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Do we not value life in India?

October 15, 2007

Do we in India really have no value for life at all? Are we morally and economically bankrupt? People die on the road, in bomb blasts, in hospitals, of diseases, of hunger, in fires, in building collapses…and no one seems to care. The feeling is that we as a nation aren’t doing enough to stem this.

When rambodoc said something similar in response to my post on helping accident victims, he echoed the feelings of most of us Indians. Time to do some introspection I thought. But it was the blast at the Ajmer Dargah a few days ago and then another one in a Ludhiana movie hall a day later that triggered my thought process sufficiently enough to make me write this post. I had written about our government’s ineptitude in preventing terrorism, but I wanted to explore some other issues…the issue of the value of life.

As far as definitions go, the wiki says:

The value of life (or price of life) is an economic or moral value assigned to life in general, or to specific living organisms.

Well, definitions may talk about moral value but this only works at an individual level and is restricted to certain types of individuals. Where the state is concerned, it’s the economic value which counts. As the wiki goes on to say:

Discussions about the value of life would be more-or-less limited to university philosophy departments and religious groups if it were not for the fact that this value must be calculated in an exact quantitative way by practitioners in these disciplines…disciplines including economics, health care, political economy, insurance, worker safety, environmental impact assessment, and globalization.

So in India, a land of teeming millions, poor teeming millions the value of life is pretty low, or maybe there is no value tagged to human life at all.

Pretty much explains why we do not place much value on animal life either. Wild life in our country is in dire straits as this post explains. The government has enough on its plate (more on that later), and speaking at the individual level, it’s difficult to expect a forest guard who cannot feed his kids and is unable to provide them with a good education to resist the temptation of a bribe. He would be more worried about his own genes becoming extinct rather than a tiger’s.

The value we have for plants and trees is even less. Forget about the government, how can you expect a woman who toils 16 hours a day to feed her 6 stunted children who are out of school, to care about whether she is depleting the forest reserves?

The government’s bankruptcy, both ethical and economical
Continuation from the wiki:

Some advocates feel that putting an economic price tag on life is “inhumane”, because every life is “priceless”. However, with a limited supply of resources or infrastructural capital (e.g. ambulances), or skill at hand, it is impossible to save every life, so some trade-off must be made.

Yeah, we make trade-offs. With the limited infrastructure available in our country, we are focusing on what the government thinks is important…the next elections for example!

And when it comes to saving lives, it’s the politicians’ lives, industrialists’ lives that are more important. Not just lives, VIP’s need to be saved from the law as well! And not just them, even their kith and kin…

Talk of inequalities…!

The positive side of the story is that these kind of inequalities have started coming to light with increasing frequency…and human rights groups, animal rights groups and green groups are getting vociferous, with more support from global organisations. India is now more visible than it ever was, and therefore the increasing focus on what the country is doing or not doing.

India I think is waking up from it’s slumber. A number of new legislations have been enacted and many more are on the anvil. The RTI Act has helped tremendously, and the media is doing it’s bit by exposing the soft spots…blogs included! What we need now is education for all. Not only will this make people participate in our growing economy, it will make them aware of their rights and responsibilties as citizens. And the duties and obligations of the government. In a democracy, the people’s will prevails…and I am waiting for the day when we have an enlightened electorate.

Guess I have diverted from the main topic…but well, I feel pretty emotional about this.

(Picture is by me)

Related Reading: How safe are we in India from fire?

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25 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2007 2:23 pm

    I’ve always wanted to find out more about the ‘cost of life insurance’ as calculated by the insurance companies. If one can get details of such calculations across countries, that would be interesting.

    But this data is very confidential, so there’s no way I’ve found to get it.

    I do think that life is cheap in India compared to other developed nations, primarily because of the population. I’m not so optimistic whether it is changing or not. We still have a long way to go.

  2. October 15, 2007 2:31 pm

    I only differ from you (on this issue) by the fact that I am not optimistic, while you are…..

  3. October 15, 2007 3:25 pm

    Mahendra: Private insurers calculate the value of life based on actuarial tables which are not confidential. They draw upon publicly available information. However the nature of the insurance industry is such that any new data on morbidity/ mortality etc takes a long time to filter through to actuarial tables, so improvements in public health do not always percolate down to those tables quickly (as an example).

    The question to ask in policy terms is how the government values life. In the UK, if people die in train accidents, there is a valuation of some 55000 or so in pounds. I may be wrong (I have forgotten the exact numbers and I cannot dig out my materials from boxes at the moment). Some argued that lives lost on the train lines to Oxford and Cambridge should be valued more – an argument which was quashed..

    That valuation is very complex and nuanced. And that is what we need to ask about these accidents in India.

    news.bbc.co.uk

    How do I know all this insurance stuff? My dad worked in life insurance; and for my research, I interviewed insurance industry veterans in the UK and the US to understand how they treat ‘obesity’ on their health insurance policies. Very different ball game from how the governments see it.

    Thanks.

  4. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    October 15, 2007 3:54 pm

    Shefaly,

    This may seem a very jaundiced view, especially to one for whom insurance is part of the family life🙂 history; but I do feel insurance companies hire actuaries only as window dressing — to bring a semblance of fair play and scientific/statistical rigour to what is basically just a scam to penalise the customer by making him pay in advance for anticipated misfortunes.

  5. October 15, 2007 4:08 pm

    Vivek: In the Govt of India undertaking that LIC was, perhaps this may have been the case. Although as a child, I saw actuarial tables and how they were used even by LIC employees.

    The new players who have entered the fray after deregulation work quite differently. Many of them are responsible to shareholders and stakeholders in countries where deviations from practices will not be swallowed easily.

    This means that the industry itself may be pulled up by its socks, and have to comply with new industry norms.

    However in this instance, it is not private industry’s but government’s valuation of human life that is important. This is a policy issue as much as a societal issue.

  6. wishtobeanon.... permalink
    October 15, 2007 7:03 pm

    Hi Nita,

    This is another topic that I feel very strongly about. Maybe, the lack of respect for others’ life is due to poverty (economical and moral). But overall, ethics is not given much importance in our society, that is what I feel.

  7. October 15, 2007 7:46 pm

    Wishtobeanon, yes even I feel so. I think that there is too much emphasis on religion and tradition as opposed to ethics and morals. Unfortunately we tend to substitute them for each other…

  8. madhurisinha permalink
    October 15, 2007 9:54 pm

    Hi Nita,
    I don’t know if this is a possible solution but if the offerings at all the leading temples would be assembled, they would provide free education and food for children of an entire state.

    The problem i am hinting at is a rich Indian would rather offer money and jewelery at a temple than sponsor an underprivileged child.

    Although religious offerings are seen as personal priorities, helping the poor is not.

  9. October 15, 2007 9:57 pm

    Sorry I am late in replying to others…
    just got caught up in…cooking!
    thanks to all who commented.🙂
    Mahendra, yes that would be indeed very interesting to find out, but I can guess that the richer the country, the more the price per head!

  10. October 15, 2007 10:06 pm

    Madhuri, I saw your comment after i posted the above!
    Well, what you said is something I agree with wholeheartedly!! But you know, these people who giver ‘offerings’ to temples will never not do that..! Because they do it for selfish reasons! There was is this one rich lady I know who goes to tirupati to offer money which she admit it’s ill-gotten money! She believes that giving some money to “God” will save her husband from the law!!
    It’s really sad that the concept of religion has little to do with humanity.

  11. October 15, 2007 10:44 pm

    Coming from a culture where a sense of entitlement seems to be a norm rather than an exception, I see that people in India are not the only ones that hold life cheap. Here we talk incessantly about the dwindling fish stocks, the disappearing species from our forests which are being rapidly denuded, the plight of the polar bears, while at the same time being unwilling to line up and take our turn for the available medical care and want to be put forward by our ability to pay for all kinds of services. Unfortunately, people here see no problem in buying goods for cheap, goods that are made in sweatshops and factories in China, India, Bangladesh, while knowing in the back of our minds that such plentiful goods come to us by the labor of people who are unable to provide bare necessities for their own children. I am so saddened by this realization, and unfortunately do not have great hope for the world becoming a more equitable place where all life forms are respected. G

  12. October 16, 2007 4:20 am

    oh yes we certainly value our own life and that of our near and dear ones

    the problem is with the govt or state
    it doesn’t value life of its citizens generally and the majority specifically !
    the life of an indian citizen is very cheap.
    it can be valued somewhere between a lakh to 5 lakhs for a commoner and a victim and 10lakhs for a army jawan

    the only life that is valuable is that of a politician
    their life is priceless …….
    life of a terrorist of a minority is also priceless and valuable!

  13. October 16, 2007 4:25 am

    then again in fish terminology it boils down to population and responsibility
    a prolific Guppy costs 15 rs a pair while a rare Discuss or a pirana costa a whopping 1500 a pair

    Agreed politicians are no Discuss
    but comeon – this is India

  14. October 16, 2007 4:27 am

    sub the world buys cheap even America does with its wallmarts and home depots – so why complain
    the problem is that there are no standards and class action suits here to shut the businesses of these entities

  15. October 16, 2007 4:30 am

    Thanks Prax for the response. However about the wallmarts, they buy directly from the farmer and sell cheap. It’s the retailers in India who squeeze the farmer and sell to us, taking most of the profit. If you ask me, I am on the side of the farmer. If any of these big entities does anything illegal I am sure in India too there is legal recourse.

    Suburban, thanks. I am glad you responded to the animal life aspect of my post too! I think this is so important, but in a country where human life is so devalued, we can’t expect too much from the government.
    And yes, the reasons why you can buy the goods cheap is because people here are paid a pittance…but why blame the wallmarts? they probably pay better than the local employers. Don’t feel guilty. The market economics dictates.

  16. October 16, 2007 2:16 pm

    the walmart model has succeeded partially because they cut out the middlemen .in India there are 2/3 rungs in the chain and then comes the retailers profit of 25% minimum …
    look at the farmers who grow potatoes for itc and lays
    they get good returns.

    exactly Prax!🙂 – Nita.

  17. October 16, 2007 7:17 pm

    Shefaly: //Private insurers calculate the value of life based on actuarial tables which are not confidential. They draw upon publicly available information.//

    True, the acturial mortality tables are not confidential. But the cost of insurance, which is determined based on those tables, is confidential as far as I know. If that is the case, can you tell me what is the cost of life for Prudential in the UK vs. India in terms of pence vs. paise? Or Metlife in the US vs. India in terms of cents vs. paise?

    //The question to ask in policy terms is how the government values life. In the UK, if people die in train accidents, there is a valuation of some 55000 or so in pounds…That valuation is very complex and nuanced. And that is what we need to ask about these accidents in India.//

    //However in this instance, it is not private industry’s but government’s valuation of human life that is important. This is a policy issue as much as a societal issue.//

    I do not know why or how you consider government’s valuation of life to be more important than private industry’s. I presume you are talking about recompensation that is offered by the Government to victims of an accident or bomb blast. In India, the amount in such cases is:

    – determined post-facto
    – depends on whether it is an accident or a bomb blast or natural calamity
    – depends on aid received from other countries in case it is a natural calamity
    – there are no guidelines or standards
    – depends on which political party is in power
    – and how it is placed to win the next elections

    For all such reasons, government compensation is as random as say, the prizes awarded to the 20-20 team members by their respective state governments.

    In contrast, if we were to guage Metlife or Prudential or any other global insurance player’s risk valuation across countries, it has better chances of revealing the comparative value of life across such countries. Because these companies compete with each other, ideally, free market forces would tend to make their valuations of life more objective than any government’s.

    Nita: //yes that would be indeed very interesting to find out, but I can guess that the richer the country, the more the price per head!//
    Probably true in most cases. But I suspect there are other factors involved too. Mortality rate for example might tend to have a greater influence than how rich is the country.

  18. October 21, 2007 4:47 pm

    I am sad to admit, today if I see an accident victim on bangalore street I would think more than twice to even try to help the person, the legal hassles, the image of the corrupt policeman, the stories in media about the problems have made it more of mental block, then the intent to help.
    Sometime back I had mentioned about how, I have decided to forget the scheming begging community, and assume all of them are genuine, in this way even though I might end up being tricked couple of times, but atleast wont feel bad, that I didn’t help the real needy people.
    I guess people need to be told that its ok to help, and be free to help, just a couple of examples here and there, I think we should be able to get more people to respect life more.

  19. October 22, 2007 10:04 am

    Thanks for that honest answer Rambler! I think most people would think twice or thrice. It’s scary, helping someone in this country!!

  20. October 22, 2007 12:25 pm

    “If that is the case, can you tell me what is the cost of life for Prudential in the UK vs. India in terms of pence vs. paise? Or Metlife in the US vs. India in terms of cents vs. paise?”

    @ Mahendra: The cost of insurance will vastly depend on various socio-economic costs, costs of doing business in a given country, the risk propensity of the firm, indeed whether the firm is an underwriter or a distributor (and resulting information asymmetries as well as differences in margins). So I am afraid your question is facetious to some extent.

    “I do not know why or how you consider government’s valuation of life to be more important than private industry’s.”

    If government owns and runs the infrastructure, then of course their valuation is more important. I think we were discussing trains and bombs (the latter signifying national security issues). Increasingly private insurers do not offer cover for terrorism related deaths. In such cases it is vitally important that

    1. the government has a clear method of valuation of life and disclose it (which I doubt is happening in India)

    2. people gain some basic financial literacy to know what they are and are not covered for, in the fine print.

    Thanks.

  21. October 23, 2007 2:50 pm

    Shefaly: The title of Nita’s post is “Do we not value life in India?”

    Let me try to explain my perspective of how I’m approaching the question.

    I’m an alien, in an alien spaceship orbiting the earth. I kill one human being on the planet Earth. What is the price planet Earth is willing to pay for that human’s life? That, to me, is the most objective assessment of individual life on this planet. Like you mention in #1, the Indian government has no clear method of valuation of life, forget disclosing it.

    So, what is the best recourse for measuring the value of life?

    Like you say: //The cost of insurance will vastly depend on various socio-economic costs, costs of doing business in a given country, the risk propensity of the firm, indeed whether the firm is an underwriter or a distributor. So I am afraid your question is facetious to some extent.//

    As I’ve explained, I did not intend to be facetious. Taking government valuation of life is taking a very regional perspective, that doesn’t illuminate the value of life across geographies and countries and economies. And yes, the economy of a nation plays a very important role in determining how much value that country places on each of its individual nations, as Nita pointed out.

    If we need to really, objectively, assess the value of human life across the world, we need a global perspective. Socio-economic costs, costs of doing business in a country, risk propensity of the country itself, are all very valid factors. However, if you choose government as the source of determining the value of life in a country, I beg to differ.

  22. JEJ permalink
    December 24, 2007 10:05 am

    Do something small in a meaningful way every day to help someone else. This comes back later on as benefit to oneself.

    When 100 or 200 million people do this it makes a big difference, on a long term basis.

    regards

    Jacob

  23. billolly permalink
    May 18, 2009 4:24 am

    Are there philosophical, religious, literal, poetic and/or legal guidlines or definitions regarding the “value of life” in India ?

    Any references you can suggest?

    Doing a major discussion on the topic here in Knoxville, TN.

    Thanks for your help.

    Bill Oliphant

  24. December 28, 2009 5:24 am

    From the above and as far as possible Indians currently having zero value due to its total lack of humanity should go about making their families related to their household income to avoid any personal living and economic disasters and work towards self financial independence.
    Also take a loving care towards its own poor citizens population and country,maintain clean hygeine,avoid or ban slums and slum dwellership as a law on any part of India (That is not going to get a nod from worldbank as not an ethical manner to get international aid and loans to make money),avoid inflation,put the population to clean work or employment without allowing any discrimination mainly by giving direct business.

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