India’s safety culture: an oxymoron?

29 Jul

The regularity with which some or the other Indian company is making news for  taking short cuts has got to be alarming. First it was pharma company Ranbaxy, then Wockhardt. And now it is auto firm -General Motors’ Indian factory.  In each case, employees took short cuts to beat the system and ended up jeopardising safety. (In GM’s case not directly but reportedly via higher-than-permitted emissions). These misdeeds aren’t occurring just in India- companies in other parts of the world have also been in the dock.  Yet, every time some Indian operation hits the headline for this reason, I can’t help thinking about the cavalier attitude to safety visible in this country on a day-to-day basis. First, bear with me and take a look at India’s safety record in major consumer-facing areas.  It is nothing short of appalling.

Roads :  The World Health Organisation observed earlier this year that Indian roads are among the deadliest in the world.  At 1.43 lakh, India tops the list of total number of deaths recorded on road in 2011.

Aviation : The United Nations recently placed India among the 13 worst-performing countries on air safety in the company of least-developed countries such as Angola, Congo, and Djibouti.

Pharmaceuticals : India’s regulators are struggling to regulate a fast-growing industry.  A group of Parliamentarians recently found that drugs were being approved without adequate testing and post-market surveillance rules were being taken lightly by companies.  The probability is high that alternative systems of medicine are ruled with an even lighter hand.

Healthcare :  Hospitalised Indians are at the risk of falling sicker from infections contracted at the hospital itself. One study found that the rate of vancomycin-resistant enterococcus, a dangerous hospital infection, in Indian intensive care units is five times the rate in the rest of the world.

Food : While India has a dedicated food standards and safety authority since 2006, standards are still being set and their implementation has yet to begin with any earnestness. In the meantime, hygiene, adulteration, and contamination from chemicals have become major causes of concern.

Water : While 88 per cent of the Indian population now has access to water from an improved source according to the World Health Organisation, much of this is not available at their homes and therefore exposed to contamination in the process of being fetched.  Water-borne disease continues to kill lakhs of Indian children every year. This is at a macro level.

We are like this only

Unfortunately, we Indians also appear to think that many rules made to enhance our safety are simply nuisance-causing, new-fangled inventions.  Some instances:

-In our cities, many car-owners and cabbies wear the seat belt/hang up the cellphone only when they see the traffic cop at a distance. Car seats are seen as “western” inventions meant for paranoid parents. Indian kids are apparently “free” spirits who cannot be expected to sit obediently in one. Our bikers often don’t wear helmets and pillion-riders almost never do. In addition, they are known to let their kids sit before them with their hands spread-out a la Kate Winslet in the “Titanic.”

-Pedestrians routinely jaywalk -even when provided with subways and skywalks. Some unwittingly use their kids as human shields placing them in the path of oncoming traffic.

-In planes, Indian passengers rush to open the overhead luggage bin doors even before you can say “landed.”

-We continuously abuse prescription-only antibiotics by taking them without medical advice thinking “the doctor will prescribe this only, why waste time and money?” Or “it worked the last time and half the strip is still left over from then.” We also swig syrups from bottles not bothering with a spoon or measuring cup. And then wonder why the cough isn’t better yet (too little) OR why am I so zonked out (too much)?

-We persist in eating street food in the rains even when authorities warn of an increased risk of gastroenteritis, typhoid and other water-borne diseases.  If asked why – we point to some vague survey done by someone, somewhere, sometime that showed street food samples were fresher than those picked up at five-star hotels.

When we bribe our way out of a genuine violation (like not wearing a seat belt), we send a signal out to the system that we don’t really take our safety seriously.   The system takes the cue and regulations meant for ensuring safety are then abused by their gatekeepers (cops, food and drug inspectors etc) to line their own pockets.

Style over substance

One would think that the increased exposure to the world outside India’s borders, especially the West, has pushed up standards whether of cleanliness, hygiene, or safety. And that may be true too.  Yet, the overall accent appears to be on “making things look good” rather than ensuring that they are in fact “good” in all senses of the term. Two personal instances:

-A close relative is currently battling a pseudomonas infection that he acquired at a hospital that to all appearances looked like it had first-class hygiene standards since it “looked so good.” (Marble floors et al). And by the way, this was after he was moved from another hospital where he was overdosed with insulin causing his blood sugar to plummet drastically.

-A private club in the suburb where I stay just spent tons of money on a face-lift – marble flooring et al. Yet my son cut his toe badly on a broken tile in the kiddie swimming pool.  The cut bled quite freely -there was no first-aid kit offered. Some weeks later, we were told the tile still hadn’t been replaced even after a written complaint.

I wonder sometimes if this recklessness comes from our belief in “naseeb” which could be interpreted as “luck” or even “destiny.”  That what is meant to happen will happen regardless.  Or do Indians see their safety as under threat only from robbers, rapists, and terrorists?

Building islands

In the midst of this general private and governmental disregard for safety our globalising industries have tried to build islands of excellence where safety, health, environment – the very things that many Indians shrug off or don’t even notice on a daily basis – are prioritised.  I can imagine what a struggle it must be. They’ve probably succeeded with tight checks and balances. But can they ever let their guard slip and know that things will function smoothly even if Big Brother goes for a slightly-longer loo break and decides to stop for a quick cigarette on the way? And what of Big Brother himself? Does he think, it’s ok to fudge a little? What if a drug industry manager thinks – “hey, if this standard of drug purity is ok for us Indians, then why not for the Americans?”

According to an accepted definition, safety culture in the workplace “often reflects the attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and values that employees share in relation to safety.” Isn’t it possible that however much you seal your borders some of that attitude is going to seep in, somehow? Many of my enlightened readers might think I’m being unfair to those who’ve really tried and raised the bar in their personal and professional lives. To them I say, don’t take this personally.  For the rest, it’s about time they did.

Pic sourced from photostream of PositiveaboutNegatives on Flickr

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5 Responses to “India’s safety culture: an oxymoron?”

  1. Dr Pipasha Biswas July 29, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

    Dear Gauri,
    Gret article as ever. Problem with India is everyone is so opiniated that they only know every thing and so no amount of any advice or regulation will help. After all everyone in India has a free spirit, “chalta hai” attitude, we know the best, and last but not the least who cares about safety! It is a sad state of affairs with the pharmaceutical companies when we read everyday that short cuts are been taken to make profits. It is quite shamefull indeed! Now, NIH has stopped Clinical Trials in India! The day will not be far when pharmaceutical companies are going to realise that with such shoddy quality of pharmacovigilance, that needs to be stopped as well. And lastly, with some important decisions that are taken to first ban drugs only to then revoke it does not help either!

    Like

  2. epcotint July 29, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

    Gauri:

    I recently posted my perspective on pharmaceutical companies “Letter to Indian Pharma CEOs: Have You Lost Your Chance to Innovate?” Link http://www.pharmaevolution.com/author.asp?section_id=487&doc_id=560658&

    Your post echoes a point that was made to me about thirty years ago. In India we are taught civics but not civic sense. Safety is not on many people’s agenda suggests that life has no value. That is horrifying till it hits home and then everyone complains for a short tine.

    Like

  3. V Pai July 29, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

    If India stopped taking shortcuts, the nation would indeed be the super-power that it has the potential to become. However, over the years, moral decay has become so entrenched in society that shorcuts have become a way of life. I don’t claim to have the answer to this issue, but it is time that people – from the top down – start by looking inward, finding their conscience and allow it to guide their lives. While we are all beholden in some way to the lure of wealth, it is time that we look around and see that our actions are slowly but surely taking down a great nation, its reputation and mostly its people!

    Like

  4. Sandeep S July 30, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    Extremely well written account of what ails the whole psyche – it manifests itself in a variety of ways as enumerated. I sometimes feel that this eulogisation of ‘jugaad’ mentality and the so called ‘innovation’ model is probably doing more disservice … because in lay terms jugaad means doing something at ‘any cost’ and more often than not what is compromised are ethics and safety. And these show up much more now since we are much more globalised and inter connected with the world than before.

    Like

  5. Srinivas July 30, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    Our chalta-hai attitude is our greatest fault as well as our greatest strength. It makes us overlook safety issues but at the same time allows us to get unique solutions to our problems. The only issue is the proportion by which it varies. If we have a no-compromise attitude to the key things in life instead of chalta-hai, we would go far indeed. At the same time, by being flexible on other non-essential things, we make our own life better. It is the degree of chalta-hai that makes all the difference.

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