonable argument that environmentalists don’t like any infrastructural projects while people like to travel fast between two points, so governments across the world develop tricks to defeat them. But often, people die in India not because of some freak bad luck, but because India did not do enough for safety, especially of the poor. Some of the rescuers of the trapped construction workers themselves had jobs that do not exist in more compassionate societies. They are ‘rat-miners,’ agile men who have the capability to burrow through tight spaces, as rats do. They are used to extract a type of coal so that their employers do not have to use robots, which are more expensive than poor Indians.

The primary rescue mission had tried to reach the trapped workers by using machines to cut through rocky debris, but suffered setbacks towards the end as hardware broke down. So humans had to squeeze and scrape to complete the final few metres of the rescue. That was when ‘rat-miners,’ who were also impoverished enough to do this sort of stuff, were called in. ‘Rat-mining’ is illegal in India because India is good at theory. India knows that some things are too dangerous for human beings, even if they are willing to take the risk, but in practice this sort of mining is prevalent in some mines because that is how the nation is. The ‘rat-miners’ themselves deny that there is any ‘rat-mining’ anymore because that would be awkward for everyone. They gave some vague reasons why they still exist, which I have not fully understood. In any case, I hear they turned out to be crucial after the machines failed. Everything that is wrong with India is compensation for our inability to do the right things the right way.

Yet, when the trapped construction workers finally emerged, there was only national pride. It was as though we are tired of shame. TV channels rejoiced. Politicians garlanded the workers for cameras. Maybe we are not a serious people, maybe we tend to veer towards farce.

India cheapens life, yet there is something about a rescue that captivates Indians. Think of what happens when a human organ is transported across cities to some man in need. Traffic comes to a standstill; a van races to the airport; a plane leaves; the traffic in another city comes to a standstill as the organ is taken to a hospital. You won’t guess life is this valuable by what Indians eat, or the toxins that go into medicines for the poor; and the fact that erratic refrigeration halves the efficacy of most vaccines. People fall off trains because there are no doors; trains themselves fall off. Construction workers do not to have to be in tunnels to risk death; they fall off buildings because contractors don’t give them safety equipment. Workers die in fires that had to occur at some point because of the circumstances. Road accidents in India can hardly be called accidents as they are the most logical outcome of Indian traffic. We are that place where everything leads to a mishap, but there would always be that guy who brings cold soda from somewhere for the victim.

Road accidents are the dark leveller in India. A billionaire died recently; actors and politicians have perished in them. Every time a famous person’s death occurs, a minister suggests stern seat-belt regulation, which only increases the income of traffic cops. It is baffling that in India’s slow turn towards authoritarianism, the one place where freedom must be restricted continues to be a paradise of feral liberation—the road.

Yet, when the covid pandemic broke out, India fought valiantly. It was as though the country had decreed that you can die on the roads, in trains, by trains, and in fires, and even by eating a meal at a wedding celebration, but you will not die of covid. India, it seems, is okay with some kinds of death; deaths that occur when no one is looking or counting.

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