No prevention and no cure

In May this year, a pub in Pune was sealed a few days after it served alcohol to a 17-year-old and his friends. This wouldn’t have happened if the drunk teenager in question had managed to get home but, unfortunately for him, his sportscar rammed into a bike carrying two people, both of whom were killed. Someone had to be held responsible, obviously, and since the teen was first let off with the harsh punishment of writing a 300-word essay, it only made sense for the pub to be shut down. There was public outrage to be managed, and it’s not as if any police official was going to take the fall.

This isn’t to say there should be no action for serving alcohol to the underaged, only that it says a lot about how there always appear to be two justice systems running parallel to each other in this country. If you’re rich, you can promptly get away with murder. If you’re not, you may have to pay a price disproportionate to your crime. In some instances, you may even find yourself in jail with no charges at all.

Consider that infamous falling billboard as another example, the one that killed 16 people and injured dozens more after it collapsed during a sudden storm in Bombay. It was only after those people died that, as if by magic, a series of discrepancies were revealed. Apparently, rules were brazenly flouted and there were several relaxations, including increasing the hoarding’s size and extending the contract tenure. There were other hoardings set up by the same advertising agency, all illegal. The owner of the agency was found to have 23 criminal cases against him, an earlier company owned by him had been blacklisted by the BMC, but he continued to secure contracts. Sadly for us, we all know that none of this would have mattered to anyone if the billboard hadn’t collapsed.

It is naïve to assume that punitive action ever occurs of its own accord without a bit of public outrage. Yes, some people died, but that alone has never been enough to galvanise corrupt bureaucrats into assigning blame. Think of the millions of victimless crimes that take place daily, and how nothing happens because they aren’t even acknowledged as crimes in the first place.

Here’s an example staring us all in the face: 2,590 people died on Bombay’s suburban railway tracks in 2023. Government statistics declared an average of seven deaths per day, caused by unauthorised crossing of tracks and falling off running trains. Putting aside the small number of suicides (because that convenient argument never goes away), would those deaths fit the definition of a crime? Is it okay to write off people dying for no fault of their own as a statistic, when we all know why they died, and how their deaths could have been prevented? If a government is tasked with the welfare of citizens, and with making sure they have access to what they need to be able to survive, should it be absolved for failing that duty? If the railways have no boundary walls and fences between platforms and tracks, should that be forgiven or explained away as mere oversight?

There are other victims, never named but easily identified with the bare minimum effort. According to recent data published by a network of health NGOs called Jan Arogya Abhiyan, every fourth child in Maharashtra is malnourished and every second woman has anaemia. Maharashtra reportedly spends just 4.1 per cent of its budget on healthcare, which is a legal right. There is a shortage of essential medicines in government hospitals across the state, and malnutrition among children is among the highest among all states in the country. In 2023, a government survey revealed that 9,459 children died in tribal areas in 16 districts over the last one year. 23,040 children in urban and rural parts of Thane district were below average weight, which is a sign of malnutrition. Are these children to be classified as victims? I would like to think they are, their lives shortened because they were at the mercy of an uncaring system, bearing the brunt of bureaucratic failure at every level.

It may be ridiculous to conflate systemic failure with specific incidents of negligence, but I would argue that blame always lies with those who look the other way and don’t do what they have been tasked with doing. The only difference lies in the number of people who inadvertently pay the price.

When he isn’t ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira
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The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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