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?”
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved.