Last year in August, when Tariq Ahmad Patloo, a houseboat owner in Srinagar, was infected with Covid and needed a ride to Srinagar’s SMHS Hospital, his own community failed him. He was unable to find a shikara to take him across the lake. Even after his recovery, the memory of that apathy haunted him more than the virus. Upon regaining his strength, Patloo began looking into the idea of starting a water ambulance service to help those Covid patients who are unable to find support. However, at above Rs 20 lakh, the cost of a commercial water ambulance—a motorised boat equipped with materials and devices to provide life-saving, immediate medical intervention—proved to be unaffordable for Patloo. So, instead, he converted a traditional shikara into a make-shift ambulance with financial assistance from the Satya Rekha Trust.

Besides houseboat and shikara owners, about 8,000 people living in the Dal Lake area, spread over 22 square kilometres, lack proper medical facilities or an ambulance to ferry them to the nearest hospital.

Patloo, determined to change the situation, worked for over a month, with a friend, to build the 35-foot-long and 5.5-foot-wide ambulance using light-weight materials, such as deodar, iron and aluminium. He also fitted it with an outboard motor so that it could reach destinations quickly. The ambulance, launched in December 2020, has already helped many people reach the hospital and also ferried six dead bodies across the lake.

The ambulance is equipped with a stretcher, a wheelchair, masks, PPE kits, a glucometer, BP apparatus, oximeter and a first-aid box. The second wave of the virus has forced him to also get an oxygen cylinder. The boat will soon boast of even a ventilator. He has sought help from the government to have a dedicated medical practitioner and paramedic assigned to his service so that emergency treatment can be given on the boat itself.

The floating ambulance service is reaching into the interiors of the lake. “Delay in ferrying patients to hospital causes death. My aunt had died because she couldn’t be ferried to a nearby embankment in time,” says Patloo. “It is challenging to ferry patients in small, open boats, especially during the rainy season or in the winters. The floating ambulance is covered and has been made waterproof to address that problem. It can accommodate 10 people.”

The boatman has been circulating his number via WhatsApp groups and on posters carrying messages about saving the lake from pollution. He gets frequent calls from families living in the lake area to ferry their ailing family members (Covid positive or otherwise) to the hospital. “Recently, I even ferried bodies in the ambulance,” Patloo says. “I give patients and their attendants PPE kits from the ambulance to prevent the spread of Covid. Every morning, I set out on my boat and raise awareness, reading out Covid SOPs on the loudspeaker fitted on the ambulance. The fuel on these trips cost me Rs 300-500 on a daily basis and I pay for it from my own savings. I also distribute masks for free to boatmen who are without masks.”

Patloo is now trying to reach out to the authorities to get his water ambulance involved in a vaccination drive in the Dal Lake area. “I want to ensure that vaccines reach the doorsteps of the residents here,” he says.

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