Karimul Haque’s house in Jalpaiguri’s Dhalabari village was a flurry of activity when two men came looking for him one sunny June morning. Haque was busy overseeing breakfast preparations for some 200 people — a new normal for his family during the pandemic.
The two brothers said their mother, Gyaneshwari Rai, an asthma patient, had died in their sister’s house some 15 km away, and they were not able to get her body back for the last rites. Everyone had turned their backs on the family, fearing the septuagenarian had died of COVID-19. With no transport, not even an ambulance, their only hope was Haque, the ‘Bike Ambulance Dada’.
Within hours, Haque had sped off on his bike ambulance with its customised hospital cot attached as a side-car, and had brought the body to the Rais’ house for the final rites and cremation. “We were not with her when she passed away,” said Bhim, one of the deceased woman’s sons. “The least we could do was send her off with dignity, with full Hindu rites as she would have wished. Thanks to Karim- da , we could perform our final duty towards our mother.”
Ferrying people to and from the hospital on his motorbike has been Haque’s pursuit for many years now. His ailing pillion riders live in far-flung places, tea gardens and villages in forests that are often not connected to roads; marginalised people who would have remained without access to healthcare if not for Haque’s free transport. One phone call and he sets off on his TVS 110cc. In the past 20 years, he has helped, by his estimate, close to 5,500 people, a feat for which he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2017.
Haque lost his mother, in 1995, due to the lack of transport. “She suffered a heart attack at midnight, but we could not take her to the hospital,” he says. “We watched helplessly as she passed away by dawn.” Four years later, at the tea garden where he worked part-time, a co-worker fell ill. Haque borrowed his manager’s bike and took him to hospital. “To be able to save a life is heartening,” he says. Slowly, he began ferrying the sick to hospital on his cycle or in cycle-rickshaws. In 2007, he borrowed ₹7,000 from his neighbour to buy a second-hand motorbike and continued the job. Two years later, he took a bank loan to finance a TVS110.
In 2016, Bajaj gifted him a bike with a side car. Now, thanks to donations, he also owns two regular four-wheel ambulances for which patients pay a minimal fare to meet fuel costs. The bike, however, which Haque himself rides, is a free service.
Just from experience, after dealing with patients for so many years, and from interactions with doctor acquaintances, Haque, a school drop-out, has trained himself to conduct basic examinations such as measuring temperature and blood pressure and giving first aid. Now, in these times of the pandemic, his calling continues uninterrupted. It has, in fact, brought new responsibilities for Haque. “We have to be more careful and take all precautions,” he says, when asked about the stigma that led to Gyaneshwari Rai being abandoned. “But this is not the time to abandon our friends and relatives. We have to stand by each other.”
Last month, the Jalpaiguri zilla parishad appointed him the district’s health ambassador for COVID-19 as part of its public awareness programme at the grassroots level. This means Haque must travel to villages along with panchayat representatives, civic police volunteers and ASHA workers and interact with local people. He tells them about the novel coronavirus, and what they should and should not do. “I try to dispel myths; I tell them to be governed by science and science alone,” says Haque.
Since the lockdown was announced, Haque has been distributing food and rations to the poor and the now unemployed migrant workers returning from other places. With the help of donations, Haque provides dry rations to around 1,000 people and cooked meals to 200 quarantined migrant workers. He has hired people to cook at his own house.
Haque, his sons, and some 35 relatives who live in the neighbourhood, have all come together in this endeavour. “We have a core team of 10-12 cousins who do most of the legwork, while father oversees everything,” says Raju, Haque’s elder son, who also helps in the ambulance service. “It feels like the family has suddenly become bigger.”
Haque gets generous financial backing from both NRIs and locals. Kazi Iqbal Hussain, a Kuwait-based businessman and philanthropist with roots in West Bengal, has donated ₹2 lakh for a clinic that Haque has begun constructing near his house, as well as over ₹4 lakh towards pandemic relief work. The U.S.-based Kalyan Debnath, an aviation sector professional, and his brother Rabi, have donated ₹1.75 lakh for the hospital and supplied Haque with dry rations, sanitary napkins, hand sanitisers, masks, gloves, and more.
“It is the donors who are the main force, helping me help thousands of needy people,” says Haque. “I’m only a foot soldier.”
The Siliguri-based independent journalist writes on politics, culture and other things (after the kids go to sleep).