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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Need for coherent compensation structure

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When a tragedy strikes in India, there is often offer of ex-gratia payment by government bodies. Tragedy can be fire, train/road accident, riot, terrorist attack, flood, killer spree, building collapse, earthquake, disease outbreak, tsunami, or any other disaster. Few things determine amount of compensation a dead, seriously injured and injured party gets. The most important of these is the size of news it makes. Other factors are number of people affected, class and creed of people affected, public outrage at the event, presence of competing tragic event to divert mind, and richness of government where tragedy happened. Who gives compensation, such as central government, state government or even private corporation also depends on these factors. I have seen no one raising any objections about this ever but it always shocks me, in very disappointing way, how same human life is valued differently in different context.

When a single young boy named Prince fell into a well, it was news for three whole days. He was promptly rescued with help of army and engineers and was given few lakhs of compensation and free life time education among other things. Soon after hundreds of farmers died in flood in Bihar. I don’t know if they got any compensation but if they did, it would have been customary one lakh per person. When Delhi blasts on eve of Diwali made news in Media, both central and state government rushed to offer substantial ex-gratia payment, unlike passengers of train accident in Kerala soon after which were offered nominal amount. Soldiers who died in fighting terrorists in Bombay got five times their salary every month until their child turns 21 from a private company Sahara, unlike soldier who died fighting routine intruders crossing the border from Pakistan or soldier who was skinned by Bangladesh. It may be discomforting to you to place monetary value on life of people, but it is more discomforting to me to place uneven value on life of same people in different situation.

Whenever I hear such news only thing that immediately crosses my mind is the thought process in mind of victim’s family. Was that fault of that poor couple that their son didn’t fall in the well, and hence lost plateful of goodies for lifetime? Was the soldier who died defending us on border less brave, or was he at fault that he didn’t get opportunities to fight terrorists in Bombay, which if he had, he would have been equally brave? Was victim of train accident to due to sloppy infrastructure on governments part or accident of nature any less unfortunate than victim of bomb blasts in Jaipur or any other place? I refuse to discriminate between lives lost doing same thing at different places just because they happened to be part of different events which affected public emotionally differently. Would your death mean more if you were alone to die versus you die along with hundred others? Does Marathi life becomes more valuable since Maharashtra is richer than Bihar?

I would like government to design a coherent national compensation structure which would take into account voluntary (such as soldier or police) and involuntary (such as bomb blast victim or train accident victim) element of death or injury but which would be independent of size of news, solidarity of public, and other irrelevant factors mentioned earlier. Every dead/injured should get similar compensation for given type of tragedy and that should be coded nationally rather than leaving it to whims of politicians at the moment. I don’t think there is any way to regulate what corporate do but I wish they would stop playing on emotion to discriminate lives of one versus another.

It is probably cruel to think so, but it is also very real. Maid in my house rued that people who were injured in blasts in Ajmer Shareef were given fifty thousand ex-gratia payment, a fortune for her. There would be some people who might wonder if they were unlucky not to have been injured and missed a windfall? After all, we hear people who sell their kidneys and blood for money in desperation. Of course, we hope that fraction of such desperate and poor population is less, and in any case, there is no way we can solve this problem and start giving payment based on had-it-been-me.

Less said about the corruption involved in really cashing the compensation the better. Amount of paperwork required to prove that your party really died or injured, and that you are really legal next of kin, apart from processing delays and mandatory cut in compensation for bribe at emotionally vulnerable moments is heart wrenching reality of Indian machinery.