By Aftab Husain Kola
A Muslim getting the coveted Padma Shri award instituted by Government of India conferred on a person for distinguished service in any field is not common. This year (2017), one of the awardees was a Muslim from West Bengal (India) who ferries patients to hospitals and clinics in his specially-crafted motorcycle ambulance.
The unsung hero is Karimul Haque (52) who is fondly called ‘Ambulance Dada’. Hailing from Malbazar, a sub-divisional town in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, Karimul Haque converted his motorcycle into an ambulance which can easily cruise through narrow lanes and congested roads and can reach accident spots with ease and faster. For him getting one of the country’s highest civilian honours was a proud moment.
It was a personal helpless situation which triggered in him the need for such a service.
It was in 1995 that Karimul lost his mother Jafarunnissa, following a heart attack because he could not arrange for an ambulance in time to take her to a hospital. Heartbroken by the incident, Karimul decided that day that he will not let another person die due to lack of ambulance facilities.
He reminisced, “After her demise, the problems that thousands of people in the remote areas of Malbazar, particularly in forest villages and tea plantations, faced suddenly haunted me. It began to dawn on me how these people often die for lack of quick treatment. It was then I decided that I should do my part to help save the lives of these poor folks.”
Realising that one needs money to buy a motorcycle Karimul started to save money and finally bought a motorcycle in 1998. His only intention was to see that no person is deprived of timely medical assistance.
It was his mother’s demise that prompted him that he should do something to help the needy and sick people. But the idea of using his bike as an ambulance came to him when one of his co-workers collapsed in the field. It was virtually not possible for the ambulance to get inside the field. Aware of this, Karimul tied the patient to his back, made him ride pillion and took him to Jalpaiguri Sadar Hospital. The co-worker received timely medical care and regained his health. After this incident, Karimul’s bike ambulance became a full-fledged idea and service. Eversince this first case, Karimul has ferried more than 7000 patients in Malbazar and its neighbourhood areas to hospital for free. Patients and sometimes a family member ride pillion on the bike.
Karimul said he never charged anyone and was ready to take patients to hospital even at midnight. Those in need of his “bike ambulance” call Karimul on his cellphone.
Not only his bike ambulance service but Karimul also provides basic and first aid treatment to the villagers after learning from the local doctors. He also runs health camps in tribal areas at regular intervals.
Karimul’s earnings are hardly enough for his survival. He works in a small tea plantation, Subarnapur, a job that fetches him Rs 4,000 a month. He lives with his wife Anjuya Begum, two sons and his daughters-in-law. One son has his own betel leaf shop while the other son has small mobile repair shop. Their earnings sustain the family.
Since Karimul has to deal with patients before being taken to hospital he learnt the comprehensive first aid from local doctors.
“There are times when roads are inundated with water during rains and traffic does not move. In such situations, I taught him the basics like how to clean and dress a wound and administer an injection. I have seen him cleaning wounds of a maggot-hit septicaemia patient,” Dr. Saumen Mandal, a surgeon at the Jalpaiguri district hospital said.
Armed with good knowledge of basic healthcare, Karimul now conducts regular health camps in tribal areas. “After dealing with medical emergencies for the last decade and a half, I felt that I can help more people with health camps.”
The joint secretary of panchayat and rural development department, Dibyendu Das, who was also the additional district magistrate of region between 2014 and 2016, patronised his endeavour on many occasions. “Although he gets a meagre Rs 4,000 every month, Karimul spends half his salary buying fuel for his bike and medicines for the poor. I tried and helped him with the little I could through Zilla Parishad funds,” Das remembers.
Karimul, on his bike, became the only lifeline for about 20 villages in and around Dhalabari. This stretch of Bengal, known as Dooars and dominated by small tea growers, daily wagers and peasants, has reasonably good connectivity but lacks concrete roads and basic healthcare facilities. Requests for an ambulance are seldom responded in this area and the nearest hospital is 45 kilometres away.
Karimul dreams to bring an advanced ambulance to his village equipped with all the necessary facilities.
“An ambulance fitted with advanced healthcare facilities. This will benefit people who live in remote areas in a big way,” he said.
Recently Bajaj upgraded his bike and fitted it with a waterproof stretcher and ports for oxygen cylinder as part of their corporate social responsibility initiative.
Even a proper ambulance comes his way, he is not prepared to ditch his bike ambulance. He says, “The bike ambulance is my mother. How can one leave his mother?” Karimul asked.
“Besides, a bike ambulance will be of more help in these narrow lanes and by-lanes, where four-wheelers get stuck every now and then,” he answers.
Karimul also has a detachable trolley attached to his bike on which he carries patients to the hospital.
It is not just the bike ambulance service that he is into, he also collects rice, blankets and clothes, and distributes it among the needy. “I get donations from school teachers, cops and sometimes students too. That helps fund the treatment for the needy,” he says.