Pointless Death: A Time To Demand Better Governance

Updated: Jul 27 2003, 05:30am hrs
It was an obituary advertisement in the Hindu. It bore the smiling face of a young, handsome man. Head tilted to one side, happy and on top of the world. He was 27 when he died. Below the picture was the family that remembered him. Father, mother, wife. The wife must be very young.

He was a flight lieutenant, and he died when his MiG aircraft crashed. MiG aircraft have crashed at the rate of one every month during the last eight years. The aircraft of Russian vintage has been rechristened The Flying Coffin. Every crash, save a few, has taken with it a precious life, the life of a young man.

Did I say precious life Sorry. Lives are not precious in this country. In fact, life is cheap. If life was not cheap, would the Indian Air Force (IAF) continue to fly these flying coffins Would the Air Chief proclaim that the MiG is one of the safest aircraft in operation And would George Fernandes, the defence minister, in another show of bravado, promise to fly in one of them very soon

We have over a billion people in India. Perhaps, that is why we do not grieve when a young pilots life is lost. How long does the IAF grieve when one of its pilots dies in an accident Only until the next accident and until the next life is lost.

If there is one air accident a month, there has been in recent weeks one rail accident a day. One of the most bizarre accidents happened a few days ago in the southern Railway. A train rammed into a school bus at an unmanned level crossing, killing four children and an adult. So what was bizarre about it, do not accidents of that kind happen every now and then They do, but what was bizarre about this accident was that the train was a special train and among its passengers was the general manager of the southern Railway!

Hundreds die every year in rail accidents, bus accidents, car accidents. Governments hand out meagre compensations, an enquiry is ordered and the matter is forgotten. The most futile deaths take place in wars. Life goes on with more wars, more accidents and more lives lost.

Another rememberance advertisement attracted my attention three days ago, on July 24. The family of Sarika Shah remembered her on the fifth anniversary of her death. Sarika Shah died, just outside the gates of her college in Chennai. She was the hapless victim of a bunch of eve-teasers. What made her death more poignant was that she died on her twentieth birthday.

Her death has changed little. There is still eve-teasing, there is still ragging. Every death due to ragging or eve-teasing is so pointless and such a terrible waste, but it does not stir our conscience or spur us to do something to change the society that we live in.

There are other ways in which lives are lost. Where children die young, demographers calculate two mortality rates. The Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) measures the number of infant deaths under one year of age per 1000 live births. Indias IMR was 72 per thousand in 1998. Even in the golden years of Indias economic development (post-reforms) between 1993 and 1998, the IMR remained virtually unchanged at between 72 and 74. And looking behind this number, we find that female IMR is greater than male IMR. Why A partial answer is infanticide, especially of girl children.

The Child Mortality Rate (CMR) measures the probability of a child dying before completing four years. It is a function of nutrition, spread of health services like vaccinations and availability of medical care. Indias CMR was 26.5 in 1991 and had declined to 23.1 in 1998. According to the Unicef, the under-five mortality rate is the single most important indicator of the state of a nations children.

Life is not an animal existence. The UNDPs 1990 report defined human development as the process of enlarging peoples choices. Health, nutrition, education, opportunities, empowerment and like indicators go into constructing the Human Development Index. Indias rank is 127. One of our bigget failings is in the matter of school enrolment. What proportion of children enrol in primary school and of that what proportion complete five years of school Also, what proportion enrol in secondary school and how many children complete eight years of school education According to a recent paper on the subject (Ila Patnaik and Deepa Vasudevan), in 1998 only 57.58 per cent of children were enrolled in secondary schools.

A child who does not enrol in primary or secondary school or a child who does not complete five years of education is virtually an illiterate child. She will lose the few rudimentary skills that she acquired in the two or three years she was in school. Even if she learned the alphabets and learned to read, unless she has access to books, she will soon regress into illiteracy. I made a back-of-the-envelope calculation and I estimate that, in Uttar Pradesh alone, one million children every year grow into adolescence as virtual illiterates. What UP needs are schools, teachers, books and effective governance to enrol and keep the children in school for at least eight years. Another Ram Temple can wait until our children are given the chance to lead decent lives.

Before we celebrate life we must learn to respect and value life. Every life is precious. Every premature or unnecessary death is a waste. Every young man or woman who dies a pointless death, takes with his or her death a valuable contribution that could have been made to the country.

Death is not a statistic. An accident in which lives are lost is not merely the subject matter of an enquiry. Such occasions are a time for grieving and a time to demand better governance.

(The author is a former Union finance minister)