This essay started when I received an email from PRS Legislative Research, the parliamentary research organisation, on February 12, 2021. It noted: “During Question Hour, the Railway Minister informed Rajya Sabha that the last passenger death because of a railway accident happened on March 22, 2019. [He said] ‘For the last nearly 22 months, we have not had a single passenger death due to train accidents.’”
This statistic is worth highlighting because it is a result of policy that has fixed something that many imagined was impossible to fix. With more than 8 billion originating passengers (the number of passengers booked from each gauge of the railways), mishaps had in the past become something of a regularity.
But this is not merely about railway accidents; the question to ask is: Why is it that for a long time in the history of independent India, it was widely agreed that human life does not have the value that it should?
And why is it that a death of one person in the West seems often more newsworthy than a death in the developing world? To understand this, think about how much more, for instance, terror attacks get attention when they happen in the West compared to the times when they happen in the developing world. You can also understand this through the differing attitudes to capital punishment.
The value of life lies at the heart of thinking about human capital—the basis of all economic activity. After all, if you cannot value a person’s life, then the value for their economic worth, is at best, shallow.
In Cicero’s In Verrem, one finds a famed Roman doctrine, cīvis rōmānus sum (meaning, from Classical Latin, I am a Roman citizen [and therefore with] unambiguous rights and legal legitimacy).
I have over the years contemplated that most post-colonial societies have struggled to build this kind of sense of self for every citizen which seems to come relatively with more ease in the so-called developed world.
But with prosperity comes accountability. We are now firmly in an age when India celebrates, through incessant live broadcasts, and viral videos, the rescue and saving of every human life. Between 2018 and 2020, India’s score on the World Bank’s Human Capital Index rose from 0.44 to 0.49.
This is the spirit that has pervaded our conversations in the public realm through the Covid-19 pandemic period—stringent measures to save lives, and now a mass roll-out of vaccines to do the same. To reduce its road fatalities, the country has introduced the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act, 2019. It is in the same spirit that anganwadi workers now use mobile phones to track the nutrition of children and their mothers in rural areas. When there is an encephalitis or dengue outbreak, or even food poisoning from eating ill-preserved fruit, these days, even in India’s relatively poorer states, it leads to a public outcry.
Slowly, but surely, there has been a growth of the idea that human lives are more precious than perhaps had been hitherto acknowledged. And no matter how strained the resources, the loss of human life is unacceptable.
This is not to suggest that every fatality causing problem is miraculously resolved, but only to note the green shoots of an emerging new resolve to assert the value of Indian human capital.
That the Indian citizen possesses an innate right to certain inalienable dignities is a process that starts by better valuing human lives themselves, which in turn leads down a path of better rights in the economic sphere, and a richer evaluation of human capital.
The journey that has, in a sense, begun by the Indian Railways noting the many months without a single fatality on its tracks, might one day lead to a civis Indicus sum.
Views are personal. The author is a historian and a multiple-award winning author of nine books.