The criminals among us
A lack of transparency and accountability allows government employees to get away with murder. Why do we allow them to?
Life is cheap in Mumbai. This could have been a tagline for an advertising campaign, but will obviously never be because honesty has never had any place in the advertising industry. The fact remains though because people die around us all the time and we don't get as worked up as we once used to. Consider the monsoons every year, where poor folk routinely die because buildings collapse, and better off folk die in freak accidents related to open manholes or potholed roads. Death is a great leveller, aided by the kind of incompetence and apathy that has long made Mumbai infamous.
I can't recall if people always died as easily as they now do. There must have been similar tragedies in my childhood, of course, because it's not as if the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has ever been an efficient organisation, but I don't seem to recall any major tragedies the way I remember the floods of 2005, for instance. Over 1,000 people died that day, July 26, and experts placed the blame not just on the eighth heaviest-ever recorded 24-hour rainfall but on factors such as an inadequate drainage system, unplanned construction, and the illegal destruction of mangrove ecosystems.
The heavy rain continues, routinely shocking meteorologists who never seem to be prepared for it, but our drainage systems continue sucking up more public funds than water, unplanned construction continues to be allowed, and news reports on mangroves being destroyed continue to take up newsprint on a regular basis. The problems that plagued us for over a decade and a half continue to affect us today, and none of us seem to have noticed.
When a human being dies because of someone's gross negligence, there ought to be consequences. Those responsible for that death ought to be named and shamed. They should be punished because that death also destroys a family and affects the lives of those who live on after the deceased. And yet, year after year, more and more Mumbai residents succumb simply because they find themselves at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Some die because bridges they are on fall apart, because engineers tasked with maintaining the structural integrity of those bridges give them new coats of paint instead. Others die because restaurants they are in catch fire, because government employees tasked with making sure there are no illegal kitchens turn a blind eye to them for a fee. Still, others die because the homes they reside in collapse, sometimes because they haven't been warned, more often because those homes are illegal but allowed to be built anyway.
At the heart of all these unnecessary deaths lies systemic corruption. Our budgets for safer roads, better hospitals, stronger bridges, and fire safety are routinely diverted to other causes and pockets, leaving us vulnerable because the people paid by our taxes to protect us simply don't do their jobs. In a private workspace, they could have been held responsible, and would presumably have been fired and replaced with qualified people. In government, they are allowed to escape with slaps to their wrist, their job security and pension plans intact.
A representative of a political party responsible for managing the BMC responded to the latest tragedy — the wall collapse where a mere 22 died, and only 94 were injured — by blaming the rain. In a city that cared, this would have been an unacceptable excuse, a refusal to take responsibility for what was also a manmade error of judgment. We allowed that comment to pass though, helpless in the face of successive governments that adhere to the same policy of blaming the weather.
I like to believe this attitude will change at some point, even though there are no indications yet. I like to believe there will come a time when we will simply tire of stepping out of our homes during the monsoons with our hearts in our mouths, when we will demand that our taxes go towards our safety rather than towards the renaming of railway stations and the building of unnecessary statues.
The idea of our lives being cheap isn't something we ought to accept with the ease we currently do. The deaths of our fellow citizens don't raise our eyebrows because we have been trained to accept them as statistics, rather than human beings. We call them tragedies because they happen to other people, and move on because we assume they will never affect us. Until they do.
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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