Help on wheels: How north Bengal’s ‘bike-ambulance dada’ is saving lives
The blue flickering light racing through the muddy road is enough to alert the people of Dhalabari village in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district that the ‘Bike-Ambulance Dada is on duty.
Meet Karimul Haque, a tea garden worker in his early 50s, who ferries the ill, the poor and the fragile to and from the district hospital on his bike.
Initially, people thought Karimul was either disturbed or trying to hog the limelight.
But a personal experience had motivated him.
“I could not save my mother because I did not have a vehicle. I had no option but see her die in the wee hours of a night, 15 years ago,” said Karimul.
The idea of a bike ambulance occurred to him a few years later when a co-worker, Azizul, collapsed on the field in front of him. Karimul tied him to his back and rode 50 km down to the Jalpaiguri Sadar Hospital. Azizul got his life back and gave Karimul a new reason to live.
“Initially people laughed at me, but when help came their way in times of crisis, they started taking my work seriously,” said Karimul.
Soon, Karimul, on his bike, became the only lifeline for 20 villages in and around Dhalabari. This part of Bengal, known as Dooars and dominated by small tea growers, daily wagers and peasants, has mobile networks but lacks concrete roads and basic healthcare facilities.
Ferrying a patient to the hospital in an ambulance is a luxury mostly elusive for a majority in the region. Rarely are desperate calls for an ambulance heeded to as the nearest hospital in Malbazar is 45km away and the potholed road meanders through dense forests, notorious for elephant attacks. “The ambulances make an exception for pregnant women. However, it takes them half a day to reach us. The nearest public health centre is 8km away, but it lacks proper healthcare facilities,” he added.
To ease things for the villagers, Karimul has also started providing basic care at their doorstep, having taken intensive training from local doctors.
“There are times when roads are flooded and traffic does not move. For occasions like that, I taught him the basics like how to dress a wound and administer an injection. I have seen him cleaning wounds of a maggot-hit septicaemia patient,” said Dr Saumen Mandal, a surgeon at the Jalpaiguri district hospital.
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, funded his endeavour on 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 zila parishad funds,” Das said.
Local people consider him God-send. Some even seek his blessings before auspicious events. “Karimul dada is next to God. When my mother-in-law had a stroke, we thought she won’t live. Thanks to Karimul dada, who drove at jet-speed to the hospital, she is hale and hearty now,” said Bulu Oraon, a villager.
So, what is his ultimate dream? An ambulance fitted with advanced healthcare facilities, says Karimul. “This will help people who live in remote areas in a big way,” he said.
His prayers have been answered, albeit partially. 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.
But if a proper ambulance comes his way, will he ditch his bike ambulance? “The bike ambulance is my mother. How can one leave his Maa (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 signed off.
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