Photographs by Hashim Maqbool and Lara Natalia Hänny | Text by Suryasarathi Bhattacharya

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ON A SCORCHING DAY THIS MAY, amid India’s devastating second COVID-19 wave that had laid Delhi low, 65-year-old Rukhsana Khatoon from Jasola Vihar needed to be hospitalised urgently. After making numerous and increasingly desperate calls, her family managed to find a bed in Gurugram’s Mayom Hospital. But there were no registered ambulances available, and the ones that were demanded exorbitant rates. Finally, they came across the number for an ambulance service run by an NGO named Khedmat in Delhi. The family made a call and two young men covered in PPE suits and masks arrived at their doorstep. Khatoon had an oxygen cylinder; she was put inside the car-cum-ambulance; the engine roared and she was on her way to Gurugram.

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“Her oxygen level had dropped to 70 percent but I somehow tried to maintain it at 95 percent using the oxygen cylinder she had brought along with her. By the time we reached Mayom all the oxygen was exhausted,” recounts Aadil Farooque Siddiqui, 23, from Jamia Nagar, one of the individuals behind Khedmat’s ambulance services. He continues, “After waiting for around 1.5 hours we were told there was no bed available. We had no oxygen left and the patient was already gasping for breath. We were moving around in search of another hospital. I started making the patient drink water so that she could somehow continue breathing for the next 20-25 minutes. Finally, we found a bed at the World Brain Centre Hospital in Janakpuri.”

Aadil along with the driver Azeem started free ambulance services in Delhi during the last week of April 2021. Their services are primarily targeted at patients who are in critical condition or those who come from underprivileged backgrounds. They receive SOS calls and messages on their phones from across the city and these two men try their best to help people in distress. “We go anywhere we get calls from in Delhi. However, it’s a fact that refilling oxygen cylinders is a major hassle. So, if we have reserve oxygen with us we leave immediately. Otherwise, we ask our patients beforehand whether they have oxygen cylinders or concentrators with them or not. If they do, we go over to their place and take them to a hospital,” says Aadil.

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While they strive to take this service to as many people as possible, they hardly manage to serve one or two patients a day as a major chunk of their time goes in travelling from one hospital to another due to unavailability of beds or just the sheer distance between the patient’s house and the hospital. As in the case of Khatoon, Aadil recalls, there have been other instances where the patient’s oxygen supply had completely exhausted and they had to think on their feet. “There was this time when one of the patients’ SPO2 level had dropped from 90 to 60 and there was no oxygen in the ambulance. The patient had a concentrator but the hospital we were heading to was pretty far away. On the way we saw a police barricade, we reached out to them and explained to them everything. They arranged for us a marriage hall's guard room which they got opened for us and it was only then we could put our oxygen concentrator on the plug,” he says.

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Aadil, who originally hails from Bihar, has spent all his childhood in Delhi staying with his uncle and aunt. Two-three years ago he moved out and started living on his own with some of his friends. He currently works with an NGO named Gurukul which has been trying to extend help during the lockdown but nothing significant came out of those endeavours. “During one of the brainstorming sessions with peers and colleagues, we came up with the idea of these ambulance services,” Aadil remembers, adding how the idea germinated because the ambulance fares had gone sky-high and many, who would otherwise be slated in the ‘privileged’ category, weren’t in a position to afford them. For a patient travelling from their residence at Anand Vihar to Boston Hospital in Gurugram, an ambulance charged them Rs 45,000. Then another patient was supposedly charged Rs 65,000 just to cover a stretch of 2 kilometres from Ghaffar Manzil colony. “The registered ambulances charged ten times the normal fare, and by that measure, everybody was rendered helpless. So, we thought this is where we could help out.”

And thus, a car was hired, revamped and made into an ambulance. “We took the car to a welder who attached a stool inside the van for us and also built a bed inside. Earlier we would just tie the oxygen cylinders to something, but now we have stands,” mentions 28-year-old Mohammad Azeem who drives the ambulance van for Khedmat. To this, Aadil adds that inside the ambulance —right from the bedsheets to the pillow covers — everything is disposable; they keep sanitising the interiors every now and then. They also wear masks and PPE suits all the time while they are outside helping COVID patients find a hospital bed.

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Born and having largely lived in Delhi, Azeem shifted to Bareilly in 2010 along with his family. He used to drive tempos and autos there; worked in a salon. Having shored up some savings by 2019, he bought a car, married and had a child. Unfortunately, his child died a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck India. He says, “I come from a lower-middle-class family and did not have enough resources. My child died in a government hospital due to the unavailability of oxygen and an ambulance. Because of that, he suffered for about 3-4 hours as we travelled from UP to Delhi…We had booked the ambulance for 10 hours at a price of Rs 45,000, which I had paid from all my life's savings.”

Azeem and his wife were depressed after the loss of their child, and in debt. Azeem sold his car to a friend, Irshad Ahmed, from whom he heard about Khedmat's ambulance services and Aadil.

“When Irshad bhai called me I came here quickly. Until then I was doing whatever came my way —from picking up tiles, doing manual labour, to driving cars etc,” says Azeem. His wife is pregnant now and he has left her with her brother in Noida, while he has been living on his own in Delhi. He adds, “I told her that I am going out in search of work. She doesn’t know what I do these days. If she gets to know she will be anxious unnecessarily. Anyway, she isn’t keeping well. The past five months have been terrible for me personally. I don’t want to bother my wife… I have seen a lot of ups and downs in these years and I am well acquainted with the ground realities. I know how much pain is out there and I have myself dealt with it first-hand. There are a lot of stressed out people around; they need help.”

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Azeem says even during his early days, he was always socially conscious and did a lot of relief work with whatever resources he could gather and offer. This was something even Irshad knew and hence he thought of Azeem when Khedmat’s ambulance services needed a driver. Life’s come a full circle for him in a way because the ambulance they drive these days is the same car Azeem had sold off to Irshad a year ago.

“I feel good that the asset that I had bought a few years ago is finally being used for some good cause.”

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Faiz Ilahi, 26, one of the founding members of Khedmat says that the NGO was born out of people’s sentiments during the first lockdown. Talking about their venture Faiz mentions that they are not dependent on any funds. “All the members of the NGO are alumni of Delhi’s Hamdard Public School who work primarily in the IT sector; the entire financial backing comes from there. We donate on our own as much as we can afford; we try to do as much charity as possible. That’s also a reason why we began the ambulance services during the holy month of Ramzan," he says. While the ambulance services are meant to mainly cater to underprivileged COVID patients, they try helping out whoever is in need. “We don’t do any background check as such. While we do expect some to donate or pay for the services, but in the end, we leave it to them. Those who wish to pay can, otherwise they can use it for free.”

Khedmat has been working relentlessly ever since the pandemic unfolded in Delhi in 2020. During the first wave, they distributed food and essentials, and in the second wave providing and arranging for oxygen cylinders became a priority. “We tried our best to supply oxygen cylinders and flow metres with as many resources we have. We bought cylinders and gave them to people on an SOS basis and asked them to take it for a day or two and arrange for a refill before returning so that we could use it to save someone else’s life as well,” Faiz says adding that it was only late April-early May when they started their ambulance services after Aadil came up with the idea. "We are saving 6-7 lives every day. Even if we save one life, that is enough of a motivation for us to carry on”

For Azeem and Aadil who deal with the patients first-hand, the responsibility and motivations go a bit further — right from the patient’s home to their hospital bed. Azeem explains, “When we take a patient in; we are the ones who do everything — letting the patient in, setting up the oxygen system and taking the best possible care of them...Aadil bhai treats them like family members. I have seen him attending to the patients, caring for them. When we take them to a hospital and see them getting a bed, we feel relieved. Saving a life is a great feeling. Insaniyat ka kaam yahi hai ki insan ke liye kaam aa jaye, chaahe jaise ho (Humanity preaches everyone to help each other, regardless who or how the other person is).”

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Amid all this running around and attending to people in distress, Azeem says they experience relationships up, close and personal. Unlike in the past, when family and friends would be major support systems around a patient, this time around everyone had distanced themselves, which felt strange. Azeem recalls, “There was one case where a woman was being taken to a hospital and her husband refused to see her off. Finally, her nephew sat inside the ambulance and accompanied her.”

“It surprises me how family members are treating each other. It is almost living like untouchables should one of them catch a cold or cough. I think that's not fair,” Azeem says and quickly adds how his wife had supported him and took good care of him when he was running a fever and had caught a cold a few months ago. “Imagine if she had refused — that would have definitely affected my health and well being. I think one should be there for others, especially during such tumultuous times. Yes, social distancing and isolation is a must, but does that mean we abandon our loved ones because they are sick? Isn’t this the time when our family should stick by each other the most?“

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Aadil wants to move out of his friend’s place and start living with Azeem in order to isolate themselves from their near and dear ones, and work more cohesively. On any given day, it is Azeem who is in the driver’s seat while Aadil takes care of the patient at the back and provides support in every possible way.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. As the second COVID-19 wave raged in Delhi, Aadil and Azeem barely slept. Sometimes they would come back home at 3 am, rest for two hours and then at 5 am there would be another SOS call. And off they would go. “We leave early in the morning and don’t even get to have our breakfast. And we come back late at night for dinner. In between, we manage to pack food from a hotel and eat it somewhere on the way. And sometimes, we have been so occupied that it never struck us that we hadn’t eaten the whole day,” says Azeem.

He talks about how his experience of driving cars and autos in the past paid off as he has now learnt to take short naps during the breaks. These days these breaks are usually the waiting period at the patient’s home or outside hospitals. To this Aadil adds: “It is a support-based relationship. Azeem drives most of the times, but when he is tired I also step in. We are usually sleep-deprived at the end of the day so we have to help each other, in order to continue what we are doing.”

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It would be an incomplete journey if one never encountered any roadblocks. In Aadil and Azeem’s case, these roadblocks are also sometimes quite literal. During one of their trips, while they were returning from Burari, a policeman stopped them somewhere near AIIMS and started asking questions. Their ambulance is not a registered one with signage and siren attached to it. “There was everything else in the vehicle – oxygen cylinders, a bed, PPE kits etc. We had the passes and the NGO cards which allowed us to do relief work and deliver medical supplies. We also had the signature of the SHO and all the other necessary documents. He spoke to us very rudely in a patronising tone: ‘SHO to aajkal kuch bhi likh deta hai (SHO writes anything these days)’,” recalls Aadil, of how the policeman ridiculed him for showing the letter and then threw all the other documents. He continues, “I think because he couldn't find anything wrong or any missing document, he became more frustrated. When I told him I also had photographs and videos of what we did all day, he just retorted saying, ‘Chal ja! (Off you go)’.”

“That really hurt us...Even if you do something noble you end up receiving such behaviour from people in power.”

In spite of all this Azeem has learnt to look at the brighter side of life. Nothing scares him anymore, not the virus, not the mistrust, nothing. “Jaana to hai ek na ek din (We have to die one day or the other). Kuch ho bhi gaya to dekh lenge (And if anything untoward should happen, we will take care of it). We feel happy that at least at the end of the day we can bring a smile on a face, a sense of reassurance to a distressed family. What else matters in this period of despair and uncertainty?” he says.

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They have already started receiving calls from other individuals and groups who want to start something similar. People want to know how they operate, how did they fashion an ambulance out of a car and how much money did they invest in all of it. “If not anything, at least we are inspiring some more to come up. So, we are happy that we started it and now there are others who are following suit...The more the better. Koi ek kadam badhata hai to doosra bhi badhane ki koshish karta hai (When one puts a step ahead [to do something good], others also try to come ahead). After all, it’s for a good change,” says Azeem.

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— Photographs by Hashim Maqbool and Lara Natalia Hänny © for Firstpost. All rights reserved.

For any further information on Khedmat, click here.