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Accidental deaths in army: An avoidable national tragedy

In a huge but seldom talked about national tragedy, around 300 Indian soldiers die every year in road accidents during peace time, according to a just published newspaper report. Further, the report says that the force has lost as many as 6500 of its fully trained men in accidents since the 1999 Kargil conflict, twice as many as its death toll in each of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars.

Sure, our soldiers are trained and forever ready to die in the line of duty, which includes protecting the integrity of the nation from external and internal threats and guarding some of the world’s most desolate and inhospitable territories. But is it not unacceptably insensitive to dismiss deaths in road accidents as “killed in action”? Is this martyrdom or mayhem? And most important, can this unnecessary bleeding not be stopped or at least greatly mitigated?

As specialists in the area of trauma care and medical emergency management we know that deaths resulting from accidents and medical crises can be dramatically reduced with a system designed to deliver the ‘right’ medical attention at the ‘right’ time. Despite its massive infrastructure and enormous resources it is not clear whether the army has a highly responsive and fast-acting medical response system with the single-point KRA of attending to peacetime medical emergencies.

Sure, the road accident casualty figures may be insignificant in the context of the scale of operations of the 117 million-strong Indian army. The army’s infantry division alone has 382 battalions, each with about 900 soldiers, many of whom are on the move every day in vehicles ranging from motor cycles to 5-tonne ALS trucks. But should we be measuring the value of human lives purely in statistical terms? Weren’t we taught in primary school that every life is precious? Is this not the philosophy undergirding the profession of medicine itself? Try explaining these deaths to the bereaved families with statistics.

So far we thought that accidental deaths were largely a phenomenon of civilian life where recklessness is often the rule. But the latest revelations show that it is a threat even in the highly protected and regimentalized realms of the defence forces. The numbers involved may be small but it is time that the army trained its guns on making peace-times peaceful for its people.

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