Barely three weeks ago our collective sensibility was violated by heart-wrenching images of young kids jumping out of a building under fire. The episode that claimed twenty young lives shook us to the core and we rose as a society to force the state to recognise our anger and act.
The Surat coaching class tragedy will be, hopefully go down in the history as a catalyst of transformation in how we will regulate building construction in future. It will bring accountability to the administration and construction professionals, and it will change the way engineers work.
Today I have another set of images, one more manifestation of the same phenomena and even more gruesome but I barely see any hue and cry. I don’t see them plastered across media, nor do I see a social outcry, and I am forced to think.
What is our response as a society when the poor die?
Seven people, most of the young, died in a “khal-kuva”, a drainage pit where human waste is accumulated. They died wading in the sludge and their bodies were found floating in this stinking pool of waste. It is a death that is unbearable even to think of, and yet it is so common that these seven join the list of at least other eight human beings who have died in last three months while they had gone down a manhole or a pit to clean it.
Though these episode may look unrelated, they actually have a single point of convergence, and that is the compliance and enforcement of engineering norms.
The Surat building was constructed violating the fire norms prescribed in engineering and was used in an unlawful manner, and the killer khal-kuva too was constructed violating engineering norms and was used and then cleaned in unlawful manner. So, both the tragedies occurred due to engineering failure and lack of law enforcement.
If good engineers were engaged in construction and if the state authorities had firmly enforced rule of law, twenty young kids coming from the part of society that we relate to and fifteen poor labourers whose existence we barely recognise would have been alive today.
I am glad that Surat tragedy did wake us up and resulted in actions ranging from improving the system to making those accountable face the law. But, would we do the same for the poor labourers who died due to the same problem?
My gut reaction is that the news of khal-kuva tragedy will be dead by tomorrow. It will have law taking its due course and some compensation will be given to the aggrieved families. But, it is not going to stop more people from dying in future. And, if we are honest as a society, it is because we don’t equate death of the poor as something important enough for the society to respond to.
This is the ugly underbelly of our society. Though Indian caste-system has contributed to it, but I would not like to blame only the traditional caste-based structure of the society for this, as we now have only two castes, the poor and not-poor in India.
The poor of India are not just economically marginalised, they are also priority-marginalised.
The problems of poor are always treated by short-term pacification measures like the compensation that would be given in this case, but they are never given long-term attention to solve them.
As poor are too busy surviving, they may fight short battles for their demands, but are not able to wedge a war to win their rights.
Unfortunately for us, this is how poor have always responded to the neglect they face, but only upto a point. When the poor rise, it is a real revolution, and we seem to be asking for it as a society now.