Monday, September 27, 2010

The Latest Hot Celebrity in Town – 108 Ambulance

Last month during the Onam celebrations, in a colony near my home, a woman tried to commit suicide by jumping into a well. We managed to pull her out and somebody called the 108. Since it was a remote location the ambulance took some time to reach there. But once the siren started to reach us, all the people who had been dispersing immediately crowded back and the arrival of the 108 was greeted with much whistling and clapping! Children could be heard running and shouting “108 has come! 108 has come!” as if their favorite movie star had just walked into their homes. The paramedics and the driver were no doubt bewildered at the welcome they got. Older women crowded around them to ask their name and their homes. Someone even pinched the driver – maybe just to make sure that the famous 108 had truly arrived. The paramedics were frantically asking about the injured person and that is when we finally came to our senses and to our horror we found the woman lying abandoned in the mattress by the roadside where we had first laid her down. Once we got her into the ambulance there was a scramble for others to get in. One of our friends too got in the front. We asked “Why the hell are you going?” and he cheerily waved to us and said “I’m not going to miss this chance! It is now or never!” and we watched him with envy as he shook hands with the driver and posed for the guys to take photos in their mobiles. Usually a suicide attempt makes neighbours or relatives hesitant to accompany the victim to the hospital due to the police affairs and other complications that may arise. However with 108 that has changed too. People are fighting to get inside just to be able to say they have traveled in the 108.

The 108 ambulance is the latest talk of the town, having universally impressed everyone with their prompt and efficient service. It is the first time any city in Kerala has a systematic ERS - Emergency Response Service. 108 is a toll-free number, the biggest advantage, accessible from any landline or mobile. And it is absolutely free.

The loud siren has become a distinctive sign of the coming ambulance. And what a wonderful sight it is to behold, flashing all the colours - red, blue, orange – just like the arrival of a carnival.

The 108 has no doubt changed the face of medical response services. The waiting for an ill-equipped ambulance and the haranguing over the rate has all almost vanished. It is an initiative under Kerala Emergency Medical Services Project (KEMP) by the Kerala Government’s Health Department in association with the National Rural Health Mission (NHRM).

My house is located by the side of the by-pass road which is a preferred route for the 108 to the Medical College. The siren has become so familiar to us that even in our deepest sleep if a 108 passes through, we mumble “108!” and smile.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Santhigiri – nothing but business

All the media houses in the state were buzzing with huge pictures and news reports of the new Parnasala inaugurated at the Santhigiri Ashramam in Thiruvananthapuram the past week. Not a single of voice of dissent. No enquiries as to where they get so much money or influence.

“They tried to get American President Obama to inaugurate the thing”, a friend of mine who works there told me. A few years ago we would have laughed this off as a ridiculous comment. However, today it is evident that, this too is not impossible for them.

The name of Karunakara Guru has become as big as Mata Amritanandhamayi or Sai Baba. Rumours circulate about the divine powers he had. On the other side of the coin rumours are present too about his past, about how he was chased from his original village for immoral or illegal activities, and ended up here.

Anyway I used to visit the Ashramam when he was alive for the Annadanam – the free lunch they used to serve the general public on certain days (Well, back in those college days, we had an all-year-round list when free foodwould be given out anywhere in the district!). But, personally I think, it was ok when the guru was alive. People came to seek his blessings and we know the people have a tendency to seek blessings from godmen as a solution to all their problems.

Then he died. And Santhigiri started getting commercialized. Supposedly someone who completed his MBA and worked in US came to join the Ashramam and he spearheads the commercial activities. They have hundreds of industries going on in different locations. Whats wrong with that, some of you may ask. The thing is they are a charitable institution and they don’t have to pay tax. They have access to free money flow and they are above auditing. This virtually means they save crores on tax amount alone.

But more frightfully, they are buying up land by hundreds of acres in the surrounding areas. They are quickly developing a township with unaccounted money. In the blink of an eye, in the past few years, they had their own post office, petrol pumps, Medical College, a Panchayath ward exclusively for them – ‘them’ meaning people who may have come from any part of the state without proper identification and they are able to vote. This last issue is particularly causing concern because in a few years the entire area would be full of Santhigiri devotees who would be able to vote in all elections according to the orders issued by the Ashram authorities, thus creating a most powerful weapon – their own votebank.

I appreciate all the better initiatives taken by them – but remember they are not giving jobs to the public. And what goes inside the Ashram is a strictly guarded secret, strictly forbidden to outsider knowledge. And most worrisome is the lack of enquiring voices on the part of the media. Santhigiri Ashram needs to be audited (just like all the other godmen ashrams) and registered under the government as an industrial firm. Closing our eyes and blindly believing is easy – opening our eyes to see what is really happening is the difficult part.

P.S. - No, I don't have any proof to substantiate my claims... just like the claims about divinity and miracles.