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Crimes that stem from apathy

WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah

There are certain misconceptions about crime and wrongdoing that can be traced to the commonly held impression that crimes are committed only by hardened criminals. In a country like India, where corruption is so rampant (despite corruption itself being a major crime), quite a lot of people who are part of the administration find themselves obliged to do things that would rightly be described as wrongdoing or unlawful. In that sense, they fall under the category of criminal acts, regardless of how minor the crimes might be regarded as. This is because about two centuries of British colonial rule has ingrained in them the belief that common people can only be subjects under any form of government. To them, there can be no form of administration where the people themselves are the masters, and the land is ruled by their elected representatives. The scepticism that comes in the way of their willingness to believe that the people themselves are the masters in a democracy arises from the way democracy has been misused not only in some African countries but in the world’s largest democracy as well. Unfortunately, in many countries of the world that claim to be democratic, the only sign of democratic rule is confined to the general elections that are held periodically to get lawmakers and the rulers elected by the people. Once this exercise is completed, the rulers and the elected representatives of the people are happy to forget everything about democratic principles and the legitimate rights of the people who elected them to power. This is almost the standard mode of so-called democratic functioning in many democracies of Africa. And quite honestly, things are not very different even in India, the largest democracy in the world.

The almost total neglect of democratic imperatives soon after general elections are completed, results in several forms of deprivation of the people. Deprivation of health-care, proper food, good education and social security make for some of the sufferings that people even in democratic countries have to endure. But there are other kinds of deprivation as well that deny people access to basic amenities and requirements for life in an industrialized society in the 21st century. It is generally accepted that urban life in the 21st century cannot be conceived of without a regular and stable supply of electricity or efficient modes of transportation from one point to another. These are aspects of important human needs that need to be discussed exhaustively. However, I have decided to give greater prominence to the serious aberrations in food supplies that affect people more directly and leave many citizens too ill for any serious work.

It is quite unnecessary to point out that in the form of governnance that we are used to, the government is not directly concerned with the supply of food to citizens. At the same time, the government is responsible to ensure remedial measures in situations that threaten normal and regular supply of food and citizens. It cannot abandon its monitoring responsibilities. In Assam, we now have a situation where there is no shortage of food as such, but the suppliers of food have begun to seize every opportunity of preventing unadulterated and edible food being available to citizens. This is evident in the concerted and diabolical adulteration of food and the use of harmful chemicals to enhance the size, appearance and shelf life of a gamut of food products, especially vegetables, fruit, fish, poultry and so on. Much of the fish that comes from Andhra Pradesh, Odisha or Bengal makes the three- or four-day transit to Assam with heavy doses of chemical preservatives used to prevent rotting. However, these chemicals are extremely harmful for human beings. Likewise, harmful chemicals are also being used liberally to increase the size of vegetables and fruit, to enhance their appearance and to speed up ripening in the case of fruit.

There is no need for anyone to specifically state that these are criminal activities since they are directed at causing harm to people only to ensure additional profits to the suppliers of fruit and vegetables. In any civilized society, the rulers have the responsibility of not only checking and preventing such crimes, but also of meting out very stringent and exemplary punishment to all such suppliers of food deliberately contaminated with harmful chemicals in order to ensure quick and large profits to the traders. Our rulers and civil servants can make crude attempts to escape accountability by claiming that all traders indulging in such criminal activities are not easily traceable. But the fact remains that the crime committed itself would have remained unknown and undetected had it not been for the fact that at least some of the major traders were known to the administration. The obvious thing to do, therefore, is to apprehend the big guns and subject them to the kind of stringent and exemplary punishment that one cannot forget in a lifetime. Anyone who seeks to advance the argument that we have a free market economy and that anyone is, therefore, free to manufacture, procure and sell anything that the buyer is willing or compelled to buy in a democratic set-up is talking through his hat. Democracy ensures freedom for the right kind of conduct—for what is legal. It does not ensure freedom for criminal activities. If anything, it is possible to argue very strongly that since democracy is the rule of the people (through elected representatives), Democratic countries have a greater responsibility to ensure that the people are protected better than in any other form of governance. But we notice that even in the very few remaining constitutional monarchies of the world, there is a great deal of attention paid to the well-being and health of the people. This is because they are monarchies only in name (because they have retained a monarch) but are actually some of the most advanced democracies of the world. And even though most of these countries have dispensed with capital punishment, the swiftness and the severity with which punishment is delivered to the criminal is certainly remarkable. There is indeed a bit of the law’s delay even in these countries, but this is nothing compared to the extent of the law’s delay in countries like India.

The seeming digression in the preceding lines might be regarded as being totally redundant, but was felt to be important because the nature of the serious crime makes our rulers and the bureaucracy accountable if they are unable to prevent such crimes and ensure stringent and exemplary punishment. We are dealing with a crime that its perpetrators are trying very hard to pass off as one of those accidents of life that stem from the consumption of fruit and vegetables preserved with chemicals that can not only do great harm to people but cause death in a number of cases. Only a totally callous bureaucracy can take a tolerant attitude to such a heinous crime. And any bureaucracy that fails to act very promptly to ensure stringent and exemplary punishment to the criminals must naturally be held responsible for failing to prevent large-scale illness and death (in some cases) arising from a perverse tolerance of such criminal activities. What must be very clearly understood and appreciated is that businessmen who seek to profit from any business activity that is known to harm the people have to be treated as criminals and prevented from doing business in any civilized society. Unfortunately, this might be too much to expect from our bureaucracy for the simple reason that it has got used to doing absolutely nothing to punish criminal activity in the State if such activity is carried on by well-heeled operators in a position to silence penal procedures with handsome rewards. In the coming months right up to the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, our politicians and bureaucrats are going to be very closely watched by the people who have been unduly tolerant of their rulers over the years without ever making them accountable for their actions or for their failure to perform. Happily, that phase seems to be a thing of the past now. An increasing number of citizens are now interested only in lawmakers who are able to perform rather than finding excuses for why something quite possible cannot be done.

About the author

Ankur Kalita