The value of life - C.K.Mathew, C.S. Rajasthan

The market price of gold today is about Rs. 30,000 per ten grams. It is a standard that is uniformly recognized and given credence to, an exact value that finds universal acceptance as gold is brought and sold through all commercial markets everywhere. In fact, there are several products of the same kind, with the same levels of commercial acceptance: certain kinds of metals, for example, or the price of a railway ticket and so on. Come to think of it, why, even vegetables and fruits reach a level of acceptable prices that become the norm until it alters – or is altered – the next day or the next week or the next month. Any drastic shift in this accepted level is an indication of some malefic or upsetting element and is a sure sign of illness in the body economic. The price that any commodity commands is an important factor in international and domestic economics. While it may fluctuate and flicker, price is indeed the staple ingredient that contributes to making the world go around. Surely, business houses and even nation states rise or flounder, riding on its crest or falling into its troughs.

Pricing as a science becomes more complicated when there are values other the monetary attached to it. A gold ring may cost a certain figure in the bourse, but if it is a family heirloom, something that a beloved grandparent had worn a century ago, its value becomes something else altogether. Its value, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. Or again, a piece of real estate may be reasonably valued and quite affordable; but if it had been occupied by a film star or some celebrity, then for no apparent reason, the prices shoot up. If on the other hand, it is regarded as haunted property, or as the scene of dreadful crime, its value would plummet and the property would go a-begging. Pricing in such cases becomes no longer an exact science, but a guess or an estimate based on rumours or feelings. Indeed pricing is no longer the word for it.

The purpose of writing this introduction has nothing to do with the pricing of commodities. It is only a starting point to consider the vastly more important question of assessing the value of human life. Indeed, I am not taking of that scientist who put pen to paper and computed to the nearest dollar and cent, the cost of the skin, bone, muscle and fat in the human body. We are talking of much more than that. In no other asset do non-monetary values attach themselves with such intricate resultant complications. A formidable array of questions suddenly arises before you. A look at some of them will reveal the perplexities of the issues involved. Is there a value that can be reasonably assigned to a life based on objective criterion? For example, criterion such as health and longevity, the strength of the gene pool, productivity in work, mental attributes and so on for starters. Again, do we need to put a different values on the life of a man as compared to that of a woman? The life of an adult as different from that of an adult? The life of an affluent Caucasian white of Western Europe as compared with that of a black citizen of a sub-Saharan country? The life of a leader of people and a beggar on the street?
We are not being truthful when we say that all men are born equal, when shorn of communistic dialectic, or human rights rhetoric, it becomes more and more apparent that biology is destiny, as Eric Ericsson said so many years ago, and that your genes determine who you are and what you are likely to become. And this is not merely in terms of physical qualities but intellectual and emotional virtues and characteristics, quirks of behaviour and even one’s own attitude to life. This is not to say that a person who faces a horrible death in a totalitarian state should be denied freedom of expression or basic legal rights. He certainly has all the rights due to any human being for upholding his self-respect and dignity. But so also, in an elected democracy, does the woman in labour in a rural dispensary who dies without modern medical assistance. So also a child who has no school to go to within several miles of his hut. Or a woman who trudges five kilometres a day to fetch a pitcher of water. Or a man cowering in his hut, afraid to face the wrath of a paid hoodlum. Denied the basis amenities without which life is a long struggle to merely exist, without which higher goals and aspirations are merely glib phrases which sound good to the ear, the value of life becomes a variable subject to latitude and longitude, to DNA and the double helix and indeed the shape and form of the government in power.

That is why it becomes indubitably clear that the real value of life depends to a large extent on the philosophical ideal of the government in power. That government gives great value to human life when it lifts itself above biology and puts people first; when the inequalities and inequities forced on life by blood line, caste and religion, by genes and DNA are set aside; when the main life-giving and life sustaining activities of governance, uniform for all humanity, for prince and pauper alike, take precedence over the other paraphernalia of government. Let us put this in perspective and understand what this means.

Every citizen must expect and obtain good and reasonable medical assistance not far from where he lives. For this, not only must there be medical services available in his vicinity, but they have to be maintained and carried on throughout the months and years, with diligence and care. If we do not, for example, provide reliable medical facilities in a disease prone tribal area, it means that the we do not value the lives of the people inhabiting the area, that it does not matter whether the people live there or die.

Every person, whatever his lineage, must have safe and clean drinking water not in the next town or somewhere far away, but near at hand and all through the year. For this safe and hygienic local sources have to be developed or water has to be brought from far away sources. If the water in the area carries disease-causing microbes, it means that we do not value the lives of people in that place who will inevitably face the perils of disease and illness.

One’s children must obtain the benefits of a viable and practical education that shall give them a good advantage in the battle for survival as they grow up. For this, adequate educational facilities with teachers who stay in the village – and not those who are absentee commuters –are essential. If in that far away village there are no schools where teachers actually teach the children, it means that we have not a care for the future of the children: they might as well have not been born at all. The poor farmer must be able to sleep peacefully at night without fear of marauders or local gang-lords. If terrified members of a caste are blown away by bullets fired by gangsters belonging to another caste and there is no fear of the consequences of violating peace and tranquillity, it means that we are not concerned at all with the lives that have been extinguished. For this, a responsive and vigilant police administration that guards and protects, and is not venal or rapacious, has to be in place.

It sounds very simple doesn’t it? These are ordinary things we look for as corollaries of good governance, but they are not things that we can take for granted. These are the guarantees that every citizen should expect as his birth right. Any good government in power can vest a human life with extraordinary value only when these ordinary things are provided without let or hindrance, without affection or malice, without fear or favour. Such a political system would not concern itself with peripheral and inconsequential issues and would provide these ‘ordinary’ things to its ‘ordinary’ citizens with out-of-the-ordinary care and concern. It would ensure that there is no need for even the frailest of its citizens to cringe and beg for them. It would realise that the value of a human life is raised to its highest levels only by ensuring the presence of ordinary everyday things that keep body and soul together. Do we need much more in life?
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Officers Times - RNI No. : RAJHIN/2012/50158 (Jaipur)


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