Bi­joy re­flects on the ter­ri­ble traf­fic cul­ture in Ker­ala, specif­i­cally about the nui­sance that am­bu­lances are cre­at­ing


ISPENT MOST OF LAST OC­TO­BER IN MY HOME state of Ker­ala to be with my dad who went through a by­pass surgery. That meant a great deal of driv­ing around in Ker­ala’s cap­i­tal town in my dad’s trust­wor­thy Maruti Suzuki Alto. It is the ideal car for the nar­row and con­gested streets and park­ing is a breeze too. It is another matter al­to­gether that I was lit­er­ally over­flow­ing from the car most of the time and get­ting in and get­ting out was an or­deal. But soon I fell in love with the lit­tle red Alto. De­spite the 800cc three-pot heart, the Alto would blastoff traf­fic sig­nals and I rev­elled in sneak­ing be­hind traf­fic and fill­ing ev­ery inch of the avail­able road space. But there was one thing I was not ready for. The mighty Ker­ala am­bu­lance cul­ture. Al­low me to ex­plain.

In the last decade or so, am­bu­lance driv­ers have taken their job very se­ri­ously in Ker­ala, or it seemed so. Ev­ery day I en­coun­tered am­bu­lances – they come in dif­fer­ent sizes and shapes – blar­ing mul­ti­tude of sirens and flash­ing a zil­lion lights. Whether they are based on the lit­tle Maruti Omni, the larger Eeco or for that matter the Force Trav­eller didn’t matter – they would be do­ing speeds over 100kmph and split­ting traf­fic. Sure there are a lot of road ac­ci­dents and other emer­gen­cies but hey, that is true to ev­ery In­dian state, right? I saw am­bu­lances break­ing sig­nals with gay aban­don and even driv­ing on the wrong side of the road. Of course other road users were giv­ing the right of way to these speed demons – but I think it was out of sheer sur­vival in­stincts rather than the col­lec­tive civic sense that comes with the high lit­er­acy rate. In sim­ple terms, there was no other op­tion but to scurry away from the path of one of these things un­less you like the idea of be­ing mowed down by one.

So I was not amused find a news­pa­per re­port about an ac­ci­dent in­volv­ing, take a deep breath, three am­bu­lances! Lit­tle more prob­ing with cousins and friends re­vealed that it is not ab­nor­mal for peo­ple to hire two, or at times three am­bu­lances to trans­port one pa­tient to the clos­est med­i­cal col­lege or a sim­i­larly re­puted hos­pi­tal. So one am­bu­lance will play the role of the pi­lot clear­ing traf­fic and another that of an es­cort/spare ve­hi­cle in case there is a me­chan­i­cal fail­ure (or prob­a­bly an ac­ci­dent) to the am­bu­lance in which the pa­tient is be­ing trans­ported. Need­less to say, oc­ca­sion­ally they get rearended be­tween them­selves or end up cre­at­ing and col­lect­ing more ca­su­alty ward pa­tients on the way as life goes on nor­mally in Ker­ala.

All that is al­right, but it does not end there. I had the mis­for­tune to travel from Kochi to Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram by car and wit­nessed on-road reck­less­ness of the high­est or­der. To be­gin with an am­bu­lance blar­ing horn and siren will en­ter the nar­row na­tional high­way 47 at break­neck speed. Then those cars that give way to the am­bu­lance start fol­low­ing the am­bu­lance mak­ing max­i­mum use of the space cleared by it. Soon a con­voy of cars, two wheel­ers and even KSRTC buses will be storm­ing through the high­way headed by, you guess it, an am­bu­lance! You can imag­ine the com­mo­tion as there are no empty stretches of road in NH47 as it is dot­ted by small towns brim­ming with pedes­tri­ans, cy­clists and a whole lot of oth­ers whose daily recre­ation seems to be, be­ing on the road. I have trav­elled quite a lot around the world and have never seen an am­bu­lance cul­ture of this sort.

God's own coun­try? I bet my last dol­lar that peo­ple out there are in a hurry to meet him. ⌧

I was not amused to find a news­pa­per re­port about an ac­ci­dent

in­volv­ing three am­bu­lances at once

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