Get your cell phones out and put 1-0-8 on Speed Dial in case you find yourself in India with an emergency. Although certain Indian states tried using 911 as the code to dial (based on Western movies and TV shows), some locales faced excessive prank calls and the number 911 was discontinued. Furthermore, the average Indian can remember 108 much easier than 911 based on its cultural significance (read on!).
Surprisingly, India has never had a coordinated Emergency Response service until a public-private partnership sprung up in 2005. The Emergency Management and Research Institute (EMRI) has handled emergencies in an increasing number of Indian cities and is now present in 10 of India's 28 states. It is a toll-free 24-7 service for health, fire, and police related emergencies. Testimonies vary from hour long waits to prompt service. Some people still prefer to take their loved ones directly to an Emergency Room, or they have the number for an ambulance based at the closest hospital to where they live. However, most people panic and don’t have such prepared plans, thus 108 is providing a niche service to many in unanticipated need.
In Tamil Nadu, the Southeastern Indian state where I’m based, Mrs. G. Saraswathi got up close and personal with this new service when she delivered twins in the ambulance at the hands of paramedics. So far 15 deliveries have taken place inside the ambulances in Tamil Nadu. Since the service was introduced, 1,709 calls have been attended to reports a Special Correspondent from The Hindu on November 5th.
It's a favorite astrological number in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism that has many meanings.
*The prayer beads that Indians use (japamalas) have 108 beads.
*Ancient Vedic scholars correctly predicted that:
-The distance between the Earth and Moon is 108 times the diameter of the Moon
-The distance between the Earth and Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Sun
-The diameter of the Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth
*Ayurveda, Indian traditional healing system, believes there are 108 pressure points.
*Lord Shiva's cosmic dance, Nataraja, is done in 108 poses
*Lord Krishna flirted with 108 gopis: cow-herd-girls
*Most Hindu deities have 108 names that are ceremoniously recited
*Many Buddhist temples have 108 steps
*Hundreds of other 108 significances can be viewed here:
108 for 1.1 Billion
1.1 billion people become a challenge for scalability of such emergency services. In addition, crowds and Indian traffic create extra hurdles for 108. This photo I took shows a 108 ambulance trying to penetrate a huge crowd of pilgrims taking up the road.
At this pilgrimage I attended ~500,000 people came to walk a holy circuit and the one lane road was packed like sardines for over 24 hours straight. The pilgrimage was a challenging 14km around a mountain, which must be undertaken barefoot, in a sea of people, which I equate to a 5-hour moving mosh pit. Children, the elderly, and the disabled do the circuit as well for many believe that completing the pradakshina (circumambulation) will bestow you with good health and success. I saw one man with a shortened leg hobbling along in makeshift crutches and suddenly my toes (which I stubbed 3 times amongst the crowd) didn't hurt as much. Throughout the night I saw several 108 ambulances battling the crowds trying to get through and I wondered how 108 is faring in other parts of India.