Doctors Need a Law to Protect Them Against Violence, But So Does the Rest of the Service Industry

Social Commentary

Doctors Need a Law to Protect Them Against Violence, But So Does the Rest of the Service Industry

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Back in 2009 while my father was posted in his Delhi office, he opened up to us for the first time about the pressures of his job as a banker in the public sector. After he had refused to clear an applicant’s loan due to suspicious documentation, the man told him, “Tujhe main bahar dekh lunga.” My father, who was in 50s then, was scared, even if it was momentarily, and him confiding in my mother and me was a way to tell us to be prepared if the situation went out of hand.

I was reminded of this incident last week when two junior doctors at NRS Hospital in Kolkata were beaten up by the relatives of a patient who died at the hospital. The trepidation that India’s doctors and their families feel today is therefore just, and must be empathised with. But while Bengal drafts a policy to protect its medical servants from assault, nearly the entire service industry in India is crying out for an intervention on similar lines to defend people from abuse, threats, and sporadic violence.

It is perhaps understandable why doctors need a protection policy on priority. They deal with incredulity and anger on a daily basis. Life and death pass through their fingers like air, and even though the latter must factually outrun the former, grief is definitively preceded by disbelief — an emotion as irrational as it is uncontrollable. But that is no justification for physically attacking men and women who are literally working at saving lives. Doctors in AIIMS Delhi have been complaining about the lack of protection for years, and medical professionals (not just doctors) have lived at the intersection of divinity and dissatisfaction for ages. Doctors are gods, only as long as they aren’t humanly fallible at their jobs — an ironic contradiction if there ever was one. But while doctors face the severest form of insolence, a majority of India’s service industry is wounded on a daily basis by the gruffness of the average Indian client/customer — a species that prides itself on its rowdiness and lack of respect for the provider.

Delivery men, toll collectors, waiters, and service industry professionals, both blue-collar and white-collar like my father, have all at some point or the other faced intimidation, abuse, or the eventual case of violence against them. Often it is for a job poorly done. In some cases, like that of journalists and policemen, it can even be for a job well done. Indians cry for a just, flawless system, but cannot bear with the questions this system seeks to ask of their entitlement and privilege. Worse, they have no respect for the labour of men or women, be it the housemaid or the man who will next deliver your pizza, after scurrying dangerously through traffic, just so he can get to you in time. A man you will most probably accost for being late, despite the risks he takes. And while there are certain jobs that interface with customers directly, there are others where abuse, threats, and even violence is quietly filed away as a side-effect of the profession. There is nearly no accountability for people who assault authority or human discretion, on the pretence of extracting a service that is “deserved”. People who could be awful at their own jobs are themselves incapable of empathising with someone else’s imperfections.

If we resent a human’s capacity to err, we reject his right to be considered human.

After that brief episode in Delhi, life got worse for my dad before it got better. Shifted to Lucknow, he now witnessed unruly clients on a daily basis. Threats became commonplace, the stress unbearable to the extent that he confided in my grandparents how he wished to quit a job he had held for 35 years. Eventually, he managed to shift himself to a department where circumstances were generous in comparison. Last year, he retired, having survived the kind of hidden hooliganism that is neither reported, nor addressed in India because it “comes with the job”. Equating my dad’s plight with people who swing between life and death, pain and glory, grief and loss would of course be naïve. But every day, the Indian service industry contends with clients and customers who believe they are entitled to quality just as much as are entitled to refuse the providers their share of dignity. Naturally, abuse and derogation have become verbs of this language that is now common.

Doctors must be protected, if not for anything else then at least the possibility of corrupting their practice by pressuring them. Likewise, jobs and roles that deal with clients and their tantrums need that sheath, a layer that respects their right to do their task and most importantly, occasionally fail at it. If we resent a human’s capacity to err, we reject his right to be considered human. I would like to believe that is something we don’t want to be thought of as either. This is not to say that incompetence be legitimised, just that where probability suggests, human error must be considered natural and inevitable. The medical community deserves its share of empathy, for theirs is a task of such high stakes that most people wouldn’t contemplate replacing them. That said, dignity must not be defined by ranks and roles jobs are pursed in, but unequivocally through their existence — be it the man cleaning your street, or the one performing your heart surgery.