A small step has been made with regard to meaningful insurance cover for those engaged in adventure sports.
Since the middle of 2016, Bajaj Allianz General Insurance Co Ltd, among leading private insurance companies in the domestic market, has piloted a Personal Accident (PA) insurance product that includes cover for adventure sports as one of the options. As yet the company is the only private insurer in the space. What makes the cover particularly relevant is that once availed, the cover – offered as an additional option under its PA product: Global Personal Guard (GPG) – meets the cost of evacuation in the event of medical emergency, as well. This is an improvement from the earlier prevailing situation in the Indian market.
Previously, in a scenario of insurance for adventure sports shunned by most Indian insurers, one public sector insurance company was sole exception, acknowledging its necessity. However that insurance policy (Indian mountaineers are familiar with it), while meeting medical expenses to an extent, did not include evacuation cost. The product from Bajaj Allianz is claimed by the company to be the first in the domestic market that meets evacuation cost for those into adventure sports. The evacuation cost will be met only if accidental injury resulted in a medical emergency.
Why should inclusion of evacuation cost matter?
Among fundamentals they teach you in a wilderness first aid course, is that in the event of serious mishap with potential for loss of life or limb, once relevant first aid has been administered at accident site, the focus is on enabling formal medical intervention at the earliest. The quicker a seriously injured individual is reached to hospital, the better the chances of survival. If you are backed by insurance cover, the confidence to call in a chopper (should the circumstance be such that a helicopter is genuinely required) is more. According to Dr Abhijeet Ghosh, Head (Health Administration Team), Bajaj Allianz General Insurance Co Ltd, adventure sports is one of twelve additional options that a customer can choose to avail cover for, when purchasing GPG. In the case of adventure sport, the maximum cover offered is up to one crore rupees (ten million rupees). It comes with a condition attached – the client’s adventure must have been a supervised one; there should be an expert / supervisor in the frame (Dr Ghosh said that in the case of experienced adventurers going out by themselves, proof of expertise / training can be considered as alternative for supervisor). Should a GPG customer not have availed cover for adventure sports initially but is beset with an opportunity for adventure sport and wants the cover, then he should be able to activate it through his agent in two to three hours, Dr Ghosh said.
GPG is a global product and therefore the cover is effective in India and overseas. The company covers a basket of adventure sports. Within that, it treats the risk across sports as the same; in other words, the premium paid is related to the sum insured and not the sport covered. Compared to the company’s other insurance policies, premium for GPG with adventure sports included, is on the higher side; it can be two to four times higher. However depending on the cover size, the premium maybe as affordable as Rs 1200, Dr Ghosh said.
According to him, Bajaj Allianz decided to test the waters due to a combination of factors. There is 40-50 per cent growth in the outdoor activity segment and even online booking for such trips are happening, he said. Many people traveling abroad also sample adventure sports, providing scope for the adventure option to be tagged along with travel insurance. Interestingly, India’s changed demographic profile now very partial towards youth hasn’t been a pronounced driver in the company cosying up to adventure sports. As Dr Ghosh pointed out, interest in the active life appears to be more in a slightly older lot; not the young saddled with responsibilities like EMI payments. He maintained that these are very early days for the product covering adventure sports as the overall market (pool of customers) is still small. There is an encouraging volume of inquiries but conversions into actual deals lag. “ Out of 100 GPG policies sold, maybe three percent opt for adventure sports as additional option,’’ he said. It is therefore too early to speculate about a stand-alone product solely meant to cover risk in adventure sports. “ I don’t see a stand-alone product materializing in the next three to four years. For now, this is a bridge to build the data and understand the risk in a better way,’’ he said.
Although it is as yet the only private insurer in the adventure sports space, Bajaj Allianz hasn’t been vocal about its product. Dr Ghosh says that is not the company’s style. “ We would rather be efficient in dealing with claims than advertise. Word of mouth publicity for work done well is more effective,’’he said. According to him the company has been in touch with outdoor clubs and adventure tour operators. Prima facie there are challenges for acceptance like the seasonality of adventure tourism versus the twelve month-cycle of the policy or the need for single trip-insurance versus a year-long policy. It makes people working in the adventure space and clients wonder why they should seek cover. Dr Ghosh felt that given low awareness about the benefits of risk cover, the ideal scenario would be a top-down dissemination of information about the positives of insurance by the management / leadership of clubs to its members. One example in this regard was on display at the recent annual seminar of The Himalayan Club in Mumbai. Office bearers, speaking ahead of the seminar (which was open to the public) said that the club was attempting a multi-tiered membership with select benefits accruing to each level of membership. The highest category proposed, which seemed oriented towards whatever support may be required for expeditions, had among options under consideration – insurance. “ If insurance cover can be blended in with a club’s membership fee, that would be a step forward,’’ Dr Ghosh said.
Asked for his opinion, a leading adventure tour operator pointed out that while forays into the risk-cover segment by insurers are welcome, the real lacuna in emergency response in India continues to be bureaucratic hassles in the actual evacuation process and consequent delay. Cut to 1992 and one of the most iconic photos of a rescue underway in the Indian Himalaya: it showed an Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter, its rotors inches away from a steep, snow clad-mountain face and a crumpled human being on the chopper’s skis. “With no space to land, the pilot could only bring the helicopter close and hold it steady. Stephen had to be on the ski,’’ Harish Kapadia, veteran mountaineer and among India’s best-known explorers of the Himalaya, had said in 2012, pointing to the photograph. We had met for a chat on search and rescue. The picture in question was clicked by Dick Renshaw at around 21,000ft on Panchchuli-V — a 21,242ft-high peak rated the toughest in Kumaun’s Panchchuli group. The rescue was spectacular and despite severe injury, Stephen Venables, one of Britain’s best climbers, survived. Also surviving was a footnote: two persons had to rush all the way to Munsyari, normally a four day-trek, to report the accident and have the authorities dispatch a helicopter. Many years before this, Kapadia fell into a crevasse on the 22,400ft-high Devtoli, damaging his hip. He was brought to Base Camp at 12,000ft where he waited nine days for a helicopter.
Much has changed in the Indian Himalaya since. Climbing gear, road and telecom network – all have improved. But rescue can still entail waiting. On the other hand, the number of people heading to the mountains has steadily risen – it means the need for quick response and dedicated infrastructure is all the more indispensable. If you are in a place where mobile phones don’t work, you have to run to the nearest village or military/paramilitary outpost to report the incident and get the word out. In other countries, this problem is overcome by using satellite phones. However, that communications life-saver was banned in India after misuse by anti-national elements and reported refusal by an international service provider to comply with security norms. India has treks where local rules stipulate that an expedition carry a satellite phone. In such cases, the phone can be hired from an approved source like the local mountaineering institute. But phones for hire are few. Satellite phones make a difference. In August 2011, after a successful first ascent of the 24,809ft-high Saser Kangri-II in Ladakh, Steven Swenson, president of the American Alpine Club, developed respiratory problems. In his case – details were available on his blog — a satellite phone helped in medical diagnosis and timely evacuation by chopper. The actual evacuation though could begin only after some “bureaucratic wrangling”. Courtesy security concerns, detailed maps of the Himalaya, Global Positioning System (GPS) and emergency beacons – all risk being viewed with an element of suspicion.
The accident reporting process is layered. Typically, the first person alerted somehow is the concerned tour operator. In the case of a foreigner, the tour operator informs the client’s insurance company as evacuation by chopper is expensive (increasingly the IAF flies two choppers for the purpose). Then the embassy concerned and the external affairs ministry are contacted, which in turn alert the defence ministry. From there, word reaches the air force or army headquarters in Delhi, which alert the air force or army chopper base nearest to the accident site and get a bird in the air. The chopper may succeed in the first sortie if weather is good; if not, another sortie or more as required. This roundabout process takes time; not to mention the added risk of the accident getting reported on a holiday when government offices are shut. Yet, on the request of a district magistrate, Indian trekkers and mountaineers get evacuated and the armed forces have to be thanked for responding with their helicopters. Given the absence of comprehensive insurance cover until last year, what the armed forces did for Indians qualified to be social service.
Some countries including Nepal have private players participating in search and rescue. The tour operator this blog spoke to said that he had tried to obtain clearance for a private search and rescue apparatus using helicopters he was willing to invest in. “ I wasn’t motivated by profit. My thinking was – such a facility has a positive impact on the overall adventure tourism space,’’ he said. But his suggestion was discouraged because parts of the Himalaya are deemed strategic and the defence forces prefer to keep the skies there restricted. A silver lining, according to him, is that the government has acted on the satellite phone issue but as expected, clarity down the chain of command and into the trade is still awaited. In the meantime as recent as August-September 2015, a rock climber from Mumbai, who was seriously injured in a mishap in the Himalaya, could be reached only after several days from the time of accident, by when he was no more. So while insurance can enable action, quick response at ground level is a separate issue altogether. If insurance is complemented by a responsive, efficient evacuation infrastructure in the mountains, the impact will be more.
For now, an insurance policy with evacuation cost covered, is a beginning in the right direction.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is a composite of a March 2017 conversation with Dr Abhijeet Ghosh in Pune, a February 2017 conversation with the tour operator mentioned, a January 2012 article by the author in The Telegraph newspaper and relevant updates. The primary intention of the article is to provoke thought on how India can have an affordable, easily accessed and efficient search and rescue apparatus, useful for adventurers.)