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Valuing life…

March 26, 2012

Bomma, a Jenukuruba, lived in Vodeyarahallimala tribal colony with his wife and three little children. His existence was relatively monotonous and his only worry each day was about finding some employment locally in order to keep the hearth in his little hut burning. His wife Chinnamma was additionally burdened with his drinking habits and the entire family had nothing more than a hand to mouth existence. Being landless, they depended on the nearby forests for their sustenance. For generations, his people had lived in the forests with no worry about yesterday or concern for tomorrow. Bomma’s ancestors never really knew hunger or poverty. The forests gave them all that they needed. Their food was the roots, berries, honey and meat from the deer or wild boar that they would occasionally hunt. The year 1972 changed all that. The Government of India brought in the Forest Conservation Act and the forests that Bomma’s people loved and cherished were declared National Parks. His people were told that they were foreigners in their own land and all rights that they enjoyed vis-à-vis the forests were extinguished. They were evicted from the forests and forcibly settled in inhuman habitations just on its fringes. They were suddenly exposed to mainstream society and were at a crossroad. They neither could integrate into a society that they did not understand nor could they go back to the comfort zones of their forests. They lacked the skills to acculturate and their only skill of collecting honey was of no economic value outside the forests.

Bomma lived in a world that he could never fully comprehend and the world never tried comprehending his. What I write now happened more than two years ago. It was a Tuesday and it seemed liked any other day. Chinnamma saw him off at their hut and asked him to return early with firewood for her cooking. Little did she realize that she would never see him alive again. A couple of hours later she rushed out hearing a lot of commotion in the hamlet. People were running around helpless and confused. Only when the neighbour explained what had happened, did reality sink into Chinnamma. Bomma and another tribal were walking towards the forest when an elephant attacked them. Bomma fell as he was running and was trampled to death. His friend had come running back and had broken the news. The men folk were now grouping together to go and bring the body back.

It was around a couple of hours later that my colleague Poshini informed me of what had happened. The local Range Forest Officer was informed and he had visited the site. This young officer had recently been posted here and was yet to be hardened by the system. He was at his humane best and ensured that his recommendation to the Government for compensation would be filed.

This whole incident left me feeling very angry. Angry at a society and system that never really understood how inseparable the tribals are from their forest environs; angry that even after so many years of having been forced out, these tribals are yet to be equipped with the skills to cope. Would a monetary compensation of Rs 150,000 or so have any meaning for Chinnamma? How did the Government determine that Bomma’s life is worth only Rs 150,000? Can this truly compensate the emotional and psychological security that he provided Chinnamma and their family? How does our bureaucracy and political class decide that the family of an air-crash victim gets Rs 15 lakhs as compensation, the family of a railway accident victim gets about Rs 5 to 10 lakhs, but a tribal’s life is worth only Rs 150,000? Can we truly set a price for a human life? Can a person truly measure, aggregate and calculate the cost of human life without being judgmental?

I remember a famous case in the United States in the 1970s. Ford was making a very popular car called Pinto and it was known to have a problem. Its fuel tank was prone to explode when another car collided with it from the rear. More than 500 people had died when their Pintos burst into flames and several suffered severe burn injuries. When one of the burn victims sued Ford Motor Company for the faulty design, it emerged that Ford engineers had been aware of the danger posed by the gas tank. But the company executives had conducted a cost-benefit analysis and determined that the benefits of repairing it (in lives saved and injuries prevented) were not worth the 11 dollars per car it would cost to equip each car with a device that would have made the petrol tank safer. To calculate the benefits gained by a safer tank, Ford had estimated that 180 deaths and 180 burn injuries would result if no changes were made. It placed a monetary value on each life lost and injury suffered – $200,000 per life and $67,000 per injury. They calculated that the overall benefit of the safety improvement would be 49.5 million dollars. But the cost of adding the $11 device to 12.5 million vehicles that they produced would be $137.5 million. So the company concluded that the cost of fixing the fuel tank was not worth the benefits of a safer car. On learning this, the Jury in the court was justifiably outraged. They awarded a huge compensation to the plaintiff. While the logic of Ford’s argument is immoral, they claimed to have taken the value of a human life from the National Traffic Safety Administration. This US Government agency had calculated the cost of a traffic fatality as $200,000. A simple question that comes to my mind is will a person be willing to die in a road accident for $200,000.

As one debates the challenge of determining what will be a fair value for human life, I am troubled by the attitude of the Government and the judgmental way in which it determines the economic worth of a person, especially a poor one at that. How can one say that an MLA in office or a senior IAS officer or the CEO of a corporate firm would be more productive than a farmer or a rural artisan? Should one consider age or sex in determining the value? Will our current earnings be an indicator of how much one can earn in the future too? How does one value the uncertainties of life and put a price on it? Will financial compensation for the victim’s family ensure that their emotional and psychosocial security needs will be met for the rest of their lives? In Bomma’s particular case, is the Government justified in looking only at his death in isolation? Would the implementation of the various development schemes and the Forest Rights Act have prevented the death of Bomma or provided him and his family a higher social and economic status? Will the Government also hold its own officials accountable for the failure of allowing Bomma to stay in poverty?

One can understand that financial compensation is a useful and a necessary tool in calamities like a wild animal attack or an accident. But the society and the Government need to be sensitive in determining the value of the compensation. Going beyond the current social, economic and political considerations and trying to reflect what each of us may be truly worth is indeed a difficult proposition. While the Government may not have a foolproof method to determine it, social thinkers and economists can come up with a formula, like we have the Duckworth-Lewis method in cricket. It could take into consideration factors like remaining productive age of the person, earning capacity, net worth, yearly contribution to the society in monetary terms, social factors, gender, number of dependents the person has, disability / infirmity if any, liabilities, legal cases / convictions…and so on. I know it is easier said than done, but it is not impossible. Each individual could have a ‘social score’, which multiplied by the unit compensation amount should give the approximate monetary value of the person’s life. This could be a beginning and the Government can keep fine-tuning it over time.


Categories: Musings
  1. Arun Karpur
    March 28, 2012 at 7:25 am

    Balu: You raise some important questions regarding compensation for loss. Further communities must also consider and clairfy the intentions behind such punitive retributions for the offending parties – i.e. whether compensation is to support the victim and/or also ensure that the offender does not repeat the same errors in judgement. I think it is important that as a nation we begin the process of building public stake in lives of individuals. Only then the compensation will be socially justified and will have long-lasting impacts. I respect eoconomists, but sometimes their world view of productivity and life can constrain the process of determining these compensation metrics. I would rather argue for a socially driven process that remains open enough that no arbitary targets are set for offenders, but some clear principles are laid out within the structure of our constitutions enabling a meaningful change for all – i know this may seem to be a wishful thinking but our judiciary system has to do better in this area. They have to continue to protect rights of individuals and speak up, especially when our elected officials engage in a uselless conversation of how to curb the rights of individuals critisizing their behaviors and records in the name of scantity of the parliment that is elected by the same people critisizing them.

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