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Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Price of Faith

The Price of Faith

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 19 July, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

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Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.



Our faith in various aspects of the society we live in is constantly being challenged. Our faith that the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat is safe; that our streets are safe for our women and children; that our representatives in government can be trusted; that our infrastructure is safe; and many other aspects of life – is sorely tested each time we encounter a betrayal of that faith. But rather than conclude that one cannot believe in anyone or anything, we must realize that it is important to be able to believe, and that there is a price to be paid if we must continue to have faith, and that price is one of constant vigilance and persistence by the citizenry in demanding openness and transparency, both from public and private organizations.


·         It is what we have every day when we take the elevator from our flat to the ground level in order to walk out of our home – faith that the elevator will not snap and send us to a horrible death by crushing.

·         It is what we have when we take a train to go to another town or city – faith that the train will not have an accident by a collision or derailment and result in us being killed or amputated.

·         It is what we have when open a bottle of milk and drink it – faith that the white liquid we are drinking is pure milk and not adulterated, which can kill or injure us.

·         It is what we have when we send our children to a school – faith that our children will be well-treated and not sexually molested.

·         It is what we have when we open the tap and drink the water from it (at least in developed countries; in India you wouldn’t dare) – faith that the water is not contaminated with heavy metals or other pollutants.

·         It is what we have when we open the window and breathe in the air – faith that the air is not polluted with air-borne chemicals from industrial pollution that can cause asthma, wheezing, and allergies.

·         It is what millions of Indians have daily when they have a dip in the sacred river Ganga – faith that the river will cleanse their sins and not make them ill because of dangerous bacteria that enter the river because of raw, untreated sewage that is discharged into the river through its entire course.

·         It is what we have when we pick up the phone and have a long conversation with a friend or a loved one – faith that the conversation we are having is indeed private; that no one else is snooping on our private chat.

But Repeatedly, Our Faith in These and a Thousand Other Things is Tested.

For instance,

·         In Bangalore, a six-year old child is raped by gym instructors. The school that is supposed to protect its wards has violated one of them.

·         In the Ganges at Varanasi, the holiest city of India, the fecal coliform levels are a million times higher than what is deemed acceptable; the water is not even suitable for agriculture, let alone washing, drinking, or bathing.

·         In 2008, an estimated 300,000 victims suffered illness in China (and some died) because milk had been contaminated with melamine. Many suffered kidney failure because of the adulteration.

·         The Indian capital of New Delhi has an annual average PM2.5 level (particulate emissions) of 153 micrograms per cubic meter – and there is NO safe level of this level of particulate. Every increase of 10 µg/m3 leads to a 36% greater risk of lung cancer.

·         In 2013, Americans learned that their government had been routinely spying on them, intercepting phone calls and email communications that they had assumed were private, under the aegis of a government program known as PRISM – a program that had been approved by their own representatives since 2007, both Republican and Democrat – and the people did not know about it.

·         The south Gujarat town of Vapi made headlines in 2007 when it was listed in Time magazine as the most polluted area in the world, with mercury levels that are 96 times higher than the maximum allowable levels mentioned by the WHO in its groundwater.

This is just a sample of the thousands of betrayals one could list – betrayals of the faith that people reposed in various authorities that those who were sworn or law-bound to protect their safety and privacy.

Who is Ultimately Responsible for This?

It goes without saying that the criminals who raped the 6-year old in Bangalore should be brought to justice and meted out the severest penalty possible; that the city authorities along the banks of the Ganga who allow it to be polluted with raw sewage and industrial contaminants should be harshly penalized; that those who adulterate milk with melamine should spend the rest of their lives in prison for the deaths they have caused; that the authorities who allow the air in Delhi to be so polluted, whether by vehicular or industrial pollution, should be taken to task; that the Indian railways officials who were responsible for their negligence which led to the train accident in Gorakhpur should be strictly punished; and that the representatives of the American people who authorized the spying on their own people should be punished by the people.

But there is an even more fundamental question that these bring about – why did the breach of faith occur in the first place?

It occurred because we were too willing to have blind faith in the institutions that failed us.

And that brings us to the moral of this article: that there is no place for blind faith in a rational society – that there is a price to be paid for faith – and that price is the constant vigilance of the citizenry.

The breaches of faith occurred because we, the citizens, were not vigilant in preventing these crimes from happening. They occurred because we were not careful enough to see that procedures were not being properly followed, that guidelines were being flouted, and that crimes were not being monitored.

Yes, my friends, it is we who are ultimately responsible.

The criminals who are responsible for each of the crimes listed above are responsible for having committed these crimes and should be as strictly punished as the laws allow. But we, the citizens, are responsible for allowing the crimes to happen in the first place.

Where Have Citizens Failed?

We have failed in being vigilant, in demanding transparency and accountability. A democracy truly functions as a representative government of the people only when there is complete transparency; when citizens organize to demand what they want; and when representatives are accountable to their constituents.

It is fashionable to flagellate others for failing their duty – for example, to blame politicians for not being responsive to the needs of their voters. But have we done our duty as the citizens?  Let us take each of the incidents that I have listed above.

·         In the case of the Bangalore school where the six-year old child was raped, how many parents knew about the staff that the school had employed? Were there any background or police checks performed on these gym instructors? If so, were they publicly posted on an internet website that the parents had access to? Why are these and all facts about the school not openly available to the consumers of the school, i.e., the parents? The reason is that at present, private schools hold an advantage over parents – and this is because there is an artificial shortage in the number of schools. The root causes of all these problems are the restrictive regulations on opening schools. Ideally, a high demand for private schools would, in a free economy, be met by a rise in private schools until supply and demand are matched. But because of unreasonable controls that are in place to benefit the already-present private players, the number of schools is not enough for the demand for them. As a result, private schools act in an insufferably arrogant way, and do not believe that they need to be accountable and transparent to their customers, viz., the parents.

So, in this case, the citizens have failed both in demanding that their representatives open up private schooling to more players as well as in demanding openness and transparency from the school. The parents should be able to view the records and background of every employee of the school on the school’s webpage, including their backgrounds and the results of police and background verification checks on them. If this had been done, there would have been a higher chance of preventing the rape from happening.

·         The waters of the Ganga are incredibly polluted; yet how many citizens have taken on any activist role and demanded the clean-up of the river? How many citizens of Banaras or Allahabad have demanded that untreated sewage or corpses not be simply dumped into the river – actions that greatly increase the concentration of pathogens in the river water? How many citizens of Kanpur are concerned about the toxic effluents from the leather tanneries in Kanpur that make their way into the Ganga without treatment?

The problem with the Indian citizen is that he or she has become completely apathetic and selfish, and has no concept of civic responsibility. As long as the sewage is removed from my flat, why care what happens to it? But oh, the Ganga should be clean. The two expectations are incongruent.

·         China is a totalitarian state, and so one cannot hold its citizens to the same standard that one can hold citizens of democratic countries. But the Chinese example of milk adulteration is something people everywhere can relate to. How many of us demand that suppliers of foodstuffs give a detailed account of what is in the foodstuffs? In western countries, every ingredient of a product is listed on the package. There is no such requirement in India. Milk suppliers have no obligation to offer a minimum specific gravity or a certificate of quality to their customers. Most customers do not even demand any such thing from their suppliers. Is there any surprise that adulteration occurs?

·         PM2.5 is a designation of particulate matter emissions that are below 2.5 micrometers in diameter. These particles can get into our lungs and cause cancers. The source of this pollution is burning, and this can come from household burning of firewood or cowdung, or automobile emissions from diesel automobiles. This can be controlled by mandating better emission control devices on automobiles, especially the highly-polluting trucks that dot the Indian landscape, and by improving electrification in New Delhi in the winter so that people do not resort to polluting fuels such as firewood or cowdung.

Have citizens of Delhi ever banded together in a movement to demand tightening of air quality norms for automobiles? How many trucks are plying, either in Delhi or elsewhere in the country, that are openly flouting the existing Bharat IV pollution norms? I see trucks, taxis, and auto rickshaws everywhere in the country that clearly violate pollution norms – many times  you see black smoke coming from the exhaust pipes of these vehicles. Yet have citizens demanded better enforcement of existing emission laws? Have they ever demanded widening of the electrification net in the capital so that people are not forced to use firewood or cowdung for their heating needs in the winter? The answer is definitely no.

·         Railway accidents are a routine event in India. Every time an accident happens, the media is full of discussion as to why the accident happened. But beyond the routine blame game, few citizens ponder deeply about why these accidents happen. Yes, many incidents are the result of negligence; but more often than that, the causes of accidents are that there is not enough money in the railways for routine maintenance. The wear on the tracks, on the bogeys, the engines, and the stations is very significant, and the only way to avoid accidents is to have an aggressive program of maintenance and better-trained personnel so that human error occurs less frequently. What happens, on the contrary, is that engines, bogeys, and tracks that have outlived their lives continue to be in service because there is no money to replace them. Yet, the citizens of India are always opposed to ANY increases in fare hikes because they view the fare hikes not as a necessary adjustment to account for inflation but as an “anti-people” move.

The only way to stop this is to have a completely transparent operation of the Indian railways, so that any Indian can view on the internet the situation with any engine, track or bogey, and see when the maintenance was due and when it was actually done. Railway budgets should not be based on the wisdom of some railway minister, but on the situation on the ground. A demand for money for running the railways should be made on the basis of this publicly available information so that the demand is seen in objective terms – as a need for monetary allocation for necessary running of the railways rather than an arbitrary decision by a government. Once such a system exists, if people disapprove of a hike for maintenance, the government can clearly say that this accident occurred because the people did not approve a fare hike for a certain segment.

We have failed in not demanding transparency in the running of government utilities such as the railways.

·         The 2013 American government spying scandal shocked both Americans and the rest of the world. Yet how many Americans even knew about the fact that this program started in 2007 under the leadership of President George W. Bush, and was supported by both Republicans and Democrats? The spying that occurred was a direct result of this publicly-announced program. It was ostensibly created only to spy on those communications that related to Americans’ correspondence with foreigners, yet the safeguards were so weak that the act could easily be abused to spy on one and all. Yet for six years no one was the least worried about any of this, until Edward Snowden revealed to the world the extent of US spying.

True, the US government has to bear the blame of committing the crime of invasion of privacy, but it was the lack of diligence of the American people that allowed it to violate the Fourth Amendment under the guise of legality. It is the failure of the American people as a whole that allowed the government to abuse its power.

·         Vapi being a horribly polluted town is very well-known in Maharashtra and Gujarat. My father, who was a professor of Organic Chemistry, had many past students who worked in the chemical factories in Vapi. They would tell us of dogs which were dyed green, blue and yellow because they had wallowed in the effluent from dyestuff companies which would simply dump their failed batches of dyes out in the open.

Why isn’t something being done about this? How are environmental clearances being given to companies like these? Why are citizens not demanding more transparency in the functioning of chemical and other companies?  All companies are entitled to secrecy when it comes to trade secrets, but their environmental record should be out in the open. Every clearance that is given to a chemical company should be out in the public domain, along with the values of the effluents that are found to be detected in their effluent streams, so that any concerned citizen can take a sample downstream of the plant himself and get it analyzed at any lab and verify whether or not the plant meets environmental standards.

If Vapi had the distinction of being the world’s most polluted place in 2007, it is because its citizens never demanded transparency. They never demanded that the industries prove that their effluents meet standards, and they turned a blind eye to the corruption of the environment ministry by the chemical industry.

What Can We Do To Change the Situation?

The only way to change the situation so that one can continue to believe in the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the schools we trust our kids with, the trains and planes we entrust our lives with, the hospitals which we hope will save our lives rather than take them, and hundreds of other things, is for citizens to be more vigilant.

We need to demand transparency in every aspect of life, from both public as well as private enterprises.

Citizens of every government need to demand COMPLETE transparency and accountability from their governments. With the exception of defense-related matters, which need to be kept confidential in order to protect the nation from external enemies, EVERY transaction of the government should be publicly displayed on an internet website for the public to view. Notes of every ministry and cabinet meeting should be publicly displayed on websites, as well as every bill passed in parliament and notes of every meeting between legislators and the executive branch, except when such disclosure would compromise national security. While this would require a lot of digital storage, disk space is today very cheap – a 1 TB hard drive is available for a mere Rs. 5000; and internet access is widespread. There should be nothing to prevent this solution from being implemented except the will of the government. No government, of course, would want all its actions to be open to the public; however, there is no valid logical or moral objection; the representatives are OUR representatives; their duty is to report to us; and so they have no business keeping things secret, unless making them public would endanger national security. To make this happen, citizens have to unite and agitate (more on this later.)

Private enterprises have no duty to expose their affairs to the public, except to the extent that their activities affect the public. In particular, trade secrets and competitive intelligence need to be protected because the profitability of private enterprise depends on it.  However, environmental compliance should very much be in the public domain. The public has a right to know what materials a company makes or trades in, what the risks of storage of any particular material is, and what effluents are being emitted into the environment by the company. A fertilizer company, for instance, owes it to the community to tell them what quantities of ammonium nitrate are being stored on its facility, because ammonium nitrate is also a powerful explosive and can cause a huge disaster, as happened in West, Texas, in 2013. The public has a right to know the precise details of the claimed effluents released by a company into a water body because the water body is used by all. It is NOT ENOUGH TO SUBMIT THIS TO A GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT AGENCY, as the government agency can be corrupted. Not only government inspectors, but any member of the public should have a right to inspect the effluents of any manufacturing facility – if necessary, to challenge the public statements from the company (which should be displayed on a publicly accessible website) as to the amount of environmental contaminants released by the company.

Similarly, agencies such as food manufacturers and distributors have a responsibility to ensure that the quality of their foodstuffs is verifiable and the processes they employ are transparent so that customers know what they are getting. Schools and other organizations that take charge of our children, the weakest members of our society, should be forced to openly reveal both the qualifications as well as criminal antecedents of every one of their employees to their customers.

Manufacturers of cosmetics, toothpastes, insecticides, clothing, shoes, and other consumer items must reveal to the consumer public what chemical constituents go into their products (they need not reveal the exact formulation – this way they can protect their trade secrets) so that the public knows what it consumes. These are matters too important for them to only reveal to a government agency. We must take a page out of western practices, where every ingredient that goes into a cosmetic preparation is revealed on the tube or bottle.

Citizens need to get into the habit of becoming activists.

It is very easy for people to live in their own bubble and pretend that they don’t need to be concerned with what is happening around them. With many people in India becoming more prosperous in the last 20 years because of liberalization and the jobs that it has brought in its wake, people have become more self-absorbed, indulging themselves in the enjoyment of sports and Bollywood (or other local language movie flavours) in their free time. Most have no knowledge of or interest in critical affairs of a regional or national nature – such as a river getting polluted, vanishing mangroves, air pollution, lack of safety of women and children, increasing crime, structural integrity of roads and bridges, or infringements of privacy, to name just a few. But the fruits of such carelessness are easy to see: without sufficient environmental protection, India will soon degenerate into the horrible conditions present in some parts of China, where people do not venture outside without a face-mask. Mumbai and Delhi still haven’t gone tothe levels of Beijing, but that may just be a decade away.

All the items mentioned in the previous section, viz., on demanding transparency, cannot be achieved without a struggle. Manufacturers will do their best to oppose these demands, and unless citizens stand united and demand these disclosures, these will not happen. Politicians will not want to disclose everything they discuss, for the simple reason that they often discuss unethical things, but we must hold their feet to the fire and ensure that they comply with these demands.

Concluding Thoughts

We take many things for granted in life – things that we think should be fine but are not. We go with blind faith out into the world, thinking the world is a safe place for us and our loved ones; that the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink, are safe; that our government representatives always act in our best interest. But such faith is not well-founded. But rather than descend into cynicism and say you cannot trust anything or anyone, the lesson for us to learn is that there is a price to be paid for having faith – it is constant citizen vigilance and a willingness to be pro-active in demanding our rights, in demanding openness and transparency in all aspects of life that concern us, regardless of who we are up against. This takes hard work on the part of the citizenry, but as the Americans say, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” If you want to have faith in your systems, you have to work hard and be alert in order to maintain that faith.

There are some who believe that others will do the hard work for them – that if they only elect that one great leader, he will take care of all their concerns. To be specific, in the recent elections that were concluded in India, Mr. Narendra Modi of the BJP led his party to an impressive win. The BJP campaign was focused solely around Mr. Modi and his achievements, and generally sought to convey the message that Mr. Modi was a wise and decisive leader who knew best. Even if that were true, no man can speak for another, and Mr. Modi’s priorities for India will likely be quite different from yours or mine, as he just proved with his budget. So to imagine that the ills of the world will simply vanish because of the election of a supposed superman is nothing but sheer folly. One cannot abdicate personal responsibility for changing the world that one is unhappy with simply by hoping that someone else will solve his problems for him.

The only way to control your destiny is to be involved personally. As the greatest Indian thinker of the 20th century, Dr. BR Ambedkar, said in his motto for the untouchables (Dalits): “Educate, Agitate, Organize.”