In the summer of 2017, I was travelling to the district hospital (DH) in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, on official work for an organisation I was working with. It was a fine, sunny day. Traffic was moving as usual. A few bikers were riding as if they were on race course. Cars overtook one another as if they were going to miss the train to the rest of their lives. And trucks—well there wasn’t much space for them to showcase their ‘driving skills’. The roads were confusing, sometimes plain, sometimes bumpy. There was no clear distinction between it and the footpath. Small shops and settlements were encroaching on the road—or maybe it was the other way, I don’t really know.
Well, life was going on as usual for most people. As my vehicle passed through a crossroads, I noticed a stranded truck, a crowd, and a woman soaked in blood. She seemed to be having a fit. A road-traffic accident (RTA). My first reaction was squeezing my eyes shut and wishing I hadn’t passed by. But I was there, and I had to do something. Several times before, when I didn’t have the capacity to take any decision, I have ignored RTAs. My college was on a highway, and as a day-scholar, I saw many such accidents. The people hurt in those situations, though, seemed to be beyond any medical intervention.
I asked the driver to stop. He ignored my request. I forced him to reverse the car. Somewhere inside I wished that he would keep ignoring me. That would have allowed me to shrug off the guilt of not doing ‘the right thing’.
As I reached the site of the accident, people had surrounded the victim. One woman who was with the victim was shouting and crying. I could see a few on-lookers trying to stop vehicles, maybe to be able to take the injured woman to the hospital. There was not much time for me to decipher that. I asked people to give me a way to reach her so I could take her in my car to the nearest hospital. But they were too busy chattering and talking and expressing their amazement. I shouted with the full capacity of my lungs (I don’t even know how I managed to make myself heard to so many people at once!). While a few people finally helped me get the women to the car, my driver was not very supportive. He began asking me to stop, telling me that I was inviting trouble for him and myself. Distressed, he called the zonal office administrator who, in turn, called me back to say I couldn’t help the woman using and official vehicle. He said to me, in a most sophisticated and calm manner, that he understood I wanted to do a good deed, but that it wasn’t the right time or the right place. Really? I was losing my nerve. I immediately called my supervisor back in the head office and told him what I was doing. He fully supported me, much to my relief.
The nearest place we could go to was a government-run Community Health Center (CHC). At the time, I was working on a project with few CHCs, but this one was unknown to me. As soon as we reached there, I stepped out and alerted the people near emergency signboard that I had an accident victim in my car who needed immediate attention. I was bewildered to see that no one even blinked. It left me speechless, and feeling hurt. Again, I had to raise my voice, saying I would complain to the higher authorities because I worked at the district hospital. That alerted a pharmacist there, and he requested a ward boy to get a stretcher. When the ward boy ignored him, he found another to do the job.
Finally, the injured woman was taken to the emergency receiving room. The pharmacist did some first-aid and confirmed that the woman was fine and had sustained no life-threatening injury. He said that a doctor would soon come to check her. All this time, people awaiting treatment or accompanying someone were so excited to witness this scene. I even asked them, quite sincerely, whether someone’s suffering was interesting for them. Of course, there was no staff trying to stop them from entering the emergency room and interfering in the woman’s treatment. Or maybe the hospital didn’t have enough staff.
Later, I was told that it was the pharmacist who took care of most accident cases. It was such a common occurrence at the hospital due to its busy road-side location. The hospital staff was overloaded with work. This might partially explain the apathy of the ward boys and other staff when they casually ignored my requests to attend to the victim.
After some time, I left the hospital. I approached the cab with the intention of teaching the driver about the moral duties of citizens. I asked him about his reluctance to help and his general anxiety. He told me that he had once helped someone carry an accident victim to a hospital. He was then accused of hitting the victim and a legal battle was still going on in the court. I was speechless and deeply saddened.
The number and trend of RTAs in India show the inadequacy of the existing legal framework under the Motor Vehicles Acts, 1988. After the unfortunate demise of former union minister Mr. Gopinath Munde in a road accident in 2014, a lot of attention has been drawn to the issue of road safety in India. Amendments in the old act of 1988 were mooted in the parliament. Later, it came to be known as the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2017, which was passed in Lok Sabha in April 2017. It is still pending for approval in the upper house.
However, the bill is facing opposition from public transport organisations and a few political parties on the premise that it contains provisions for privatisation of public transport and lacks the adequate requirements for road safety. The Save Life Foundation (which works to improve road safety and emergency medical care) has also cited a lack of provisions ensuring road safety.
Among a few noteworthy points in the Bill, there are:
1: Provisions for protection of the Good Samaritan—“a person, who is in good faith, voluntarily and without expectation of any reward or compensation renders emergency medical or non-medical care or assistance at the scene of an accident to the victim or transporting such victim to the hospital”.
2: Provisions for punishment to the designated authority, contractor, consultant or concessionaire responsible for road design, construction, and maintenance, where failure on their part results in death or disability.
The Bill does not discuss the need for sensitisation and training for the general public on how they can help accident victims within the “golden hour”, or even information on what to do and not do around a victim. It should be made a mandatory part of our school curricula.
Other than the provision of cashless treatment within the golden hour, there is no mention of the responsibilities of (or any legal binding for) healthcare departments under the Bill. A clause on the roles and responsibilities of the healthcare system would help make them accountable for their response.
Rapid and unplanned urbanisation, an increasing number of motor vehicles, poor infrastructure, corruption in the process of licensing and vehicle registration, along with poor adherence to the traffic rules are the primary reasons for such a high incidence of fatal RTAs. Both law enforcement agencies and the public have a role to play to lessen the tremendous loss of lives and subsequent suffering, not only to the victim but to the relatives and friends too.