On 23 June, 1980, Sanjay Gandhi, the politically-ambitious scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty died all of a sudden in a plane crash while piloting the Delhi Flying Club's newly-acquired Pitts S-2A aircraft.
According to his biographer, journalist Vinod Mehta, Sanjay had thrown all caution to the winds. In spite of being a novice pilot, he was indulging in "reckless maneuvers" on that day. On previous occasions he had repeatedly ignored advice from his elder brother Rajiv and others "to wear proper shoes and not chappals while flying."
As Mehta says in the biography, "Not only was the novice pilot given to flashy daredevilry and dangerous low-flying, which civil aviation authorities at the Delhi Flying Club had warned Indira about, he also insisted on wearing Kolhapuri chappals in the cockpit."
There is something starkly common in the circumstances of that accident, many other disasters in India, and the recent tragic death of 23 children in Bihar in the midday meal poisoning incident. What stitches them to one another is the “Chalta hai” factor that is so deeply pervasive in the Indian/South Asian psyche.
“Chalta hai” may be roughly translated as “It’s okay, let’s carry on”. It comes into play whenever someone expresses concern about safety or taking precautions. “Chalta hai” is the almost instant, auto-response from some quarter and what that phrase conveys is that it does not matter if we cut corners in whatever we do; it does not matter if we bend or break rules; it does not matter if we are 10 minutes late for some event or meeting and it does not matter if our cell phone rings and disturbs people during public functions, concerts, seminars and other such.
Over the last few days, as many as 23 poor and innocent children lost their lives in a flash in Bihar because some bright spark did not think twice about food contamination by insecticides stored nearby. According to a report in the Hindustan Times, an insecticide container was used to cook vegetables served to children in Bihar's Saran district. The report says that among the dead was the cook who had refused to use the container but was forced to do so by the school's headmistress.
Preliminary reports said that one of the insecticide containers may have been used to measure or store cooking oil. More than political conspiracy as alleged by the Nitish Kumar government, negligence seems to have caused the tragedy.
Policy planners would never have imagined that someday such a tragedy would occur due to insecticides kept near ration and cooked under the mid-day meal scheme. Thus, they must never have felt the need to lay down precise instructions about storing rations and using proper, dedicated vessels for cooking food.
As always, corrective measures follow disasters in India and following this disaster, a new set of instructions inspections may be expected under the mid-day meal programme.
A variety of disasters have occurred out of a casual attitude as for example, in Bangalore where a 23-year-old woman was killed during a mock fire drill exercise last year. The rope she was using to come down from the third floor of a building snapped and the fire brigade which conducted this exercise had done so without safety measures such as a net or a harness to arrest the fall of the young woman.
Why does India top the world in road accidents with more than a million deaths every year? A majority of these accidents and fatalities are a result of poor traffic discipline because “Chalta hai” is at work.
Thus, many of us don’t wear seat belts or helmets because we think it’s a fuss. We don’t hesitate to over-speed on highways and expressways or over-take from the wrong-side because we think it does not matter. We are casual about indulging in drink driving and it’s all fine if vehicles come in from the wrong side, are parked dangerously on the highways or are running without tail lamps. It’s all a part of the “chalta hai” culture that is widespread.
People realise the value of seat-belts or accidents only after an accident involving themselves or their friends and family. A friend lost an eye in a motorcycle accident. Was he wearing a helmet? No, he was not; it was securely locked to the carrier!
“Chalta hai” unites the rich and the poor in India because it is a part of the Indian psyche. How many more disasters are we going to suffer before we wake up and firmly eliminate this debilitating characteristic.