The brutal abuse of a teenaged COVID-19 victim by an ambulance driver close to midnight on September 5 in Kerala's Pathanamthitta district has revealed another unsettling truth: even a convicted murderer, rapist or paedophile could become an ambulance driver in Kerala if he has passed seventh standard and has the necessary driving skills.
In Kerala, it is not mandatory to produce a police clearance certificate (PCC) to get a job as an ambulance driver. GVK EMRI, the company that runs the 108 'Kanivu' Ambulance service in Kerala, was not under any legal or contractual obligation to secure a police clearance certificate from the drivers they recruit.
Clearance not legally required
In the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by the Kerala government with GVK EMRI in 2015, a seventh standard pass and a light motor vehicle (LMV) licence were the only qualifications prescribed for the job aspirants. Kerala's health minister K K Shylaja's office, too, confirmed this.
PCCs are not sought from drivers working in the ambulances of the highly reputed Indian Red Cross either. "It is our own volunteers who do the driving. So there is no need for any background check," said Manoj, district secretary of Kerala Red Cross in Wayanad.
"However, after what had happened at Aranmula, I think we might have to insist on a police clearance," he said. (A 19-year-old COVID-19 positive girl was sexually assaulted by an ambulance driver at Aranmula in Kerala's Pathanamthitta district on September 5 while she was being taken to a hospital.)
Indian Medical Association, too, has started subsidised ambulance services in Kerala after the lockdown was imposed. There are over 1,500 ambulances under their control.
The IMA does not own these ambulances but, like Uber had done with private taxis, it has brought privately-owned ambulances under a centralised command so that their services could be optimally used, and at affordable rates. But unlike Uber, the IMA does not charge a paise.
"Next week we are planning to give ambulance drivers under our network identity cards. We are also thinking of making PCCs mandatory," said Dr Sreejith N Kumar, who is in charge of IMA's ambulance services.
Wake up call
The need to secure PCCs from drivers were not thought of till now because the IMA is using ambulances that function under various registered ambulance associations in Kerala.
"These organisations know the people registered under them and we never had a problem. But the Aranmula incident has now told us that we have to make sure that even the most unlikely thing will not happen," Dr Sreejith said.
Though it was not asked to, GVK EMRI had still been insisting on getting PCCs from their recruits. "This was an extra caution we had taken in the interest of public safety," said Saravanan, the spokesperson for GVK EMRI. It had even set a deadline of February 15, 2020, for submitting the PCCs.
Almost 80 per cent of the drivers on its payroll in Kerala have produced the PCCs. Noufal, the ambulance driver who had sexually assaulted the COVID-19 patient, was among the 20 per cent who had not.
Instead, he had submitted what he claimed was a copy of the request he had made to the Kayamkulam station house officer for a PCC. The Kayamkulam SHO has, however, denied that the accused had made any such request.
It has now come to light that Noufal was remanded to police custody in an 'attempt to murder' case in 2009. GVK EMRI did not follow up because, according to Saravanan, "COVID-related issues came in the way”.
Clearly, GVK EMRI was not very particular about the police clearance. It allowed recruits to begin work without the PCC. The company was fine even if the clearance certificates were produced at a later date.
After the Aranmula incident, GVK EMRI has made the PCC requirement a must for jobs. "We have issued a circular saying that a PCC will be mandatory for jobs here," Saravanan said.
Ironically, it were COVID precautions that did away with a security feature that could have possibly prevented the Aranmula incident.
As per the contract, GVK EMRI should compulsorily have an emergency medical technician (EMT) while transporting patients. However, to reduce exposure during COVID, such a stipulation was relaxed for non-emergency transport like taking an asymptomatic patient to a COVID first-line treatment centre (CFLTC) or returning a recovered patient back home.
In such non-emergency trips, the patient will be alone with the driver. The health minister's office confirmed this. The minister herself had publicly said that this was done on the recommendation of experts to reduce virus exposure.
Incidentally, on September 5, the 19-year-old victim was to be taken to a CFLTC at Pandalam in Pathanamthitta district.
Her plight will now force a rethink. "First of all, it has been decided that non-emergency trips should be avoided at nights. But if it happens, an EMT's presence will be insisted upon," a top health official said. However, no official order has been issued yet.