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Murphy's law and karma

Bhopal tragedy and India's 'revolution of rising expectations'

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

India is a land of death by accident. The website of the National Disaster Management Authority lists at least 13 different types — divided between ‘manmade’ and ‘natural’ disasters. Manmade ones are sub-classified under nuclear, chemical, mine, biological, cyber and environment. Infrastructure and transport sectors are not listed separately but one can imagine that more people die in road, rail and fire accidents every year than in all these categories of man-made disasters put together. The NDMA also has a list of natural disasters that include earthquakes, floods, river erosion, cyclones, tsunamis, landslides and avalanches and forest fires. Many of these can also be traced to human error or the combined impact of human actions — like floods, soil erosion, forest fires and even landslides. Hundreds of thousands of lives are lost every year and crores of rupees lost to the nation. With every accident there is breast-beating, remorse, finger-pointing, etc. etc, and the drama goes on. Let’s face it — human lives come cheap in this part of the world. Nothing else explains the callousness with which most Indians still deal with potential sources of disaster. So, while an accident like the Bhopal gas leak tragedy makes everyone angry about corporate callousness, the fact is that in most people’s normal lives they live with potential sources of accidental death — from unsafe electrical wiring that can cause fires, to potholes on roads that can kill, and the consumption of contaminated water and food.

Murhpy’s law works with a vengeance in India. If something can go wrong, it will. Interestingly, this is the popular hand-me-down version of Murphy’s law. The original formulation is far more sophisticated. Attributed to Major Edward A. Murphy, Jr. (1918-1990), an American aerospace engineer who worked on safety-critical systems, the textbook version of the so-called ‘Murphy’s law’ is: “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.” It is not a scientific law, in the sense that it would fail the test of falsifiability. Nothing’s perfect. But it helps make one cautious, take pre-cautions, adopt measures to prevent, mitigate and reduce the likelihood of disasters. Based on this understanding of human error all modern systems and organisations have developed methodologies to deal with potential sources of disaster and death. Yet, accidents happen.

It is not, therefore, in preventing an accident that we must judge our ability to beat Murphy’s law, but in our ability to deal with the consequences. If something will go wrong, because it can, then one must pay as much attention to preventing accidents as to dealing with accidents. Disaster management and response are as important as disaster prevention. Disaster management is a human science — that is, it is as much about systems as it is about people. In India, Murphy’s law can work with both. Systems that can fail, will fail; and, people that can make mistakes will make mistakes.

This is not just because of the Indian chalta hai attitude, though such an attitude must take a large part of the blame. Indeed, the chalta hai attitude is itself a by-product of a more deep-seated psychology of karma. Whatever happens is supposed to happen. It is in our fate, in the lines of our palm, in the furrow of our brow. While 24x7 television anchors may get worked up, and impatient civil society activists angry, the ordinary Indian sits patiently for help, assistance, compensation, rehabilitation, justice because that is one’s karma — to wait. But that is changing, and there is a ‘revolution of rising expectations’ in India. People expect more. Which, in part, explains why there is so much more opprobrium about the Bhopal gas tragedy today than there was a quarter century ago.

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First Published: Sun, June 20 2010. 00:47 IST