We Are in Danger Of Accepting Sick As the New Normal

As a society we have become conditioned to moving from one burning issue to another without adequately resolving the first, thus making challenges like pollution, joblessness and economic inequality our new normal.


A man takes protection against pollution as smog covers India Gate in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Game parks in Africa are facing a peculiar challenge of plenty. Being devoid of natural predators, their elephant population periodically goes out of control and starts affecting the ecosystem adversely. During those times, the culling or systematic killing of a part of the excess population is the only practical solution.

When the rangers didn’t know any better, they would resort to what is known as the survival of the fittest, according to Darwinian theory, to cull the old, infirm and the sick elephants.

This scientific method, however, wreaked havoc on the social structure of the herds. The obvious effects of losing the older pachyderm’s tribal knowledge were that the herd could no longer find secret watering holes that stayed perennial during droughts or the long forgotten routes across the game parks.

This method of culling had another sinister effect.

When the young bulls noticed the abrupt absence of the elder elephants, discipline within the herd deteriorated. It led to frequent fights, several among which were fatal for both the victor and the loser. Many of the younger bulls tried to rut well before puberty and several of them turned rogue, hence becoming a danger to other elephants and tourists.

In short, an abrupt removal of social milestones, markers or role models turned an otherwise amicable and well-adjusted herd into a squabbling and dangerous rabble. Our society seems to be heading that same way.

Our markers – be they venerated institutions, acclaimed leaders, admired role models or idolised companies – are crumbling. The adjectives used by the supporters of political leaders to slander their adversaries, the viciousness of character assassination on anyone voicing a different opinion, the public mud raking by the ‘beyond reproach’ corporates and the systematic degradation of dissenting discourses is damaging our social fabric in irreparable ways.

The mind-boggling number of issues that an average citizen has to deal with is overwhelming their mental processing capability. The impossibility of distilling complex, intricate and interlinked problems into a one-pager, 140 characters or a quick fix solution, leads to stereotyping and creates impossible expectations. We start focusing on the bright and shiny objects rather than the subtle and sinister dangers. Consider an example of the clear and present danger that lurks over half of our population while we are busy staring at the shiny.

Last month, Delhi – and other cities in India – received the shameful distinction of being the most toxic places on the planet. People are being gassed to disease and death because of the pollution levels that crossed critical benchmarks years ago.

We personally know children, aged and infirm who are literally being culled on a daily basis. This is not something that is happening halfway across the world like the war in the Middle East or the tsunamis striking Japan. This is happening in our homes, in our neighbourhood and in our cities.

Every day more people suffer because of pollution than from all the terror strikes in the world. We lose millions of lives to preventable diseases, lifestyle ailments, road accidents, spurious medicines and rampant negligence but our focus is still on the bright and shiny surgical strikes, Trump phenomenon, demonetisation and the next sparkly distraction. The odd-even or other campaigns introduced to address pollution or to improve security for women in the wake of the Nirbhaya case have become yesterday’s news and have long been forgotten.

This tactical ‘problem hopping’ or moving from one urgently burning issue to another – without either solving or appreciating their gravitas or inter-linkages – is like trying to jump a six-feet ditch in two- or three-feet jumps. What is worse is that we have begun accepting suboptimal situations as the base-line.

That nearly two lakh souls – and 2% of our GDP – were lost due to road accidents last year, that there exists rampant adulteration of food products or that 30% of drugs sold in the country are counterfeit simply do not get the fraction of attention that 0.02% of fake currency does. Seasonal diseases like dengue, viral fever, conjunctivitis, drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, asthma and bronchitis increasingly devour productivity and lives of our citizens each year, and the fact that those many days are lost to sickness per year becomes our new normal.

The gravitas of our political discourses and deliberations have deteriorated into abusive name calling, forged WhatsApp messages and photoshopped lies. People are encouraged to form opinions and judgments on scanty, unproven data, and that has become the new normal. Wild allegations and even wilder claims of fictitious achievements that are rarely fact-checked have become the new truth. By ever so slightly pushing the envelope towards slippery slopes, we as a society are legitimising hypocrisy where it is the norm to state something for the record but do something else on the ground.

Hence, the definition of accountability has become the ability to recount the fault of others, rather than introspect and correct one’s own failures. Corruption is defended by parading evidence of previous and bigger scams. We are heading towards a polarised, prejudiced and intolerant world with its Bush-esque philosophy that anyone who is not with us is against us.

There is an old Bedouin saying that goes something like ‘I against my brother. My brother and I against the cousins. My brother and I with my cousins against the neighbours’ and so on. We appear to be ‘buying’ our way out of an important crisis by focusing on another. And our strategic challenges – perpetually polluted environments, deteriorating institutions, increasing conflicts of interest, intractable nexuses, climate change, looming unemployment, increasingly belligerent neighbours and growing economic inequality – are potentially becoming our new normal. We are in danger of accepting sick as the new normal.

Raghu Raman is founding CEO of NATGRID and president at Reliance Industries. He tweets @captraman and views expressed are personal.