Sunday, January 07, 2007

Can we compensate for this?

The horrific tragedy that took place in Nithari has been reported in various news agencies such as the Times of India and and some bloggers have also presented their opinions - one of the illustrious denizens of the blogosphere is

The government is now giving each of these poor families Rs. 5 lakhs (5,00,000) as ex-gratia. Now, one can understand if compensation or ex-gratia is paid to workers of a factory who have met with an on-the-job accident or to people who have lost everything in a natural disaster. That money is meant to help the devastated families rebuild their lives and stand on their own feet. It does not certainly mean that the loss of human life has been made up for. In the former case, it is also a liability cost borne by the employer.
But, what do you do when a child has been killed? That, too, by a criminal? Will paying Rs. 5 lakhs in any way mitigate the grief and loss of those hapless parents?
If I were a poor parent whose child was a victim of a well-publicised crime and I received an amount of money that is quite an amount by my standards, would I feel guilty about using it for my own betterment or for my loved ones? Legally, a child cannot really be an earning member of a family so what does this ex-gratia mean? The parents may still continue to live but for many, that life would seem bleak and empty.
Money to a dead child's family seems like weighing the child's life and worth in terms of money, the possibilities of what he/she could have blossomed into, is reduced to an economic statistic. Another reason could be that the government is apologising for the gross negligence in handling the case due to which many preventable deaths occurred. In that case, these families should be suing the government. Even in that case, the people in charge will only feel the pinch when the mooolah comes from their own pockets. They usually get away lightly, emptying the public coffers while merrily ignoring their own incompetence. What we really need is a better law and order system with more sensitive and responsible, honest police officers, those who don't
harass family members of victims when they approach them for help.
Secondly, the Nithari case is now well-publicised as it is a shocking, unheard-of case with crime being committed on a large scale. Hundreds of children and adults are unfortumate victims of terrible crimes in our society. If this is what we do in one case, then all those families deserve ex-gratia. Police negligence, after all, cannot be unique to only this case.
Thirdly, there are some situations where you cannot blame the government or even the society for what has happened. Natural disasters are one such instance. But, the compensation given to those families is for an entirely different purpose. It is more under the category of aid. As for victims of riots, well, society and the state can prevent them or at least control them after they have broken out. But, individual crimes? Some person kills someone, out of mental disease or malice or pure accident. Neither the state nor society can always prevent that. They are not obliged to pay for it and cannot possibly do so for everyone. What they can and should do is take steps to nab and prosecute the culprits and deliver justice to the families.


ragerman said...

Nice question posed, Lakshmi. The answer is, of course, Media Attention.

Although the authorities in India are a degree or two higher in thier knee-jerking ability, this reaction can be seen anywhere there is an active media. Take the Elians and Runaway Brides and Natalie Holloways in the US of A. From the media and from the reaction, one would think that no other children are here illegally or that there are no kidnappings or missing teens apart from the ones just mentioned.

For example, the Runaway Bride was sent a bill close to a hundred thousand dollars after it was found that she had made up the whole story. The police said that she was asked to pay because they had employed hundreds of people in the search. Hmm, putting hundreds of policemen in search of one person... let's look at this in the light of the statistic ( "every 40 seconds a child is reported missing or abducted in the United States" (this does not mean these are all real crimes but hey, neither was the RB case). Do the math. The price tag RB received is an order of magnitude higher than the average cost of a kidnapping investigation that DOES NOT HAVE MEDIA ATTENTION.

That proved, lets look at the media itself. One might be tempted to think, "Hey that's awfully nice of the media. They put this focus on issues that force the authorities to act." Nope. Today's news agencies are like hollywood starlets: a hussy, an intemperate, attention-seeking creature that will do anything for the publicity numbers. Yeah, she'll take up causes but only if it pushes up the ratings. But she will also get pregnant, get drunk, get naked or get divorced (Yes I was thinking of Britney) for a few points more. As they say No Press is Bad Press. Why is this? Because we don't pay for the news we read. Advertising pays for the news. This is a critical factor.

Now I know there are some journalists that try to make a difference but look at the direction the industry as a whole is taking... Faced with the onslaught of the Internet and blogs and Wikipedias, news agencies are realizing that its difficult to compete for the advertising dollar. So they turn to the human interest story for the quick buck, more eyeballs = more clicks = more money. Consider the huge gulf that separates the online version of the Times Of India ( and the printed version. Its tremendous! The titles of articles are sometimes sexual and other times totally unrelated to what the content is, which, in turn, is sensationalized beyond measure.

So that was my rant. Anyway, what can be done? Probably nothing right now. News agencies will have to plumb lower and lower depths in their pandering to lowest common denominator while they try to maintain thier existing business model. And then hopefully one day, people will realize that they are missing out on important issues and start paying for quality news and then, perhaps, the media will find a revenue and a business model that allows real reporting. Until then, let's not be surprised at lopsided reactions to events such as this!

SloganMurugan said...

We in India value our lives too poorly :(

Dave said...

I agree that the media can't be relied upon. The victims' families could pool their compensation into getting a good laywer, and prosecuting the individual policemen responsible for their gross negligence. Surely they would have a good chance of winning.
Once such a legal precedent is set, corrupt or lazy policeman would have one less place to hide from their responsibilites and future tragedies of this nature could perhaps be averted.

Lakshmi a.k.a. Lotus Eyes said...

Ragerman: You do raise a valid point. However, my main beef was giving some arbitrary amount as 'ex-gratia'/compensation to families of victims of a crime. I may sound callous but I found this completely unwarranted, not to mention the repulsion at weighing human life in terms of money.

SloganMurugan : True. But, how exactly can one measure the worth of one human life? Which is why I find the idea of ex-gratia, except when used to aid the family get back to normal/eke out a living, totally wrong.

Dave: That's a very good idea.

Thanks, all, for visiting and commenting.

ragerman said...

I had two thoughts basically that I was trying to convey. One is that the Govt.'s reaction was a reaction to the media attention.

But the second is that, in principle, I agree with the monetary valuation of a life. Its not an uncommon thing. How many of us have Life Insurance? Isn't that a valuation of a life? What about inheritances? Do we say "Oh I am so sad that my relative died. I cannot possibly accept that money"? Everyone agrees that you cannot really put a number on a life but let's face it, money doesn't hurt. It may come with some guilt but its a fact of life that death happens and as long as you are not responsible for that death, its okay to get unexpected/unplanned benefit from it.

Anyway, the person to make the decision about whether ex gratia monetary donations are bad are the people who are benefiting from it. If they don't want it, they can refuse it, right? ;)