India's complicated relationship with 'Safety'
Updated: Oct 8, 2019
I still remember my first day at one of the world's biggest FMCG companies. It was the beginning of a two month internship and the HR and company leadership were supposed to conduct an orientation for us. Telling us about the company, its vision, its current position and immediate plan of action to achieve their goals, they bought our attention by providing us with Coke and Pizza.
'Safety'. That was the first point of their 'Company Culture' slide. I thought it was a mistake until the presenter said and I quote "Safety is of ultimate importance to us - especially in India because over here in our country, we rarely pay it due importance'. I was awestruck. These guys made dairy products, not nuclear reactors. Where did safety come from? And the first point!? I was intrigued to say the least. Lip service I thought. But my scepticism was short lived as my colleague was handed a company branded helmet right before he left for a field visit. He was riding pillion! I was surprised, impressed and amused all at the same time.
India has a funny relationship with the concept of safety. On one hand we are some of most risk averse populations in the world and on the other we act like God himself has granted us an assurance saying "Kucch nahi hoga!". Our "Chalta hai" attitude permeates all aspects of our lives and especially so in public places. Watch any junction/ traffic signal in India and it is a sad state of affairs. I've actually been abused by fellow motorists from not breaking the signal and having the gall to follow those pesky colourful lights.
"Pussy". That's what my friends have called me multiple times as I chose to use a zebra crossing to cross the road. "Phattu" is what my relative called me when I refused to drink and drive. We will just take a cab man! No. That's for pussies. Real men drink and drive. Sometimes it's not even an act of bravado. Sometimes it is just plain convenience. Who will take the over crowded foot-over bridge when the train is almost reaching the other platform. Helmets? Let's not even get there. Indian men don't like covering either their heads or their genitalia when out on a ride.
Just look at the numbers on road accidents in India. Shocking? Not really. But the intention of this post it to probe what is it that compels us to pay absolutely no regard to safety measures in all walks of life. The trigger for this post is obviously the shocking incident in Amritsar where more than fifty people lost their lives as a train ran over them. Why? They were watching Ravan's effigy being burnt on the occasion of Dusshera. Women, children, old people and men of all ages dying while watching effigies being burnt? How is this happening in 2018?
According to me, Indians dislike control. I feel, we are a thoroughly repressed society be it physically, emotionally, sexually or even intellectually. A country which can't even choose what to wear, where to go and who to marry without inviting societal/ governmental scorn can't be expected to follow anymore rules. Such a populace is understandably rebellious. The uptight and unnecessary orthodoxy of our society leaves most of us without an outlet for our feelings and frustrations. Who do we take it out on? Common spaces. You see, because we are so powerless and because almost nothing works in India the way it should, we don't have a sense of ownership. Our lack of fucks while out of our homes is not because we are daredevils. It's because we feel powerless.
Breaking rules helps us reclaim that power. Even if for a second, we don't feel like utter losers. There was a study I read a few years which essentially said "Public conduct and following of rules is inversely proportional to the corruption levels in a country." Makes sense doesn't it? These people who set the rules, steal our taxes and tell us what to do, eat and think all the times, get VIP treatment. We the weak, need an equaliser. And that equaliser is a latent "Non-cooperation movement" still very much active in 2018. There's a thrill we get when we hoodwink the traffic cop, when we drink in public spaces and smoke in no smoking zones. There's a sense of pride when we blare music after designated hours and a sense of achievement when "The Man" is shown the middle finger.
I always wondered why slum rats from the Mankhurd-Kurla stretch performed wildly dangerous stunts in local trains. What was it that made them climb a train's roof despite numerous warnings? What pleasure did they derive out of hanging and trying to touch poles from a running train!? It wasn't before I was pursuing my post graduation that I realised the truth. These boys are acting out. They are no different from you and me. They were just born poor and haven't spent a day in their life where they were shown even a modicum of respect. Their parents, if alive, are blue collar workers, they live in squalid conditions and everybody looks at them with a heavy dose of suspicion (with good reason). They don't feel like they belong here and definitely don't have a sense of ownership with their surroundings. And of course, because they're unemployed and uneducated, they have nothing better to do.
So what do such boys do to earn one of the most basic of human needs - respect? They take risks, undermine authority and announce their presence by doing things you and I can't even imagine. We are all slum rats from Mankhurd-Kurla albeit a bit more sophisticated. Entering a club while being underage is our version of travelling in first class without a ticket. Bribing the cop to let us go easily is our version of spray painting a public wall with expletives. The middle finger we give to safety is us acting out against the system and earning "respect"!
No wonder many of us have been called "Pussy" and "Phattu"! I've been called a pussy once during my MBA (by a girl no less) because I submitted an assignment a week before the deadline! Indians love rule breakers. According to us, they display bravery and can achieve more than others in the rigged Indian system. No wonder we keep on voting rule breakers into power. It's cultural. To conclude, I hope we all take safety more seriously than we do now, though I won't be holding my breath for it. Our houses are always clean because it is "ours" and most streets in this country look like an absolute travesty because they "don't belong to us".
As India's economy grows and more people earn a liveable wage, I dream of a country where people care more about their surroundings. Also I hope I don't jinx myself with this post and get hurt due to not following safety precautions. You never know, Indians have internalised unsafe behaviour! Be safe y'all!