On a hot afternoon, Sachin (name changed on request) stands in the centre of a busy junction in the heart of the city. He’s wearing the iconic white uniform, a hat and black leather shoes. He also has two Mi AirPOP PM2.5 Anti-Pollution masks, which he wears during peak hours. “I can’t keep wearing the mask continuously for 8 hours, I can’t use the whistle and it’s uncomfortable”, he says. Traffic teems past him on both sides of the road, as he uses hand-signalling to direct vehicles.
He has been standing since 7 a.m. in the morning and will continue to do so till 2 p.m. At 12 p.m., the World Air Map by Plume Labs indicates that air quality in Bengaluru is ‘very poor’ with an AQI of 125 and cautions against being outdoors for too long. Just a hundred metres down the road, an Assistant Sub Inspector says, “I’m sure 70% of us have breathing problems…it’s a part of the job, I’ll also get it soon”. But Sachin is happy that he has been stationed in Central Bengaluru, where pollution and traffic are lesser than in other parts of the city.
Occupational Hazards of Being a Traffic Policeman
While exposure to air pollution and harsh weather conditions makes Sachin prone to a host of ailments, just being on the road in the midst of heavy traffic presents a fatal hazard in itself.
Recently, head constable Dhananjaya K. was killed in Chikkajala in a case of rash driving, when a speeding car rammed into him and his colleague, constable Uma Maheshwara, who was critically injured. The driver named Kaushal was detained and the investigation is currently ongoing.
“It was sad to see that on Facebook, many comments on the video of the accident said that what happened was good…we face a lot of antagonism from the public when we try to do enforcement”, says a senior officer in the North-East division.
There are over 80 lakh vehicles in Bengaluru – a number which is set to cross 1 crore soon – and only a force of around 5000 traffic police personnel. Out of these 5000, around 4500 are field officers ranging from constables all the way up to the inspector. That’s one traffic policeman for every 1,777 vehicles. While that number is better than the national average of 1 traffic policemen for 2,777 vehicles, it is still dismal for a city which was recently declared to be the most congested city in the world.
Unlike most employees, the workspace of traffic policemen is the middle of the road, which comes with its own set of occupational hazards. Recent studies and interviews with traffic policemen reveal that they exhibit higher vulnerability to both physical and mental ailments.
Dangers of Air Pollution and Weather
A 2016 report to study lung functions of 235 cops in Bengaluru, by Anti-Pollution Drive (APD) and Eureka Forbes, concluded that 1 in 4 (25%) traffic policemen exhibited symptoms of respiratory problems. Almost 1 in 3 (31%) had reduced lung functions – rates which are much higher than the general population.
Another study published in the National Journal of Basic Medical Sciences concluded that the pulmonary functions of traffic policemen were significantly decreased compared to the control groups. Moreover, it also found that the decrease in pulmonary function was associated with duration of exposure.
Medical studies confirm what policemen on the ground already know as tacit knowledge from experience. “Peak hour is the worst for me”, says Sachin. “There is so much dust, pollution and the noise and stress cause a lot of mental disturbance every day”.
Dust and vehicular emissions are two major causes of air pollution in the city and are found in high concentrations on busy roads. “There are physical hazards like air pollution and respiratory problems ranging from allergic respiratory problems to long-term exposure leading to asthma, emphysema, COPD and even cancers,” says Dr G Gururaj, Senior Professor at NIMHANS.
Exposure to road dust and vehicular emissions leads to a host of respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis. In addition, traffic policemen are also at a higher risk for lung cancer due to prolonged exposure to air pollutants, which have been classified as carcinogenic by the WHO.
Common early symptoms of the harmful effects of hazardous exposure include wheezing, coughing, phlegm and breathlessness. While studies done on small samples of cops in the city indicate that 1 in 4 exhibit some of these symptoms, traffic cops on the ground believe it is far more prevalent than that.
Not Just Pulmonary Problems
Pulmonary ailments are the most obvious health hazards faced by traffic policemen, but they are not the only ones. “If you look at some of the experienced cops, you’ll see the toll the job has taken on them. You’ll see it on their skin, their physique deteriorates and stress also takes a toll,” says the senior officer from North-East division.
By far the most common complaint from traffic policemen on the road is mental stress and fatigue. “Especially during peak hours, there is full stress. People don’t follow rules, there are lots of heavy vehicles and noise,” says Satish, a 27-year old constable at a busy junction on Commercial Street. “It’s the worst when I have to do hand-signalling, my entire body hurts. With signals, it’s much better”.
The combination of ailments due to exposure to dust, pollution, harsh weather conditions, noise and fatigue are believed to take a heavy toll by policemen within the department. “That is the reality of the job, you’re bound to get sick”, says ACP (Traffic Central) Kavitha K. “Most will have diabetes also, and will be dealing with health issues”.
Then there is the most obvious threat to life – road traffic injuries (RTIs). Like in the case of head constable Dhananjaya K and constable Uma Maheshwara, the threat of road accidents always looms large for traffic policemen. They are a part of the pedestrian population on the road, which is one of the most vulnerable to accidents in Bengaluru. In the North-East division alone, there have been two fatalities of traffic policemen in the past 6-7 months.
|The exposure to hazards renders traffic policemen vulnerable to compounded effects. Dr G Gururaj, Senior Professor at NIMHANS, says, “There can be hypertension, diabetes mellitus, metabolic syndrome due to greater stress levels. Road traffic injuries are common problems while managing traffic, checking for traffic violations and drunk driving. Long standing hours can lead to varicose veins.”
Mental health problems are also higher among traffic policemen, he says. “Social problems like being away from family, lesser importance to family, domestic violence are common. Mental health problems like anxiety, depression, alcohol and tobacco use are also higher, with instances of suicide being reported.”
Efforts by the Department
Both anecdotal and scientific accounts paint a rather grim picture of the occupational hazards of being a traffic policeman in Bengaluru. However, that does not necessarily reflect the inefficacy of the Bengaluru Traffic Police Department.
In recognition of occupational hazards, the department conducts yearly health check-ups for all its personnel. To address the prolonged exposure to air pollution, the department provides masks and ensures the rotation of shifts and stations for its personnel. In addition, they also get access to the Arogya Bhagya Yojane (ABY) – a medical scheme, wherein traffic policemen get free treatment for medical procedure post-admission.
“The Police department isn’t like it used to be. We take care of our people now”, says ACP Kavitha. “We also have a welfare officer in every station, who is a counselor to address mental health concerns”.
While the department has taken measures, most of them seem to be directed towards curing ailments rather than preventing them. A recent prevention-aimed step is the introduction of modern traffic kiosks in the city.
Recently, the BBMP planned to offer glass traffic kiosks for traffic police personnel. These will have a 360 degree view of traffic, but will protect policemen from prolonged exposure to pollution, noise and the threat of speeding cars, while offering them temporary relief from the fatigue of standing for long stretches. Sachin seems excited about them, but wonder if he’ll be able to use them. “These modern kiosks will have everything – mics, glass, the full system. But there are only a few and I don’t know if there’ll be one here,” he says.
Addressing the health hazards faced by traffic policemen in Bengaluru is as complex as addressing the problem of rising air pollution in the city. The ideal solution, of course, is to address fundamental problems in urban transport planning. However, the role of the traffic police is indispensable – they are the first to reach sites of accidents on roads and without them, many congested junctions in the city would cease to function.
The senior officer who wished to remain anonymous, takes a technocratic view of the problem and suggests a move towards ‘contactless enforcement’ – a form of enforcement conducted mostly by technological aides such as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) cameras.
“Our policemen face a lot of hazards…dust, pollution, accidents and much more. The situation would be better if the public followed rules, as we’d have to do less enforcement, but that’s not the case. Education doesn’t work and enforcement leads to a lot of antagonism from the public. Contact-less enforcement can change all that and protect them,” he says.