The Driver in the Bottle

India has one of the world’s highest number of traffic-related deaths and drunk driving is a leading cause for the alarming statistics. Our writer enters a world where people obsess about ways to keep drunks off the wheel: from pranayama to electro-chemical sensors to fines to good old-fashioned jail time.

Bangalore bus driver Pradeep AR knew how to hide his whisky. He would select a smooth young coconut, insert a straw, quickly drink about half of the sweet water, and then pour the booze inside the shell. 

He didn’t drink on duty, says the 28-year-old driver. But his hands shook. Eight days a month, he couldn’t manage to get up for work. He was spending about a third of his income on Raja Whisky and Original Choice, and when he couldn’t afford that, a plastic packet of the cheaper stuff. 

Still, he liked wearing a uniform, and was touched by the respect that he got from many of his passengers and co-workers. This was a lot better than his previous job, working for a cement factory, getting dust all over his face as he unloaded the lorry. He didn’t want to lose his seat behind the wheel. So he decided to heed his supervisor’s warning: go to rehab, or don’t come back to the depot. 

In most places in India, bus companies have shown little interest in protecting passengers, cyclists and pedestrians from the dangerous consequences of a driver’s taste for liquor. In Bangalore, however, the Karnataka State Road Transportation Corporation (KSRTC) and its affiliates have made rehab a priority. 

Disturbed by absenteeism, low productivity, and shocking loss of life in road accidents, the bus company runs its own 40-day programme where men like Pradeep can try to steer a new course in sobriety.

In a hospital on the south side of Bangalore, a stringent detox regimen is accompanied by medical lectures, psychological counseling, volleyball, table tennis, yoga and a bit of gardening.  Patients may not carry cash or cellphones. Other than Sunday trips to local temples, the men are confined to the pale green walls of the clinic. These walls don’t trade in subtlety: one crude mural shows a weeping wife, gossiping neighbors, and a dead husband sprawled next to a few empty liquor bottles.

Aside from drivers, the patients include conductors, mechanics and guards. Once in a while, an employee will run away during the first painful days of detox. (The security here is not quite as strict as some of the shady private rehab clinics around Bangalore, which specialize in lockdown and intimidation.) But his supervisor will usually manage to track him down and compel him to return with the next batch of patients.

Pradeep and the other detoxed employees sit before a blackboard, watching psychiatrist Mamatha Shetty circle “liver” with a stick of chalk. Together, the class makes a list of physical ailments linked to alcohol. They have been over this ground before, and it still sticks in Pradeep’s mind, he says, how badly his old friend Raja Whisky could have damaged his liver and kidneys. 

In another room, the fifteen men in Pradeep’s batch kneel on a striped carpet. They follow the instructions of Prakash Yogi, a grizzled yoga master, running through a series of pranayama exercises. He advises them to avoid alcohol and rise above negative thoughts. “The mind is the main cause of bondage and liberation,” he tells them.

Perhaps he has a point. But it’s also true that his pupils must contend with tough schedules and terrible roads which have an oppressive character all their own. “If the roads are good and it’s not bumpy, maybe I wouldn’t feel like drinking,” says Shashikant Dhage, a slender 32-year-old bus driver from Gulbarga. While the national highways earn his praise, interior roads remain treacherous. 

Another driver, 41-year-old Shivaswamy, recounts how he’d drive from 5:30 am to midnight for two days in a row, covering 1,200 kilometers. He needed the overtime pay. And more and more, he found himself needing nine pegs of whiskey to get to sleep. The soft-spoken driver insists that he never caused an accident. But he realized that he was having trouble steering the bus. Like Pradeep, he could see his hands shaking.

Not Just Bus Drivers

Health experts and traffic technocrats argue that alcohol is a critical variable in road accidents in India—yet one that remains poorly understood. More commonly cited factors are speeding, fatigue, and badly engineered roads. But with heavy drinking habits taking hold in all social classes, road safety appears increasingly elusive. 

Nearly 180,000 people lost their lives in road accidents in India last year, according to estimates from the Bangalore-based World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion. A whopping ninety lakh people were left injured. In 2010, India overtook China in the worst road traffic accident rate in the world, according to the WHO’s first Global Status Report on Road Safety. And the number of deaths on the road is increasing by eight percent each year, according to researchers from the Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Programme. 

Why isn’t more attention paid to the booze factor? 

One explanation is lack of documentation. Many Indian hospitals don’t have breathalyzers or other detection equipment, and even if they do, neglect to test for alcohol intake when an injured body or corpse arrives. “A dead man is forgiven,” says Praveen Sood, Additional Director General of Police (ADG) in Karnataka. “It is culturally incorrect to check his blood and tell his family that he was drunk and that’s why he died. We are a sentimental people.”

In the absence of comprehensive data, India’s insurance industry has not seen fit to create a deterrent by linking premium hikes with drunk driving violations, as occurs in other countries. Driving licenses are rarely cancelled, and even suspensions are few. 

Yet much is known about India’s perilous drinking habits. Binge drinking among youth is on the rise, coupled with the euphoria that comes from driving fast in impulsive late-night escapades.  “There is no regret, even when they have bashed up their dad’s car,” notes Paul Lobo, director of Higher Power Foundation, a private rehab center in Bangalore. “They are busy chasing the next high.” 

Studies show that male drinkers of all ages much prefer hardcore spirits to lighter beverages like beer and wine. Solitary drinking at bars on weeknights and mornings tends to be the pattern, rather than drinking at home. In rural areas, such habits endanger inebriated pedestrians who wander onto highways on their way back to their beds.  

“On the highways, it is a deadly combination of drinking and driving, over-speeding and poor visibility,” asserts Dr. G. Gururaj, professor of epidemiology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore.  According to figures from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, nearly 64 per cent of India’s crash fatalities occur on the highways, yet experts concur that there is no enforcement of drunk driving laws there.  Police plead lack of manpower and technical resources to conduct surveillance on such vast stretches of road. 

Meanwhile, state excise commissioners have largely ignored pleas from the central government to remove booze shops from the edge of the highways.  State budgets rely heavily on alcohol revenues, spurring reluctance. “The state governments have not realized that they are spending more on managing alcohol-related problems than what they are earning from alcohol sales,” Gururaj observes.

In cities, light fines have had scant impact. And many of the breathalyzers purchased by police departments are cheap Chinese-made gadgets that provide “erratic readings,” according to Ridhu Sehgal, partner in Integra Design, a New-Delhi based firm that sells road safety products, police car fittings and mobility solutions for the physically challenged. 

Last month, the Puma Social Club, a lounge in Bangalore, took the novel step of installing a breathalyzer that will give patrons a reading designed to tell them if it’s safe to drive home.  This has, as the owners ruefully noted, spurred some giddy young drinkers to compete to see who has the highest level of alcohol in their bloodstream.  

So far, there are absolutely no takers in India for alcohol ignition interlocks, which would automatically prevent a car or bus from starting if a drunk driver sits at the wheel and sets off electro-chemical sensors. “There is a general bias against anything that restricts the freedom of people driving their own cars,” Sehgal says. His firm has been trying to promote the Alcolock, a device assembled and tested in Canada. 

Yet Dinesh Mohan, professor emeritus at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, argues that there could be broad public support for installing such technology in public transport, given the right amount of attention. 

Crackdown

Some cities are spearheading a crackdown on drunk drivers. Jail time is no longer unusual in Mumbai, where 50,234 people have been confined on the charge of drunk driving since mid-2007.  “Punishment of even one or two days of imprisonment sends a very strong message,” says Vivek Phansalkar, Joint Commissioner of Police in Mumbai. An after-dark breathalyzer campaign has also instilled some hesitation to imbibe without a designated driver who stays sober. “Fear of getting caught is most crucial. There is no let-up. We are changing times, changing locations. The surprise element is there,” says Phansalkar. 

In Bangalore, police have lobbied city pubs and trendy lounges to help their wobbly clientele to call a cab. “We are trying to bring the bars around to the idea that ‘your customers should remain alive, so you get more business’,” says ADGP Praveen Sood. Clearly, this is not a replay of a Gandhian prohibition campaign.   

Even a small city like Visakhapatnam has quadrupled its drunk driving cases over just three years. The authorities there have found that the majority of drunk drivers are in their twenties, or merely teenagers.  In January, Visakhapatnam police launched a campaign called “Arrive Alive,” and have tried to bring that message home to college students, together with counseling for youngsters and their families.  

Yet much more remains to be done in urban areas, emphasizes Rohit Baluja, president of the Institute of Road Traffic Education. “Campaigns against drunk driving are going on in eight or ten cities. Even there, it is done sporadically, not wholeheartedly,” he complains.  

As for bus companies, none have chosen to follow the lead of KSRTC and systematically send drivers to rehab, according to the Association of State Road Transport Undertakings (ASRTU).  One place to start might be Andhra Pradesh, where the AP State Road Transport Corporation recorded 2,146 fatal bus accidents from 2008 to 2011. Or try Maharashtra, where the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation recorded 1,214 fatal accidents during the same period.  The Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation could also take a shot at rehab, with 1,169 fatal accidents recorded in those three years.  Alcoholism is “one of the very primary things in transport that needs to be addressed,” says ASRTU executive director Ananda Rao.

Back in Bangalore, psychiatrist Mamatha Shetty also tries to explain the psychological symptoms including alcoholic hallucinations. “Even if nobody is talking, you think someone is talking,” she tells patients. “You get some smell. You get some taste. Hearing voices is very common.”  The drinker often responds angrily to the voices in his head, those scolding, excoriating voices.  And the neighbors gawk, just like they do in the mural. 

Are such sessions effective? That remains unclear. Over forty days, each patient spends very little time one-on-one with the psychiatrist, and not all of them are ready to talk about their problems. Some prefer to blame demanding wives or hard-drinking buddies rather than engage in any introspection. 

According to Shetty, worldwide relapse rates are 40 percent to 60 percent, “and KSRTC is no exception.” But company officials cite a success rate of nearly 60 percent -- drawing on follow-up data from local supervisors--and emphasize that those who keep guzzling are sent for another attempt at rehab at NIMHANS.  “We are really proud of this type of programme,” says KSRTC chief executive officer N. Manjunatha Prasad. 

Meanwhile, counsellors urge participants to take pride in spending more money on family needs, instead of alcohol. Shivaswamy, for example, says he intends to put Rs. 5,000 monthly into a fixed deposit account to pay for his son and daughter’s education. Pradeep, a bachelor, says he intends to send Rs. 8, 000 home to his parents in his village each month.

Redirecting funds spent on alcohol could make a big difference in many corners of India. Much more research remains to be done on the economic consequences of heavy drinking, beyond the commonly cited figure that it soaks up 3% of the country’s GDP. In fact, many heavy drinkers are spending nearly 50 percent of their income on alcohol, according to a 2012 NIMHANS report. That leaves a lot less to spend on food, health, and education. 

Those spending habits also impose a broader burden. The same report says that “a third of the population surveyed had experience of having to work extra hours to cover for a colleague or a workmate’s drinking.” 

Former rehab patients swing by the KSRTC clinic to provide upbeat testimonials.  A crew restroom caretaker, B.V. Nagareddy, credits the programme with giving him the motivation to save money to send his two children to study for MBA degrees. Fifty-six year-old mechanic M. Devadas, now sober, tells the assembled men to pay close heed to Prakash Yogi’s advice to avoid liquor. He compares the yoga master to a succulent blossom. “We should be like honeybees, and make honey from the flowers,” says Devadas. “Take this and make good use of it.”  

But outside these pale green walls, a different sort of nectar beckons.

Margot Cohen is a writer from New York. Her interest in India follows previous reporting stints in Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

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