Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Guardian angel, or government?

DesiGirl relates a heart-rending tale of a relative who died recently in a car accident on a highway in Tamil Nadu. The victim was alive after the accident, but for forty-five minutes her husband fruitlessly tried to flag down passing cars before one finally stopped, by which time it was already too late. DesiGirl's personal response to the incident is intense. She accuses those who didnt stop to help of having blood on their hands, and says that she will always remember the day of the accident as the day humanity died a violent death.

The incident is indeed agonizing, and DesiGirl's reaction is completely understandable. I would also probably react, by instinct, in the same way if I was in her shoes - by lashing out against what is most apparent , the apathy of the people who could have helped but didnt.

But this opens an intriguing question - in society, at what point does individual responsibility end and "systemic" responsibility kick in? In other words, at what point does humanity becomes irrelevant and society takes over?

Arguably, the sense of individual responsibility to others declines as one moves from a small, tight community to a large, loosely-connected group, especially when one moves to public, "impersonal" spaces such as highways. For example, in a small village, a person in visible danger is very likely to get help and attention from other individuals even if he/she is a stranger. This is also true, though to a diminished degree, in small towns with a traditional character. But this character declines substantially in secularized cities such as Mumbai, and nearly dissapears in impersonal, public, and transient domains such as highways. In other words, at the level of the smallest entity (the family or village), a sense of community exists which makes individuals respond to circumstances in their immediate surroundings. As the size of the community increases and familiarity decreases, the sense of individual responsiveness dulls.

Thus, to answer the question posed at the beginning: At no point does individual responsibility exist by itself! Individual responsibility has to be encouraged (or enforced) by the "system" (in this case, the community). In other words, traditional communities (eg, samaj) organised around familial or geographical centres provided a "system" of response for circumstances of individual distress.

On modernization and how society reacts to it, Samuel Huntington writes in Political Order in Changing Societies -

"At the psychological level, modernization involves a fundamental shift in values, attitudes, and expectations. With this goes an increasing reliance on universalistic rather than particularistic values and on standards of achievement rather than of ascription in judging individuals"

So the next question would be: Who provides the system of response, then, in places such as cities where the traditional systems no longer exist? Who provides the system of response in the no-mans land on Tamil Nadu's highways? Who determines, and provides, the "universalistic standards" that Huntington talks about?

The answer is obvious - the state. As individuals move from tightly-knit traditional communities to cities and towns, the state is supposed to become the surrogate community by ensuring a reasonable degree of personal safety through prevention and response. In DesiGirl's case, a more efficient judicial/enforcement system would have encouraged more people to offer assistance without the fear of getting entangled with the law. Also, a working emergency response system would restrict the good samaritan's role to making a call from his cell-phone or notifying the nearest town. These are the universal services that should be a fundamental 'given' for a functional society; something citizens can depend on, and demand, instead of pinning hopes on humanity and the goodness of the soul.

To what degree the state is successful in India providing a satisfactory proxy for traditional society is an open question. I offer a conceptual diagram showing how a nation/society would evolve from the traditional to the modern, as far as public systems go.

It is convenient to conclude that India is in the transitional region where the roles played by state and community dont add up to the minimum level required; that presupposition leaves the hope that further modernization and economic development will bring in a more efficient and structured public order. What is scary is the prospect that even at an advanced level of economic growth, India will retain a quasi-libertarian flavor in its public domain. If that be the case, travellers had better travel in large groups, have a satellite phone handy, and pray hard.

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