The story of Hans is from the land that kept the sea out by building stone walls called dikes. Without the dikes, the sea would soon submerge their homes, flood their farms, and drown all people and animals in the land.
One day, while playing with the flowers and butterflies, Hans and his brother wandered away from their village to the dike. As he watched his brother jump in excitement at the sight of the sea, Hans’s attention was drawn to a funny bubbling sound.
Hans looked around in search of the sound. In front of him, in the dike, was a small hole with water trickling through it. The hole was unmistakably where the sound came from. It was just about the size of his forefinger.
The sea seemed to be trying to make its way through the hole in dike. The massive sea would undoubtedly succeed occupying the land the dike kept it from if it were not stopped soon.
Hans shouted to his brother, “Hurry! Run to the village and tell them there is a hole in the dike. I will keep the sea from coming in till they get here.” Hans stuck his forefinger into the hole to stop the sea from coming in. He watched his brother disappear in the horizon as he ran to call the villagers for help.
Every minute seemed like an hour, every hour like a day, as Hans waited for his brother to return with help. The cold water and the bitter wind numbed his hand. His cheeks and ears were freezing. His arm ached. His eyes grew tired as they watched his battle to hold back the sea from making the hole larger to make its way to the forbidden land.
When the villagers finally arrived, several hours later, they found Hans lying exhausted, cold, and pale, yet with his fore finger stuck firmly in the hole.
As they quickly began repairs, they realized Hans had saved them from drowning, and their land from disappearing under the sea.
An inscribed plaque on the stone facade of a private residence dating to 1602 – like an even earlier one etched on the building’s window –reads:
“A.D. 1284 – on the 26th of June – the day of St John and St Paul – 130 children – born in Hamelin – were led out of the town by a piper wearing multicoloured clothes. After passing the Calvary near the Koppenberg they disappeared forever.”
The legend has it that the people of Hamelin promised to pay the piper in return for ridding them of the rat infestation. The piper, dressed in multicoloured bright cloths led the rats with his music into the river, freeing the town of its rat infestation.
The people of Hamelin, now free from the rats, began to have different ideas about the agreement. Some declared the piper did not work.
Others said he only played music. Some denied promising payment. Others even said there were no rats in Hamelin to rid. The result was the piper was never paid in return for ridding the town of its rat infestation.
On June 26th, the same year the piper returned to Hamelin and played his pipe once again. This time though, instead of rats, it was the children of Hamelin that he led away forever.
Records show that in the early nineteen fifties the Dayak people of Borneo suffered an outbreak of malaria.
To rid the mosquitos that spread the malarial parasite, The World Health Organization sprayed the area with DDT.
The people were happy as the mosquitos died and the malarial outbreak was soon in control.
Suddenly, the thatched roofs of the houses in Borneo started to collapse.
The roofs collapsed because thatch eating caterpillars were having a field day. The thatch eating caterpillars had multiplied exponentially because the DDT had killed the wasps that kept the caterpillar population in control.
It turned out that the poisoned insects were eaten by the geckos. The geckos were in turn eaten by the cats. As the cats ate the poisoned geckos, they too died.
Without cats, it was a field time for rats in Borneo. Instead of malaria, there was now an outbreak of typhus and plague.
It turns out that to fix what it did with DDT, the WHO parachuted 14,000 cats into Borneo.
He had heard these stories many times. Yet, he wondered, why responsibility was not easy. While individuals often rose to the occasion, institutions rarely showed responsibility.
The extraordinary responsibility of Hans had always inspired him. As had the responsibility of the piper. The absence of responsibility by Hamelin’s people disappointed him. As did the inability of the World Health Organization to understand its responsibility.
Was responsibility, he wondered, about ensuring that one was not blind to feedback? Did it mean not turning away from the hole in the dike, the consequences of actions, and the signals nature had before us? Did it require that all who were part of the system had a skin in the game – they had similar consequences because of their actions?
Do we, like Hans, rise to the occasion when we are faced with challenges and feedback or the consequences of our actions, he wondered. Why do we often fail to rise to the occasion? Do we fail whenever we can simply choose to be blind to feedback?
Or do we blind ourselves to feedback by passing the responsibility to others, often to a collective like the people of Hamelin or the World Health Organization that we call institutions?
Do we design our institutions to have different consequences than those we would face from their actions? Is that why our institutions show little responsibility?
He looked at the crowd of children and parents without masks as the ambulances zoomed past with their wailing sirens. He looked at the statistics of half a million new infections in the day. He overheard someone arguing, “but we are already vaccinated”.
Character, he thought, is the outcome of responsible individuals. Where, he wondered, would one see towns and cities with character.
#All views expressed in this column are those of the author and/or individuals and institutions that may be quoted and Pune365 does not necessarily subscribe to them.
He can be reached @AnupamSaraph