For equity reasons (because those who are exposed are not necessarily those who gain by a practice) some dose or risk limitation is necessary to prevent the optimised situation from being one where a few individuals receive inappropriately high doses.
It was agreed between the teacher and the students that that compensation to the workers is in the form of the salary they draw. But that got me thinking: is that really so, more so in the government-controlled nuclear establishments in India? Do those working at high-risk places get higher pay as compared to those doing the same work in low-risk environments? Does for instance, an office clerk working in precincts of a nuclear establishment draw a larger salary than one working in a college administrative office? Answer, as of now is “no”. Why is that so?
My above thoughts were tangential to what was being discussed in the class (though, I would return to them later). The teacher went on to assert that if nuclear establishment worker gets monetarily compensated for the risk he/she takes, then the converse must also hold true, i.e., all those who derive benefit from existence of such establishments must face a non-zero quantum of risk. Well, that made perfect sense to me. And that is how he justified the risks posed to the general public by the operation of facilities with radioinuclides [click] (those forms of elements that emit ionizing radiation, which have potential for health hazards). As an aside, I came across this (click) blog post, which explains how risks posed by waste routinely generated from nuclear power plants have been overestimated by many [note: the article does not cite many sources, moreover, it does not cover risks posed by nuclear accidents, but to the best of my knowledge is quite correct].
Later, the teacher also explained how the principle of ALARA (click) – As Low As Reasonably Achievable that the ICRP uses for (radiation) dose-optimization has a flaw. Why what risk (radiation dose) I find reasonable for the benefits I derive, should also be reasonable to my neighbor? What alternative does one who applies most stringent threshold for radiation exposure have if the majority in an area consent to a higher dose? This led me to think about the representative form of governance. It allows a small number of people to take decisions on behalf of a very large number of people who ironically would be influenced much greatly by such decisions. So possibly, not just a minority, but even the majority in a constituency could be opposed to construction and operation of nuclear establishment in their vicinity, and yet the government (small number of individuals) would have the legitimate authority to overrule such a wish. But this ethical predicament is taken care of by the assumption that the electorate would choose with greatest conviction (and hence, numbers) a person they trust the most to take decisions in their best interest. This was just an offshoot of thoughts in my mind, and I would not like to comment any further on this aspect of representative form of democracy.
Returning to one of the original predicaments: why would a clerk working for a nuclear establishment in India not be paid more than another clerk working in an administrative office of a college despite the former facing a greater risk to health and life? It is not difficult to answer – unemployment. Of course, there could be other reasons too for the said clerk not demanding a higher pay, e.g., ignorance of the risks posed by working there. But yet, I believe the biggest reason is unemployment. The state of employment market, even in government sector, whether we realize or not, is greatly influenced by demand-supply factors. The said clerk does not have any bargaining power. The moment he would say, “I want higher pay for the additional risk I would be facing”, the government would tell, “fuck off! Next!”. So obviously, our clerk is not going to make such a plea. Because he would know that there are many people with his kind of abilities seeking livelihood. If not him, someone else would take his place. This brings us to a somewhat intuitively obvious inference – the money that can be earned from doing a job is a function of:
1. Number of people wanting a job done. Greater the demand for a job, greater would be the pay.
2. Number of people willing to do that job. More the number of people willing to do the job, greater would be the bargaining power of those wanting the job done. Thus lesser would be the amount paid.
3. Number of people capable of doing that job. Greater the skill/training/experience a particular job requires, fewer would be the people capable of doing that job.
While, I had been vaguely aware of above factors, I was made to think more about them during one of my train journeys from Delhi to Mumbai. I had a very heavy luggage with me, mostly consisting of books – could have exceeded 100 kg. Whatever be the exact weight, I had to engage a porter to carry my luggage to the platform. I had another friend with me, and what the porters had demanded was exorbitant amount – to the tune of Rs. 800 for all the luggage. Seeing the weight of luggage, I was alright with that amount, but my friend was not. So, we engaged only two porters instead of three or four that would have been required. The arrangement obviously required us to carry quite a bit of luggage ourselves – covering a distance of about 300 m. By the time we had accomplished the task we were totally exhausted, and needless to say, a few of our muscles must have got pulled. But for me, the ordeal was not over yet! My train was scheduled to depart a couple of hours after my friend’s – and from a different platform! Basically, I had accompanied him from the hostel for the sake of keeping him company. Before he boarded his train, we had engaged another porter to shift my luggage to the platform where my train was to arrive. He and I had carried some luggage so that only one porter would be required. But it so turned out that my train coach was to stop at a faraway point from where we had parked my luggage. So, I had no option but to ask yet another porter to carry my luggage from the original position to the appropriate spot on the platform – this time, just to transfer the luggage form one segment of the platform to another. Weirdly, there were no trolleys at the New Delhi railway station. I suspect, it could be because of the lobbying by porters’ association as that would increase their earning. But that is besides the point. The third (and the last time) I had required porter’s service, I was so exhausted (and also in pain), that how much I was paying was least of my concerns! It could be pointed out that I could have better planned the whole thing, and saved some odd hundred or so rupees, but again that is besides the point. The incident brought one thing to my attention. Whatever amount one pays the porter, it is basically less than what he ‘deserves’. You might ask how?
My inference follows from one assumption, i.e., “no one likes to part with the money they have”. So, if you pay amount ‘x’ to the porter, you’ve the option of not giving that money. How? By carrying your luggage yourself. Carrying luggage is a very simple job – it does not require much specialized skill. Yes, if you are alone, then you might not be able to carry the luggage yourself, as you might have to make more than one round to carry all of it. But in most cases, people hire a porter’s service because they are uncomfortable doing the job themselves. It is to avoid exhaustion and pain that carrying the luggage would cause. So, if despite having the option to carry the luggage yourself, and not lose the amount x in the process, that you agree to lose it only proves that you would have not carried that much luggage for someone else to earn amount x. Now just pause for a moment and think:
For what amount of money would you be ready to carry for someone else the same luggage that you ask the porter to carry?
I believe, some of the middle class/upper middle class or upper class persons would feel offended at being asked such a question. But that is not totally besides the point. Just kindly note the contempt some might feel for the job of carrying others’ luggage or for the persons doing so, so much so that this question itself would lead to perceived offense. Anyway, returning to the point. For instance, on that day I had to pay up around Rs. 300 to the porters. Would I carry that much luggage as the porters did for me for someone else for Rs. 300? No, I will not. Yet, I felt the porters had charged me pretty steeply! Is that not weird? How much would I charge to carry that much luggage? I indeed thought about it. Not less than Rs. 2000!
My current income is stipendiary. In not very distant future, I would get to earn at least Rs. 2000 per day, doing almost totally sedentary work. Would I like to earn my livelihood the way those porters do? Definitely not. Would the porter like to earn his livelihood the way I would get to do? Almost certainly yes. Which means, the work he is doing is much more difficult than what I would be doing to earn, yet he earns significantly less than what I would. And as obvious corollary, I would earn much better than him despite doing a more pleasant and less painful job. Is something not strange about this equation?
Of course, it is not difficult to figure out that this situation has come about because relatively fewer people would have gained my kind of knowledge and training as compared to the bare minimum ‘skills’ required to carry heavy luggage. But at least in countries like India, do all people really get the opportunity, and subsequent choice of how to earn their livelihood? So though we do largely have free job market as far as influence that demand and supply exercise on amounts paid by people in return of services is concerned, but it has got highly monopolized. It has got monopolized because acquisition of those skills that enable earning relatively easily are beyond reach of the majority of population. The porters who had carried my luggage must have never got the opportunity to acquire those skills. Their children are unlikely to get opportunity to get the education to escape out of what has almost become a vicious cycle.
The realization of this inequity of opportunities is not new for me. Apart from movies, TV programs and short stories in textbooks that had sensitized me to these harsh realities, what had brought me face-to-face with them was my stay in a hostel during my graduation. There in the mess, as helps we used to have boys – some of them could have been below the age of 14 years (which would qualify as “child labour” in India, and is illegal). That it was illegal was the least of the problems with the situation. Those who are aware of the ground realities in India would appreciate that there is no infrastructure to support such children. Their parents are usually so poor that despite government (claiming to) provide free education and mid-day meal, etc., children who do not start working are seen as liabilities by parents. It is also possible that a few of them could be orphans.
A vast majority of students (the GenNext, if you may) were so comfortable with ordering them around. Scolding them for food badly prepared by the cook. Some of the angry students would not shy from using incestual expletives (“mother fucker”, e.g.). I am not saying, ”Haww, students were so indecent as to use ‘bad words’”, but what had always shocked me was the comfort and the authority with which that contempt was held. The acceptance of master-slave relationship was mutual and apparent on both sides. The idea that one set of human beings were “first class”, and another set were “second class” was so strongly ingrained in the collective psyche that I used to find the environment nauseating. I am not a very intrusive person by nature. So I hardly said anything to anyone. Yet, to some of the closer friends, I used to point out if they were to get rude in terms of ”what is his fault”? Since they were close to me, my friends would apologize to me, and correct their behavior for some time. However, what I could invariably notice was that they would do so because they would feel their behavior had not been ‘proper’, or because they should be ‘nice’ to people. In other words, even the courtesy shown (upon prompting) was an outcome of self-serving narcissism. The very fundamental idea of egalitarianism never occurred to them. It never occurred to them that the people they were putting in a mental effort to be ‘nice’ with, were just as much humans as them, and that they had as much right as them to live, to breath the same air as them, to just be happy! Just because they were bringing food from the kitchen for them, and carrying their plates back after they would have finished their meal does not in any way push them to a lower stratum. The work they were doing was a service, for which they were being paid. Seeing those children, some of who were only a few years younger than me (I had entered the hostel at the age of 17), I used to remain in a state of perennial guilt:
As compared to them, what different have I done to deserve these opportunities in life? How are the ways of the world such that these children are seen as inferior beings as compared to me? What is their fault? How in the scheme of things of the world, they had become the lower stratum of the society, the secondary citizens? Whatever I am today or I will be in future, as compared to these kids, would always remain undeserved – however ‘hard’ I work towards it.
Somewhere down the line, I had happened to read Ayn Rand’s (click) two novels – ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas shrugged’. I had become (and still am) quite impressed with the philosophy contained therein. But I realized two things about the main characters in the novels:
1. All of them might have had to struggle, but yet the society was never such that they would be deprived of basic education. Probably, the poorest of them all – Gail Waynand and Howard Roark (both found in The Fountainhead) had at least basic education [latter, in fact, had brought such circumstances upon himself that he was expelled from one of the better American architecture schools].
2. None of the major characters themselves had children. Only one of the somewhat prominent characters – Jed Starnes had children. He had died suddenly and hence had not had the opportunity to prepare his will (recalling from memory).
Despite the fact that Ayn Rand had spent her childhood in the erstwhile USSR, it seems she had not come across the kind of poverty and utter lack of opportunities to even study and gain knowledge to become ‘employable’ with some bargaining power – that are seen in India. The reason perhaps her characters did not have children was because she might have not wanted them to face the ethical dilemma of how much time, money and emotions to invest in the children in case they would not turn out to be with same value system as their own. The central theme of her novels, as far as I could make out was: to value people in proportion to their attributes that could be objectively adjudged as ‘valuable’. Thus, children pose unique ethical predicament. On one hand parents owe them their nurture (investment of time, effort and emotions) because, children are never party to the decision of bringing them to life, i.e., children’s consent as to whether they would like to live and risk being unhappy or in pain, is never sought, which makes it obligatory on parents to try to provide them with such resources that children do not regret their parents’ unilateral (parents as one party) of bringing them to life. But on the other hand, objectivist philosophy would demand that one devote one’s time, money and emotions in persons only in proportion to their worth as determined by their attributes. However, children either do not possess any pervasive attributes, or if those attributes make them disfavored candidates to receive nurture, then what to do? I can imagine, Rand’s characters would bequeath their property and money, not to family members, but to some capable employee or colleague. But that is so unusual in our society! Perhaps to escape this dilemma Rand’s major characters did not have any children! I have not read the other works of Ayn Rand, so it is possible she might have dealt with this issue elsewhere, though I find it hard to understand how she could have resolved such a complex problem (perhaps she did not have any child despite being married for over 50 years to the same person).
The reason I discussed the above concept was to explain, how the concept of inheritance is ethically flawed. And it is inheritance of parents’ nurture (and the opportunities that come with it), affluence, social status, etc. that basically leads to monopolization of resources to acquire ‘higher-order’ skills that are required to gain greater bargaining skills in the employment market (education and vocational training). This concept of inheritance brings with it a strange condition, wherein, whether a person will die of hunger before turning five, or would struggle as a child laborer, or enjoy a middle class education and opportunities for ‘upward mobility’ through the social and economic strata, or would be born at the very top with the proverbial silver spoon in the mouth – are determined to a very great degree and in current Indian economic situation irreversibly so by just one factor – PURE CHANCE. In absolute terms, a child before even getting to commit any acts so as to display recognizable traits, which in turn would be required to determine ‘what’ the child deserves as a person (‘good’ v/s ‘bad’ things), becomes largely destined to one or the other social and economic stratum. All this happens without the humanity getting an opportunity to determine how ‘deserving’ the child is and of what!
The situation is so bad in India possibly because means to basic survival are much more difficult to acquire here than in the Western countries, which in turn, I feel are because of India’s high fertility rate and population density.
Now, trying to apply all that I had inferred and speculated in this free-wheeling write up up till now, let us assume India’s population density would have been less than what it is now:
1. The porter who carried my luggage would have had access to much better education. This because, the overall production of goods (needed for basic survival) would remain the same (most of the rural population currently is afflicted with high degree of disguised unemployment), but would be distributed among much fewer people. Hence, the porter’s parents would not be worried about having their household income augmented by making their son work.
2. He might have become a teacher or a clerk or a doctor or an engineer.
3. There would have been much fewer porters at the New Delhi railway station.
4. Whoever would now be the porter at the railway station would have had much better bargaining power. Possibly, he would have earned more than Rs. 5000 a day instead of Rs. 500 that he currently might be earning.
5. His children would also get to study in schools and be at par with ‘middle class’ as far as opportunities for skill acquisition would be concerned.
6. Because there would be a paucity of porters, coupled with his good income, he would be respected.
Almost the same analysis as above could be applied to helps in the hostel mess. Likewise, those working at nuclear establishments would be able to realistically demand a higher pay for risking their lives and health.
Those who manage to read this post till the end might be wondering, what is the big deal?! Meaning, everyone knows that India’s large population (density) is a liability. Apart from delineating the inferences I could draw from mundane experiences, and discussing broadly their ramifications in the field of ethics (something that we understand intuitively, but never get into the details of), one of the goals was to show how India’s large population density is has implications in areas as seemingly unrelated as nature of interpersonal relationships. It is not difficult to understand that with such acute differences in rights and opportunities that arise with economic disparities, friction amongst various classes is imminent. The incentive to move to the higher strata is much stronger. The idea of social hierarchy is so very deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that we never realize that it represents something very wrong! E.g., an educated (and higher earning) boss would be entitled to humiliate a comparably educated subordinate only because we love hierarchies! So, likewise the disincentive to stay in one’s socioeconomic strata is also very strong. No wonder, the worst target of these prevailing factors is ethics. Everything becomes fair in love and war. And everything becomes love and war. Upward mobilization is what counts.
1. Less desirable jobs should be high paying.
2. India’s overwhelming population density and accompanying poverty and paucity of material resources leads children into child labor. This pushes basic education and skill acquisition beyond reach of many children.
3. These children even after growing up remain poor bargainers when it comes to compensation for the extremely physically challenging and monotonous work they do (despite the fact that I proved above that they automatically deserve much more than what they get – from the porter’s example).
4. People with only very basic skills are held in contempt because of their poverty and abundance of such persons. As a consequence, sharp socioeconomic stratification emerges.
5. The sharpness of this stratification leads to abandoning of ethicality in one conducts in favor of practices that can earn one money. E.g., this leads to ills like nepotism, corruption and other crimes.
6. Children of deprived parents enter the same cycle as above and produce more children, who in turn enter the same cycle.
7. This cycle can be broken! Not so much by providing more universal schooling, but by decreasing the population density, for which fertility rates will have to come down, for which in turn better education and awareness need to be created! Ah, so it might not be that easy to break the cycle, after all.
My pessimism in this regard had been broken only once by Atanu Dey in his blog post – There’s only so Much that Needs to Get Done (click).
A small note: Given India’s energy crisis, I find nuclear energy a very good means of energy production. I find the fears instilled by some environmental pressure groups to be exaggerated greatly. The solution lies not in shunning nuclear energy as an option altogether, but to improve the levels of professionalism across the populations and vocations. Directly or indirectly the high cost of energy (whether required to run automobiles and locomotives or to light our houses) is a strong contributing factor to India’s being behind in manufacturing sector, and also for high inflation. Latter further perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty.
Possible conflict of interest: Area of my work is going to involve nuclear technology. But which also means, I am better aware of the risks posed by radiation exposure vis-a-vis other losses that not using this technology would entail.