Saturday, 19 May 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

For a long time now, slums have been an integral part of Mumbai's description. The stories and characters from these shacks have been a source of inspiration for many writers and film makers. The overrated 'Slumdog Millionaire' is one such example. The mere characterization of the hero from the slum has done the magic. I doubt if a similar story of life and hope from a poor village which is not a slum would have been as successful as the original movie.

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' by Katherine Boo is one another book on the slums of Mumbai. Unlike Vikas Swarup's Q&A (which came out as the 'Slumdog Millionaire'), this book is not about the success story of an individual brought up in a slum background. This book is more about the slum as a whole and not a particular character. Katherine Boo has chosen 'Annawadi' for her book, the slum behind the walls carrying the advertisement 'Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever' off the Sahar Airport road, Mumbai.

Annawadi is the land of immigrants from the other poor parts of India. People migrate to slums like Annawadi hoping that they would get a better life than their past. One could imagine how their past would have been, if slums like Annawadi is their hope. They struggle day in and day out to feed themselves, save a few and hope to move to a better place.

The history of Annawadi as in the book:
"The slum had been settled in 1991 by a band of laborers trucked up from the southern tip of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the airport. Work complete, they decided to stay near the airport and its tantalizing construction possibilities. ... Residents of neighboring slums provided its name: Annawadi - the land of annas. ... Seventeen years later, almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks"

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' depicts the life of these Annawadis,  the way they see the world from their mounds of garbage; their life with rat bites, which also occasionally turns out to be their food along with frogs, their fights over trivial things and their fear for life from movements like 'Beat the Bhaiya' and false accusations by the local cops.

In a society of systemic corruption, it looks like the most affected are people like these. When accused falsely, they can neither pay the bribe nor prove their innocence. And their lives are not taken seriously and their deaths are taken for granted. Most of the Government funds provided to help these people are devoured by the corrupt officials by running non existent schools and NGOs. This corruption along with the crab mentality of the few Annawadis shatters the hopes of the rest, forever.
In Katherine's words:
"...a system in which the most wretched tried to punish the slightly less wretched by turning to a justice system so malign it sank them all"

Katherine Boo's focus on multiple characters provides a bigger picture of life and death in Annawadi. The sequence of events makes the narration interesting, and the lives of Annawadis makes 'Behind the Beautiful Forever' a memorable read. 

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Possibility Effect and Understanding of Numbers

Few months back, there was a sudden upraise of protests regarding the atomic power project in Kudankulam, India. In the little reading I did on these protests, one of the primary concern was about the safety of the nuclear power plant and the possible direct and indirect casualties this could trigger. In addition, the effects of Bhopal disaster, probably the worst industrial accident in the history of the country and the way these victims were handled  had created an animosity towards projects like these.

In cases like Kudankulam the decision to oppose the project is usually based on the casualties caused by similar projects in the past. For example, if we consider the Union Carbide disaster, according to this CNN article, the death toll was about 33,000. This Wikipedia entry quotes that, the leak had caused about 558,125 injuries. Similarly this entry from Wikipedia indicates that the approximate number of deaths alone in nuclear accidents around the world is about 5000 and then there are other prolonged side effects. These numbers seems quite high. But do the protesters actually take account of these numbers?

Now to a different event. This article in 'The Lancet' indicates that about 7.6 million children below the age of five had died in 2010 of which about 64% are attributed to infectious causes including pneumonia, diarrhea which are preventable.This is the estimate around the world. Out of these 7.6 million, 1.682 million were from India alone which includes about 0.397 million from pneumonia and 0.212 million from diarrhea which are infectious but again almost preventable.

Assuming that the above numbers regarding the deaths from nuclear reactors and infant mortality are true (at least proportionally), it is very clear that the infectious diseases have a high death rate (among the children below the age of 5), when compared to nuclear accidents. The outcome of injury related to nuclear reactors still reduces if we include the frequency of these accidents as well. Unless we start working towards better healthcare, the death rates among these children are going to be more or less similar every year unlike an accident in a reactor which might not necessarily happen every year.

So ideally our priority to save human lives should have more focus on events that have an higher death rate . But we seldom see protests against these events like infant mortality which has an higher outcome. Even if such protests happen, it doesn't get the required attention always. Rather we tend to focus our time and energy towards relatively less probable events. This inconsistency, I think is an example of the Possibility Effect:

"The decision weights that people assign to outcomes are not identical to the probabilities of these outcomes, contrary to the expectation principle. Improbable outcomes are over weighted - this is the possibility effect. Outcomes that are almost certain are under weighted relative to actual certainty."
-Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, p.312

The Possibility Effect might look less harmful, especially when it is associated with events like gambles and lotteries. But when it is applied to our attitude towards some serious life threatening events, we can observe how it affects our decision making.

In addition, the lack of understanding of numbers related to these events we deal with, affects our decisions. If these protesters were aware of the actual numbers, will it have the same intensity or will they still work towards the same cause ?

For example, When a question 'Which of these events should be prevented first ? Event A - Kills 1 lakh people, probably occurring once in few years. Event B - Kills 10 lakhs people almost every year' is posed to the protesters, a reasonable person would want to prevent event B and work towards it. But if we just pose a question without numbers, 'which one you would want to prevent? Deaths related to infectious disease or Nuclear Disaster?' do we still get the same answer?

The possibility of a nuclear accident even though its outcome is less comparatively, looms large and attracts more attention and support to eliminate it. This when compared to a larger and sure outcome event like infant mortality is more or less ignored*. So ideally we should try working towards making our decisions based on the probability of the event, its outcome and the actual numbers. Not just based on an ideology or the emotional statements of the policy makers and the protesters. This could have a better value for people's money and time and might have a better impact on society itself.

* This representation is only based on the numbers available in the internet. If the numbers turn out to be incorrect or change eventually and reverses the outcome, then so should be our decisions towards it.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Capital Punishment

Should a State allow capital punishment or not? Probably one of the most debated topics of all time may be next only to 'Love Marriage vs Arranged Marriage' and 'Does God exists or not?' I think the last two questions has reduced considerably in recent times. But realized death penalty is still a lingering question after  its discussion in BBC program 'The Big Questions' a few weeks back.

As I see it, in general there are three sides to the discussion on capital punishment. First is the 'victim's side' - the victim and his/her family and friends. Second is the 'convict side' - the convicted person and his/her families. The third side, arguably the most dangerous side - 'the audience side' - people who are no way related to the case directly or indirectly, but just witness these events through media and eager to provide an "expert" opinion without actually living through it like the victim or the convicted.

Few arguments that's often placed by the audience against the capital punishment are 'Nobody has the right to take someone else's life', 'Capital punishment is an inhuman act', 'Every person deserves a second chance'. When such arguments are placed, there are some questions to ponder.

When a country is at war, is it right to kill the 'Enemy of the State' ? ('Enemy of the State' because the enemies here are not decided by the individual. This clip from Ab Tak Chhappan around the fourth minute talks about it precisely). Comparing killings at the war front and death sentence might not look appropriate, but they are objectively equivalent - taking a human life. Though both have a similar outcome, isn't it strange that we despise one as an inhumane and ornate the other with awards?

Similarly the famous quote by Gandhi "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind" is often used as a defence against capital punishment. This quote appeals to the masses easily and gains a lot of support like Gandhi himself. But when such quotes are placed under a context, they might not necessarily have the same appeal. Here is a context.

In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: "What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?" I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the "you're another" type. But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer's Gandhi and Stalin. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi's view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which "would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler's violence." After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly.1

After reading Gandhi's view on Holocaust, does the above quote still retains its charm? Should the Jews had followed Gandhi's view which is along the lines of "An eye for an eye.."? If Hitler was caught as a Prisoner of War, should he have been given a second chance? These are some questions to ponder for those who oppose capital punishment in the 'audience side'.

Now coming to the proponents of capital punishment in the 'audience side', the usual arguments are of the kind that 'Punishment deters crime', 'The convict loses his right when he violates others rights', 'Its justice done'. For arguments along these lines, my first question to them is 'How sure are they that the convicted was proved without any doubt?'.

Not all cases are self evident like 'Kasab's Trial' where there might not be much to prove. But in most other cases, I think that, its not possible for the audience to know the entire truth about the case. The audience's knowledge about the case could be based on media reports and hearsay and their opinion could also be influenced by their prejudice. The media reports are not always reliable, as each one of them carry a version of its own. For example Patrick French's story about the 'Aarushi murder case' is quite different form the stories in main stream media3. This is a classic example for 'what we know Vs the truth'. So how do we know what the truth is?

I think the answer is, except for some clear cut cases, there is no way for some one in the audience side to know whether a convicted person is the real criminal or not. Even if it is proved in a court of law, we often see that a judgement by the lower court is overturned by an higher court. So without knowing the truth should we really advocate death sentence for someone?

Now assuming that somebody is proven beyond doubt and is ordered to execute legally, will the supporters of capital punishment be ready to do the honors in their own hand on behalf of the Government, society or the victim? Being on the receiving side, it wouldnt be a surprise if the victim or victim's family wouldn't hesitate to execute, but from the audience side, I really doubt4. If it is only a right thing to do, restores justice and deters heinous crimes shouldn't they be able to do it like doing any other good deed to the society? If they cannot execute on their own hands, then what is the reason? Is it because they dont want to get blood on their hands but fine as long as some poor chap does it5?

Now going back to the original question, should a state allow capital punishment? With what I understand, I don't think there is a one size fits all solution for this. A blanket 'Yes' or 'No' might not help I guess. I think it should be only  handled at a case by case level and as much as objectively possible.

When it comes to individual cases, its better if the audience doesnt promote mass movements about whether the convict should be executed or not. For, what we know about the case might not be the truth at all. Moreover how much ever one can empathize with the victim or the convict, its never the same as actually being a victim or the convict. Tinkering with their emotions could only make it worse for them. So a better thing to do is to let the parties involved along with the system of law to judge on how it should be handled rather than we promoting a decision based on our "expert" opinion.

References & Links:
1. Reflections on Gandhi by George Orwell -
2. 12 Angry Men -
3. India - A Portrait -
4. But not for the likes of Hazare -
5. Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Nizhalkuthu - A perspective from the eyes of an Hangman -