India’s best-known highway rescue operation, the Ahmedabad-based Lifeline Foundation, was born quite by accident, literally, when its founder Subroto Das and his wife Sushmita were involved in an accident. On a dark rainy night eight years ago, the couple’s car crashed into a tree by the Ahmedabad-Vadodara highway, but no help came their way for seven long hours.
“I was the only one who could move after my car crashed. My wife and a friend who was travelling with us were trapped in the car, but no one would stop to help us despite seeing the smashed car and me waving at them to stop. After about seven hours, a milkman on a bullock cart stopped. He took us to the hospital,” says Dr Das, 42, the chief executive and managing trustee of Lifeline Foundation.
That was in 1999. Now, anytime there is an accident on the highway, a trained team from Lifeline Foundation rushes to the spot, ensuring that it reaches within an hour of the accident, known as the golden hour. “If you can get the accident victim to a hospital within that first hour, the chances of a full recovery are that much higher,” says Dr Das, who claims that more people die in road accidents in India than of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
“Every year more than one lakh people die in road accidents, according to official NHAI (National Highways Authority of India) statistics. And most of these deaths are preventable. All you need is get them to a hospital within the first hour,” he adds.
Actually, Lifeline’s records show that its teams reach accident spots in less than 40 minutes. The teams are trained to give basic care and “ensure that critically injured people are not moved unnecessarily or in a manner that could cause further injury,” according to Dr Das.
What started in Gujarat has spread to Maharashtra and West Bengal, and Lifeline’s service now covers 1,476km of national highways across these states. The foundation uses a network of ambulances to get accident victims to hospitals in time. And it also handles all the paperwork required at hospitals and police stations while the accident victim undergoes treatment.
“The biggest thing that prevents people from stopping to help accident victims is the fear of police harassment. Most people, educated ones included, do not know that the police cannot force you into giving details that you don’t want to. Nor do they realize that hospitals cannot refuse to treat an accident victim in the name of waiting for police formalities. Nor can the police stall medical procedures in the name of carrying out legal formalities. The Supreme Court’s orders are very clear on this,” says Dr Das.
Lifeline Foundation also guarantees hospitals payment in case accident victims cannot pay. “But most people end up paying sooner than later and the hospitals have also realized that this is good business, so they don’t turn victims away.”
The idea of setting up a highway rescue network was born in the hospital while Sushmita Das and Subroto Das lay recuperating after their 1999 accident: “Actually, it was Sushmita who pushed me into this. She kept saying we must do something to prevent deaths through road accidents,” says Dr Das. “It still gives me a sense satisfaction to see that we have been able to prevent an unnecessary death,” adds Sushmita.
Lifeline’s ambulances patrol the highways. “When a call comes in, we send a message out to the nearest ambulance to pick up the victim and rush to the nearest hospital. Most often, calls come from other travellers on the highway who don’t stop, but call us on the emergency number. The only thing we ask for is the nearest landmark to help us identify the accident site,” says Sushmita.
All along the highways it covers, Lifeline has put up billboards listing the numbers that need to be called. The foundation has also mapped the highways it covers so that every single landmark is on record, and ambulances can reach victims quickly. And Indian Oil Corp. has tied up with the foundation to train attendants manning its petrol stations on highways to handle accident victims.
Dr Das, who graduated from Baroda Medical College refused to practice medicine soon after passing out as he felt much of the practice was corrupt. “Most doctors work on the basis of referral fees. Rather than treating the patient, they are more interested in how much they can get as referral fees (from other doctors or diagnostic testing centres). So I decided to get into hospital management,” he adds.
The idea didn’t go down too well with his parents, who were sold on their son becoming a doctor. He is doing better work than some, says Gauri Wagner, the Ahmedabad chief representative of the Netherlands Business Support Office, who helped Lifeline connect with a Dutch non-governmental organization in 2001 and has since continued to be involved with the foundation. “Subroto is completely dedicated to saving lives, probably more than doctors with regular practices. He stuck with the idea of Lifeline when others would have given up, especially when he went from pillar to post trying to get permissions,” she adds.
For almost two years after he first came up with the idea, all Dr Das heard from people he approached was that he could not start the project until the government gave its permission. “One day, of out of sheer frustration, I decided to fax my project synopsis to the Prime Minister’s Office. I was so disgusted with all the running around that I was ready to give up. Moreover, Sushmita had given me a sort of ultimatum,” says Dr Das. The couple received a call from the prime minister’s office asking them to meet the NHAI chairman. “When we met him, he heard us out, and said ‘Who said you need permission? Just go and start the project!’ That’s when we could get started,” says Dr Das. Lifeline is currently in talks with the governments of Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim, as well as the Sri Lankan government for starting highway rescue operations.
It is also looking to partner with non-governmental organizations and offer the service in Bihar, Jharkand, and Assam. In October, the foundation will launch operations in Rajasthan and follow that up with operations on the New Delhi-Dehradun highway.
Dr Das is determined that he will not take the government’s money—all of Lifeline’s contributions come from corporate donors such as Asian Paints.
Sushmita runs a travel agency that was the first corporate donor to the foundation. “When other wives would have been demanding bread and butter on the table, Sushmita has stood by him and contributed cash to run the project,” says Wagner.
Sushmita continues to be trustee on the board of Lifeline Foundation and ensures that operational standards are maintained. “She is the organizer while Subroto is the dreamer,” adds Wagner.
And what is Subroto Das’ dream? To see Indian highways become safer.
“We have a terrible driving culture. No one follows rules. I would like to see all Indian roads covered in case of accidents. But I don’t expect to see that in my time or my son’s lifetime. I would be happy if my grandchildren could enjoy safe driving.”
(Jeetha D’Silva contributed to this story.)
(Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to email@example.com)