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India’s ubiquitous auto rickshaws are stepping up as oxygenated ambulances

Saving lives, winning hearts.
  • Niharika Sharma
By Niharika Sharma

Reporter based in New Delhi.


Even as foreign aid continues to pour in and the Narendra Modi government insists that things are under control, thousands of Indians continue to spend their days struggling to arrange oxygen, medicines, ambulances, and hospital beds for their loved ones suffering from Covid-19. In this atmosphere of gloom and despair, much help has come from individuals who have shown extraordinary courage and come up with solutions to tackle the crisis.

One such exceptional solution came from Mohammad Javed Khan, a 34-year-old auto-rickshaw driver in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhopal.

After spending several days staying indoors and feeling helpless as he browsed endless SOS calls from friends and strangers on social media, in April, Khan sold off his wife’s jewellery and used the money to convert his three-wheeler auto-rickshaw into a small ambulance that he offers to patients for free.

“I kept seeing requests for oxygen and complaints about ambulance shortage on my Facebook and WhatsApp and one day I just realised that I just cannot keep sitting and praying. I have to do something about it,” Khan told Quartz.

Khan’s mini-ambulance has an oxygen cylinder, an oximeter, a plastic sheet to separate the area between the patient and him, and PPE kits, among other supplies. “Safety is also important, I can only help people if I myself remain safe,” he says.

Javed Khan standing next to his auto which he converted into a mini ambulance.
Khan’s auto that has been turned into a 24X7 ambulance.
The auto has essential supplies like an oxygen cylinder and an oximeter.

The impact of an auto-ambulance

Reflecting how dire the situation is, at least 34 patients have used Khan’s auto-ambulance in just two weeks. “Some of them were quite critical,” he says.

A screenshot of a thank you note to Khan. “There are few people in the world like you… thank you from the bottom of my heart,” it says.

This high demand is despite the fact that Khan is working by himself and is not affiliated with any NGOs or relief organisation. His mobile number has been circulated on social media and that’s how people contact him. He says his phone rings nonstop.

“Sometimes, I receive more than one request at a time. In that situation, I prioritise and try to help the most severe patient. I have a small space but I do whatever I can, depending on my capacity,” he says.

While many people have come forward to voluntarily donate money to him, his household finances are tight.

A father of two, Khan used to make around Rs8,000 ($108) monthly before the pandemic. He can possibly make that in a day right now as desperate families of patients would be more than willing to shell out the money for the service that is acutely short in supply. But Khan doesn’t wish to monetise his auto-ambulance.

“Money can be managed later, at this point saving lives are important,” he says.

He is hopeful that other auto drivers in his city will also step up to this need. “At this point, everyone is worried about their safety, and rightly so. But I know they (auto drivers) will figure ways to help.”

Auto ambulance in New Delhi

Hundreds of kilometres away, in the national capital New Delhi, a similar service was launched on May 5. The service, started by the state’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party member Sanjay Singh, has 10 auto-ambulances and was launched in collaboration with a Delhi-based NGO TYCIA Foundation.

These auto-ambulances have a capacity to carry mild symptomatic patients with oxygen saturation levels between 85 and 90. Singh, along with his wife, is planning to launch around 20 more such ambulances in the coming days.

People in Delhi can book these free auto-ambulances through two numbers: 9818430043 and 011-41236614.

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