Drink & Die

 

In 1993, a few young officers gathered together in the Officers’ Institute, Cochin to celebrate their selection for flying training to start the next day. Catching up after four weeks of vacation, the routine played to a script quite familiar to those who have been in service. After generous rounds of drinks and then some, the group left for a local eatery on bikes. All but two reached the restaurant. Two officers ended up on an electric pole next to Dwaraka Hotel on MG Road. The pillion rider, young Sub Lieutenant Anish Sahai, died while the driver sustained grievous injuries. Witnesses recalled hearing the typical high-pitch whine of a motorbike at full throttle before it missed a curve and crashed into the pole. Doctors refused to talk to those of us who rushed them to the Medical Trust Hospital as we were ‘too drunk’. Parents refused to believe that their son who had left home a day earlier was no more at 2AM the next day.

Did we learn from that accident? Heck no. When we got to the Air Force Academy, our instructors warned us about two officers from the previous course who had driven their bike into AFA’s main gate at full tilt. Fortunately, they survived and even went on to become pilots.

Did that warning sober us? Heck no. We rewrote history once again on the highway outside Air Force Station, Dundigal later that year–a well-kept secret or we would have got grounded. Our guardian angel saved us again.

Did we learn from that? No way. When I was EXO on a warship, I invited all my officers home. Party went on till 2AM after which I insisted on accompanying them all the way to the ship – a distance of almost 15 km, through poorly lit roads. Collectively, we must have consumed a few bottles and were unfit to be walking, let alone driving. Story ended beautifully and everybody recalled having a great evening. But not all stories have this fairy tale ending.

A decade ago, a young officer from my unit died riding pillion in a road accident inside the Naval Air Station, Goa while returning from a squadron party at the Officers’ Institute. He was a teetotaller but paid the price of being part of a culture that invites this fate upon themselves by drinking under the misplaced bravado of ‘daru pee, banda ban’ (drink and be a man).

I challenge any reader from the three services to put their hand on the heart and say they haven’t been party to Driving Under the Influence (DUI) at least once in their service. Many have this blood on their hands. And yet when I look around for data on DUI-related deaths and injuries in our armed forces, search engines turn up data on drinking-related problems of US and UK armed forces. It’s our best kept secret.

What is this culture where we ply each other with drinks and then take to the roads? Some may argue that most of this drinking happens within the safe confines of a cantonment or ship. But what’s saying the party won’t spill onto the streets? Take the naval base at Kochi for example. The Officers’ Institute and naval base are on either sides of a road. But some never made it across this short distance. In my time, I have seen at least half a dozen serious accidents. DUI played a definite part in each and every case.

It is time tough actions replace tokenisms. I have not even touched upon such cases among sailors and PBORs. I am sure they have their scary tales too. With the affluence bestowed upon us by successive pay commissions and the social churning that has brought people from varied backgrounds into our milieu, the spectre of drinking and driving will continue to haunt us. I wish it wouldn’t.

Even as I write this, I received news about an accident in Visakhapatnam involving four young officers returning from a party at their shippie’s home. One of them is no more while the others are seriously injured. I am hoping not a drop of alcohol was involved here. My prayers are with the families who must ultimately deal with the tragedy. Not to speak of the burden of guilt which the host must carry for the rest of his life if it was a case of DUI.

It is time to confront this issue with all the seriousness and honesty it deserves. So long as the treacherous distance between watering holes and residential areas exist, temptation to drink and drive will always be there. Even for uniformed personnel to fall in line, the stakes have to be way up there as far as DUI is concerned. Right now, it’s a pittance with little deterrence value in a country where life is cheap.

I have known officers who have arranged minibuses for ferrying their guests to parties at home like it is done for official functions. I am also aware of random checks and provost patrols that have been instituted to curb this menace. Then there is Uber, Ola and all of that in the cities. But ultimately, the culture has to change. It is not cool to host parties and organize events where booze flows like water without addressing the issue of how people are going to reach home.

For those who frown at me for raising this sensitive issue in public, no apologies from my side. This is something that affects everybody, including civilians. Anish Sahai’s father was a school teacher from Kanpur who lost his son at 24.

Here’s hoping this voice carries all the way to the Service Chiefs who must answer Bob Dylan’s line from ‘Blowing in the Wind’

“How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?”

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©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved.

 

29 thoughts on “Drink & Die

  1. What more to add….especially when all one can say …..lucky to have escaped and wish others too do so and age gracefully

  2. Dear KP, thanks for taking up the subject and yes, the question still remains unanswered “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?”

    I would like to add, drink driving as a menace should be inculcated as early as childhood. In WA, School Drug Education and Road Aware (SDERA) is taken up as early as Primary School and there is an annual competition for all from year 1 to 5, the schools get grants for it. What a time to include SDERA!! when the mind is most impressionable and messages lodged in its pureness remain embedded for life.

    It should then be a responsibility falling squarely upon the parents, the society and the Governance, to teach and show their kids that drinks and drive don’t mix. Staying away from the steering wheel, even if it costs a little bit more, is the best way to do it, besides the dividends are priceless.

    Unfortunately, the wisdom sets in by age and that is if you have been lucky to live long enough without becoming a victim or accused of drink driving, I personally have mended my ways and it is for all of us who have kids and those who host party to serve alcohol responsibly.

    Let there be Water for – ‘One For the Road’.

  3. Arjun’s ship’s officers, they were.
    Sad, really sad. It wasn’t DUI, though, or so it is believed.
    However, that loss is irreparable. Absolutely so.
    Thank you for writing of this much needed topic.

    Praying for strength to the families of the deceased, and injured. May the young officer’s soul rest in peace.

  4. Deeply saddened by the totally preventable loss of yet another young life. Prayers for the departed and the bereaved.

    I agree…serve no alcohol till the merry-makers (or the facilitators) provide assurance of a safe ride back home! Better to implement rules and be safe…than sorry. Very very sorry!

    1. Dear Rangoli,

      I am sure Dhingra in his time at the helm of affairs will do his best to curb this menace. I have great hopes in the likes of him to bring about the required change.

  5. Truly saddened by the loss in Vizag sir! Well written article, as always. It does take us back to our young and foolish days, but having been there, done that and seen the consequences it is our moral obligation to ensure that such an incident does not occur on our watch

    1. Thanks Ronnie. I have part-fulfilled my obligation by flagging this issue. Its a long road and nobody expects overnight changes, although they are required as of yesterday. Thanks and spread the word.

  6. Why not take it up through services channels, let there be binding guide for CO’s.Also it’s not just a problem in servicesbut civil world too.Implementing regulations in services is always better than advisories.

    1. As if regulations wil not be ignored. This is not about having more service regulations. It is about sense – common or rare. By the concerned individuals, the need is to put false bravado on the side. For all others, publicly shun those who indulge in endangering themselves as well as the public at large.

  7. The solution lies in making the host responsible….If I may say so…For safety of the guest till he reaches his place of residence safely.it may be one of the many solutions and watchful of the young fledglings binging at party.

  8. Thanks KPS, for bringing to fore the much needed issue of DUI prevalent in the Services. Most would like to keep it under wraps to be seen as an internal issue. But the first step to solve a problem is to acknowledge you have one. I hope and pray that social exclusion becomes the norm for DUI. And the powers that be, take note to encourage positive behaviour, than go the much trodden path of more regulations and punishments alone.

  9. Yes , fully agreed. People tend to become more chauvinist after drinking. A simple solution is to let lady drive if she knows or else OLA/ Uber zindabaad.

  10. KPS, educate and enforce. If the first option does not work, use the second. Was with the UN. Caught first time, licence withdrawn for 3 months. Second time, go home. No third chance or option.

  11. Valet parking services are found in all metros outside popular eateries and business centres…what stops us from having a pick up and drop service…or ‘hire a driver’ kiosk outside our clubs and institutes? It’ll be a good source of ‘moonlighting’ for youth (licence holders) from the community while providing an option to reach home safely for those who like to enjoy a drink. Our fauji communities throb with so many service providers…why not this one? Everybody has vehicles these days; only sober drivers are required. If I was a young man growing up in a cantonment, this would put some money in my pocket while providing an alternative to DUI.

  12. An issue worth pondering about. For too long we in all the three services have been shy in acknowledging this problem. I hope this point is addressed by all the three service HQs as also individual officers. A very well written article.

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