By Basab Dasgupta
When I was a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin during the seventies, a fellow American graduate student in another department invited me to a class he was teaching in social science or international relations or some subject like that. The topic of his course on that particular day was India and he wanted to have me present in his class as an example of a real Indian who could answer questions from students about India or Indians. I readily agreed.
I do not remember most of the questions or how I answered them, but one question remained with me ever since that day. I will paraphrase the question as follows: “Do you think that there is less value attached to people’s lives in India because the population is so huge?” I was definitely put on the spot and did not want to present a negative image of my country. I managed to give a somewhat evasive answer. I said something to the effect that population density in India is probably no different than what one sees in cities like New York City and people’s lives are probably viewed in the same way.
However, I knew that I did not give the student an honest answer. I believe that the truth is that human life in India does not indeed carry as much worth as it does in a country like the US and the overwhelming population is one of the contributing factors.
I have thought about this question many times in my later life. I believe that there is, at least, a loose correlation between quality of life in a country and its population. If one looks at the list of the “happiest countries” in the world, the top ten entries seem to always include the four Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Austria and Iceland, all with populations in the 5 to 10 million range. China and India remain as the most populous countries with populations of 1.5 and 1.4 billion, respectively and they are also not so desirable places to live, in spite of all the recent developments and technological advancements. Perhaps the population has to remain below a critical mass in order for the life of every citizen to be addressed seriously and effectively.
It makes sense. When there are fewer people there are fewer issues and conflicts among them, and people can care more about each other. Value of life is automatically higher because any loss of life has an impact on some aspect of the society. When there are a billion plus people, nothing stops if some people die because there are plenty of people available to replace them, no matter what job is involved. There is an apathy towards the misery or misfortune of other people. Everyone has a mindset that, with all the people available, someone else would help and therefore “I need not get involved”.
The USA seems to be undergoing a transition. When I first came here, it seemed that every life mattered. Every killing and every accident drew attention and investigations followed by fair trial, if appropriate, ensued. There was even daily reporting of lives of soldiers lost in the Vietnam war with an accurate count and every effort was made to bring the bodies of dead soldiers back to their homeland. Even as recently as 2001, we responded vigorously to the loss of 3000 plus lives in the 9/11 disaster by going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and spending billions of dollars. However, in recent decades, insurgence of mass shooting, homelessness, illegal immigration across our southern border, use of excessive force by police and other such developments have certainly diluted the intensity of that concern for human life. At the same time, the population of the country has been increasing and perhaps crossed that critical mass. Good news is that the general population still seems to come together to help others in difficulty, both financially as well as emotionally. Introduction of the “Go Fund Me” concept is the latest indication of that.
Two personal incidents made an impression upon me about the validity of my belief. When I was attending Science College in Kolkata, I often used to take the train to commute from Dhakuria (where I lived) to Sealdah station and then walk to Science College. During rush hour traffic it was always preferable to get even a tiny standing room near the door of the compartment of the train so that one could get some breeze in the middle of a packed car in hot and humid weather. One day, as I was traveling in my usual spot, a small rock hurled by some kid came flying into the car and hit me right between my left eyebrow and eye. I felt pain, covered my left eye and simply sat down on the floor of the compartment. The train soon entered the platform of Sealdah (South) station and every passenger – and I mean everyone – disembarked in a hurry without paying any attention to me or offering me any help.
Fortunately, my eye was not damaged and I managed to go to the Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital which was located almost next to the station with the help of a gentleman on the platform.
The second incident took place during my India visit in 2013. One day, while going from Sodepur to Kolkata with a cousin sister in her car, I saw a middle-aged bearded man in shaggy clothes lying flat on the side of a busy street and everyone passing by him completely oblivious to his condition. Was he ill? Was he drunk and passed out? Was he asleep or unconscious? Was he dead? I did not know. My cousin did not care either and I guess my Indian genes prevented me from saying “Stop the car; let us find out what is wrong with this man”.
It is not just these two isolated incidents, I can confess that I lived my life in India being largely oblivious to the plight of the “poor” people – the servants and maids, the factory laborers, the farmers, not to mention the beggars and homeless refugees. I almost accepted the socio-economic caste system as being the norm! When I visited Kolkata in 2013 after almost 30 years, I realized that, in spite of all the progress and improvements that brought Indian economy to the world stage, the lives of poor people have not changed much from the time I lived there.
The horrific images of people in India during the recent surge in Covid19, both their suffering while desperately looking for treatment as well as their mass funerals and the apparent lack of preparedness of the country to deal with the problem made me ask the same question, “Is value of life less in India?”
In a highly litigious society like America, lawyers can put a value on life. It seems that when a person dies from non-natural causes in the USA, someone comes out of the woodwork and sues the party alleged to be responsible for the death. I assume that there are standard formulas and precedents that guide the lawyers in their determination of the amount needed to compensate for the loss of life. I doubt that a similar mindset exists in India.
One of my Christian friends pointed out another interesting aspect of this difference in how we see the value of life. The Indians who are mostly Hindus believe in reincarnation. The present life is just one in a series of thousands of reincarnations that every person must go through in order to achieve that ultimate destiny – “Nirvana” and what happens in this life is largely predetermined by our “karma” in previous lives. The Christians, on the other hand, value their present life because they think that it is “the one life to live”; they will go to heaven or hell after that. As a result, there might be a greater emphasis on not only living one’s life on the right path but also regard everyone else’s life on an equal footing.
In any event, I strongly believe that, unless and until a country views the worthiness of life of every one of its citizens the same way, it has not raised itself to the next level of improvement in order to become a great country!
Basab Dasgupta has a doctorate in physics from University of Wisconsin and worked with Sony as Vice President of an operating division. Retired, he now lives in San Clemente, CA.
The horrific images of people in India during the recent surge of Covid19, both their suffering while desperately looking for treatment and mass funerals made me ask again the question, “Is value of life less in India?”
In America in recent decades, mass shootings, homelessness, illegal immigration, use of excessive force by police have diluted the intensity of concern for human life.