A report released on the effectiveness of the Good Samaritan Law (GSL), that came about to protect people who helped out victims of road accidents, suggests it’s been a dismal failure.
Delhi has the highest number of road crash deaths in the country — in 2017 the figure stood at 1,584. The report cites a Law Commission study that says 50 per cent of these deaths could have been averted with timely intervention.
The GSL was instituted after consulting with the Ministry of Road and Transport, under Supreme Court approved guidelines to encourage passersby to help a wounded citizen. Anyone offering assistance, the GSL states unequivocally, will not be burdened by procedural hassles or held responsible in case of a civil or criminal liability. It is cheering to note that something called the Good Samaritan Law actually exists in India and that this harks back to a Jesuit parable hasn’t got anyone petitioning to change it to a Sanskrit name — yet.
The Biblical story references an ordinary man who rescues a stranger who has been robbed, is badly hurt and left to die, even by a priest. The priest justified his own behaviour since he and the victim belonged to opposing sects, and because he was riddled with anxiety about the same question that stops Indians today from rushing to anyone’s assistance: “If I help this man, what will happen to me?” At a fundamental level the reality is deeply disturbing, that people can be callous enough to take videos of accident victims and post them on Twitter before calling an ambulance. However, this seemingly cruel indifference of the innocent bystander, if, indeed, there is such a thing, is a very complex issue. We also live in a country where the system is stacked against people helping each other.
The examples are endless and well documented, of policemen pressurising people into becoming witnesses or worse, making the do-gooders feel like criminals themselves. Not to mention the endless paperwork and time required to admit a victim into a hospital, and explaining your role (generally met with suspicion). So, from a purely practical point of view, every Indian’s instinct is to keep his nose out of other people’s business because who needs the extra aggravation, life is difficult enough as it is. Many European countries and a few states in the US have passed laws that require bystander intervention when someone faces great harm but it is impossible to legislate what falls, essentially, under moral obligation. Compassionate duty, or a state order to stand heroically on the side of justice, disregards the fact that if it was a law of nature to help strangers in need, we wouldn’t routinely ignore beggars or the homeless. As the war in Syria has shown, not much of the world cares about moral duties.
These tragic road deaths in Delhi are a result of a law and order mess and utter disregard for the rules by citizens. No GSL can work until issues like flawed road design, road rage, and traffic management are sorted out at the policy level. It’s something one thinks about immediately on stepping out of India, on what makes some societies more considerate than others. Everywhere in Europe pedestrians can stroll with abandon on zebra crossings, irrespective of a red or green light, secure that traffic will come to a grinding halt for them.
Anywhere in India, you’d be a fool for walking down a zebra crossing with anything other than trepidation because you’re a sitting duck for getting run over. When rules are not taken seriously by citizens, does it even make any sense to rely so heavily on citizen participation to create a just society? There are many awkward contradictions within the GSL, specifically, between it’s utopian ideals and the world’s often, xenophobic reality.