Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The silent bystander – why did no one help?

Among the many question being asked after the horrific and fatal rape and attack on a young woman and her survivor friend is this – why did no one help?

Many people have commented on the apparent lack of basic humanity in urban India. The badly injured and barely clothed victims were not dumped on some remote isolated spot. They were left on a flyover. Many people passed by that road and yet, despite pleas for help from the man who survived, no one stopped.  

What has become of us? is the question many have asked as in this blog post.

Rupa Subramanya, co-author of Indianomics – making sense of modern India, provides an interesting take on the question, one that most of us will intuitively recognise as, at least in part, true.

Essentially the argument goes something like this. To step in and help someone in distress – a Good Samaritan act – is an act of altruism. Benefits in kind accrue to the Good Samaritan; the gratitude of the person helped, the innate sense of well-being that comes with having done a good deed. But that has to be balanced against the costs of intervening. Time, expense may be and the uncertainty of when the Good Samaritan act can be regarded as finished, allowing the helper to move on with his own life.

In most cases the costs are minimal and most of us would likely help someone in trouble. In the specific case of the New Delhi incident there was the added complication of the criminal nature of the attack that led directly to the need for help. Whoever stepped in to help would have had to contend with the police. And the police in India are known not for their humanity, kindness and intelligence. On the contrary, they have a justified reputation for venality. (In the movie No one killed Jessica, the investigating poilce officer admits receiving a bribe of 1.5 lakhs just for not beating the suspect during interrogation.)   

So if you buy this argument, we don’t need to beat ourselves up over our apparent insensitivity to a fellow human being in distress. People who do not intervene to help a victim of crime may be acting under the compulsion that to do anything else would be irrational.

Despite that we need a huge change of attitude among ordinary people so that more of them act out their innate altruism. But more importantly we need an even bigger change in the mindset of petty officialdom and especially the police – a change that that would lower or hopefully even eliminate the costs associated with being a good Samaritan. 

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