What is the value of a human life?

278 kids await heart surgery at KEM hospital.
18 children die when a building collapses in Thane.

I have been in India for an entire year now. The newness has worn off. I have grown accustomed to India Stretch Time (mostly). I have accepted that traffic is going to move only as fast as, well, as fast as it can, which is often quite slow indeed. I have almost mastered the art of crossing the street. I have learned to love many things about India: walking to Starbucks, seeing spectacular sights like the Amer (Amber) fort in Jaipur, enjoying the chaos of the carnival-like atmosphere that defines Mumbai as the Maximum City. And, yet, like many expats, I still struggle to understand some aspects of Indian culture and society.

Recently, my heart broke as I read the stories of children dying while waiting for open-heart surgery. Dying not because their problems weren’t fixable, but because there was only one heart-lung machine available to operate on more than 270 children on a waiting list. I started thinking about the high price of low-cost health care. Drugs are cheap in India, but, evidently, so are children’s lives. Many poor parents had prepaid the Rs. 60,000 for a surgery that their child would never receive. For most parents, that Rs. 60,000 is more than they earn in a year. Then, a building collapsed in Thane; more than 70 people died, 18 of them children. The government declared that each family would receive 2 lakhs ($3600) for each death. That is how much a dead child is worth. Both tragedies were preventable. None of those children had to die.

But, then I learned that the Foundation for Mother and Child Health can save the life of a malnourished child for just Rs. 2,400 a year—not per month—per year. It takes only a little bit to make a big difference. And, I started to ponder, “What is the value of human life? Why do people place so little value not just on the safety of others but even on their own personal safety?

When I pose this question to friends on Facebook or at dinner, the inevitable response is simple economics. The law of supply and demand dictates that in India human life is cheap. A high supply of labor means that the labor costs are cheap. If a person dies, he is easily replaced by another, possibly cheaper, resource. In the case of the Thane collapse, the risk for the builder of a building collapse was lower than the reward of the crores he earned by allowing people to occupy the building before it was finished. Eighteen children cost that builder a mere 36 lakhs ($66,000). Compared to the crores he earned, those lakhs were mere paise.

Economics works as a reason if we are just talking about large corporations making business decisions based on cost, but we aren’t. Every day, people ride two-wheelers without helmets even though the law requires it and common sense dictates it. Why? Some friends have argued that a person’s risk-reward analysis is tightly aligned with their religious beliefs. If you are Hindu, you believe in karma and reincarnation, and those beliefs inform your every decision. Why protect this life when you have another yet to follow? But, that argument is a gross oversimplification of Hindu beliefs, and it only works when we are operating inside a specific religious framework. It does not explain why the wife of my Christian driver does not wear a helmet, but he does. Or why when we offered to pay for one (removing the economic obstacle), she politely refused. As bikers ourselves, Brian and I take a strong stand on bike safety and wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE). This view is not simply a result of Brian’s job title as SVP for Safety (not all safety professionals wear helmets). This view reflects that we value our own lives more than we trust the safe driving habits of others. Many people in the US would disagree with our stand, arguing that is a personal choice. But, here it does not really seem to be about choosing not to wear a helmet so much as it is about pushing the limits of what is allowable. As if the boundaries between right and wrong are flexible, highly fluid, and completely relative to my personal needs.

My analysis so far makes it sound like Indians are heartless, selfish lawbreakers. But, nothing could be further from the truth. Hence, my struggle with this particular aspect of Indian culture. It is in deep opposition to the actions of the many wonderful Indian friends I have made here. Many have a tremendous capacity for love and compassion toward their fellow Indians. As co-president of the American Women’s Club, I have been overwhelmed by the generous response to our AWC Bourbon Street Bash. We signed more platinum sponsors this year than last year. We added more amazing auction items. So, how does a foreigner reconcile these two impressions of India? India is often spoken of in terms of the dichotomy of the two Indias: rich and poor; urban and rural. Why should the Indian approach to life be any less complex?

After seeing my post on this topic, an Indian friend pointed me to Mother Teresa. Like me, she was a foreigner who adopted India as her home. She worked with the poor of Calcutta (Kolkata). While I don’t agree with all of Mother Teresa’s views, she placed great value on the dignity of human life. According to her, “Life is the most beautiful gift of God.” It is a gift to be given and cherished, not squandered. This concept informed all her actions, and she taught Indians to view life with the same dignity. She worked to change the things she could in the world and accepted those she could not. I suppose that is what I must do as well.

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