Indian culture is one of the oldest if not the oldest living culture still going strong. Without a doubt, one of the factors that generated that kind of longevity is tradition. Regardless of how we might judge tradition with a 21st century lens, a strict family structure with rigid social and cultural norms has got to be one of the reasons for India’s perseverance.
One of the hardest to understand cultural differences between India and Canada is the tradition of marriage. “Dr. Sanjay” (not his real name) is in his 30’s and a typical upper-caste Indian man. He is very handsome and tall but yet single. He is a senior resident doctor of community medicine at PGI. He led a tour of the community health center in Kheri for a group of doctors from North Koreans and myself. The North Koreans doctors, Dr. Sanjay, and I discussed each of our country’s courtship rituals on our way back to PGI medical center. The North Koreans asked if he was married. He said, “no.” As we were discussing this, a beautiful young rural woman passed by our van. I said, “in Canada, if we found her attractive we could approach her and ask her for a date, and if things worked out it is possible to get married. “ Dr. Sanjay said, “That would be next to impossible here.”
Another part of our tour was to observe a public health class. During the class discussion about private and public health, I was invited by the teacher to speak about the Canadian healthcare system. Being an American who lived without health insurance for many years and who now resides in Canada I had a pretty good personal perspective on each system. After sharing my experiences about the Canadian system, the students discussed the Indian health care system. I was impressed by their description of India’s far-reaching delivery of health to its people, but this interaction prompted me to ask an important question: why does Canada have generally very good health outcomes but India has some really poor outcomes?
I began to try to think of reasons and issues besides the obvious ones like population and colonization. This led me to a peculiar realization. India has one of the most rigid social structures on earth, yet the ability for the people to follow government regulations seems like a monumental task. And paradoxically Canada has very little real tradition, and there is no rigid social system. You can walk out of your house and marry anyone you please, and yet if you drive without a seatbelt or on the wrong side of the road you would be severely punished maybe even lose your license. To me the striking difference is a culture of safety—seemingly simple safety regulations that most people in Canada have no difficulty following are almost non-existent in India.
This difference makes me wonder if the health system is the most important way of preventing mortality. This question led me to develop four ideas that, in theory, could take the burden of prevention out of the hands of the health system. These include 1) a general culture of health awareness, 2) stronger regulations, 3) definite and immediate accountability for infractions, and 4) improved infrastructure like clean water, safer roads, sidewalks, etc.
While these are challenging and sometimes expensive endeavors, I have noticed an improvement in some of these areas since my last trip to India, in 2001, in things like public smoking restrictions and at least minimal seat-beat laws. Changing culture is rarely easy, but it won’t happen without starting somewhere. Public safety has to be assimilated into construction, food production, the work place, transportation and any business where people can be harmed by products.
Canada has great infrastructure. Water for human use is filtered and treated to a high degree of purity, roads are safe, and building construction is highly regulated for safety. Contractors and developers can get arrested if they cut corners on building codes, there are elected officials in charge of checking on zoning and building codes of safety, and they have the authority to stop construction or penalize a contractor if unsafe construction practices are used. These regulations are designed for both the construction phase, to protect workers and the public, and for the completed phase, to ensure that buildings don’t collapse or require nearly immediate repairs.
In addition, driving in India is a high-risk activity. On the 5-hour drive from Chandigarh to the Delhi airport, I saw two immediate wrecks probably involving fatalities, three trucks overturned, and numerous automobiles driving on the wrong side of the road. To a North American observer, this disregard of road safety seems to be a point of pride with many Indians, as if they see any demonstration of fear about daily driving habits to be a sign of weakness. This type of cultural myopia is hard to change. When I discussed road safety with many people, they often laughed at our concern and shrugged off the seriousness of accidents. But road accidents in India are extremely high.
According to a Boston Globe article using World Health Organization statistics, “road accidents now are the number two killer of young people age 5 to 29 worldwide…. [In India], an estimated 270 people die each day from road accidents, and specialists predict that will increase by roughly 5 percent a year.”
Many cars do not have operable seat belts, and children ride on motorcycles and scooters without any protection. In Canada this practice is illegal. In fact, it is also so culturally abhorrent that people would call the police and look down on such a person. Because I am a cultural relativist, I don’t judge Indian people who chose to ride a motorcycle with a child, as I understand there are many factors that influence behaviors. But I am concerned about safety. My biggest fear in India is seeing an accident involving a child being slammed onto the asphalt—if I witnessed such an incident I would never forget it.
Much of India’s charm is its stalwart retention of its culture, even in the face of westernization. In Canada, without the long tradition and strong culture, sometimes there is a loss of identity, as people seem to be grasping for something to believe in. Also, such stringent regulations can sometimes be claustrophobic and create a backlash. It is precisely in this dilemma where the public health worker inside me, who believes in safety and longevity as a human right, and the dedicated traveler, who believes that culture is what makes us unique, collide. But I do think a happy medium can be achieved slowly.