A guerrilla attack by a troop of lifestyle diseases is taking down thousands of India's soldiers.
New statistics made available by the ministry of home affairs (MHA) reveal that the leading cause of death among personnel from the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), or paramilitary, is not combat but ill health.
The seven forces - CRPF, BSF, ITBP, SSB, CISF, NSG and Assam Rifles-have lost 1,067 men in combat or counter-insurgency operations over a period of three years and two months. More than thrice as many personnel-3,611- have died due to illnesses.
Former BSF chief DK Pathak says he had organised a review by the force's medical directorate, which raised concerns. "The study gave us an insight that heart diseases were the leading cause of deaths in forces, followed by suicides," he said. "Further, every two months three soldiers were dying of heart attacks."
RICH, HIGH CHOLESTEROL FOOD TAKING A TOLL
While BSF jawan Tej Bahadur complained of ill-cooked food and poor-quality ration in videos that created a flutter on social media this year, the findings of the medical directorate review paint a different picture. "Rich food, high cholesterol and poor lifestyle were taking a toll on the soldiers' health, leading to high blood pressure, heart attack and diabetes," said a consolidated study.
The soldiers have been told to reduce girth as well as replace samosas and jalebis in their diet with fruits and salads. Personnel from Punjab and some from Haryana faced more heart-related problems because of a high-dairy diet, said Pathak.
BSF, CRPF MOST AFFECTED
The CRPF and BSF deployed in violence-racked Jammu and Kashmir, Naxal-infested areas such as in Chhattisgarh as well as West Bengal and Tripura have taken the most hits, the MHA data show. These parts are also turning out to be a stress graveyard for soldiers.
While the highest number of combatrelated casualties for the CAPF during the 38 months was in Jammu and Kashmir at 303 deaths for all ranks, Chhattisgarh was second at 163 followed by West Bengal at 70.
However, the race to death due to diseases or illnesses shows West Bengal taking the lead at 265, with J&K next at 170, followed closely by UP at 141, Rajasthan at 134 and Punjab at 122.
HEART ATTACK A MAJOR KILLER
Stress-triggered heart attack is turning out to be a major killer apart from a variety of diseases and illnesses, data show. Other identified causes are cancer, dengue, hepatitis B, jaundice, malaria, etc. While the instances of deaths due to HIV/AIDS and malaria went down in the paramilitary during this period, fatalities in rail and road accidents continue. Also, the lower ranks in the forces are more prone to diseases.
A senior BSF officer said the increasing girth of soldiers has been a cause of concern. "A number of initiatives are being taken by the force to ensure a healthy lifestyle among the personnel," he added.
The Border Security Force is tasked to secure the two most important borders of India with Pakistan and Bangladesh, besides being deployed for a variety of internal security duties including anti-Maoist operations.
CRPF ATTEMPTS NOVEL INITIATIVES
Last year, the then CRPF chief Durga Prasad discussed with the medical board deaths of personnel due to diseases, especially heart attack. Soldiers with smartphones were advised to download an app, which would monitor the heart and alert in case of any ailment.
Prasad told Mail Today, "Bad food, oily snacks, cholesterol-rich items have made their way to a soldier's plate. We advise the soldiers that the ration is what they purchase with their money and they should choose a healthier option."
The CRPF in the last decade tried to tie up with culinary schools to teach the cooks to produce healthier food, but the plan failed.
"We have a new MoU with skill development so that we can initiate training of cooks," the former DG said. "Besides, we're introducing circuit training to improve cardiovascular activity in left-wing extremism areas as well as in limited format in J&K that is considered a hard duty."
Both forces though admit that factors such as constant threat to life and being away from family were adding to stress-related deaths.
A senior officer said, "In the Naxal belt and Northeast, the forces have effectively managed malaria-related deaths, which have come down over the past years. But challenges remain nonetheless.
An officer told Mail Today that many soldiers with medical problems are posted in Punjab, Rajasthan and West Bengal as well as other cities for easy access to hospitals, which is why the CAPF have reported more deaths in these areas.