Ferrying those who died in natural calamities to their final resting place has not only been a way of life for these ambulance drivers for the last 35 years, but it has also become a service of love for them. At 66, Rafiq Abdul Rehman Mulla drives his ambulance-cum-hearse and says he doesn’t want to hang his boots anytime soon.
The earlier part of the week has been extremely busy as Mulla, along with 60-year-old Balasaheb Hingne and several others from the Pune Ambulance Association, were among the first to reach the spot at Kondhwa and Ambegaon, where a total of 21 labourers died when the retaining wall adjoining a society and an educational institute, respectively, collapsed.
“There was so much debris and bodies were being taken out as people gathered at the incident sites. The least we can do in such situations is to ferry the dead to the mortuary. We don’t charge for our services within the city. Most of them are poor people, who had come to Pune from Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar to earn their livelihood. Everyone has a right to die with dignity and get a proper funeral. Most do not even have money to cover the dead bodies,” says Mulla, whose hearse — which he prefers to call an ambulance as he also transports people with injuries — has at least five black coffins ready.
“The bodies of the labourers were flown to their native places in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, but we were willing to travel the distance at minimum cost,” says Hingne, whose association has registered 20 ambulances. They do not just stop at ferrying the dead, but, along with others, rush to accident sites where they help in the rescue efforts.
However, there have been some trying moments too in their lives when the magnitude of devastation left them heartbroken. Be it the horrific accident when 38 children from Pune died when their school bus was hit by a train at an unmanned crossing in Phursungi in 1993 or the blast that ripped through the city’s German Bakery in 2010, they recount the incidents with great pain. “There was not a dry eye when we went to the spot and carried the dead bodies of the children and brought them to Pune. Despite the heart-rending scenes, we went ahead with our duties. It is not just a job for us, but a service to the people who die in such disasters – natural or man made,” says Hingne.
“There are various incidents that have shocked us to our core. Like the stampede at Madhardevi temple in Satara district in 2005, where more than 300 people died. We had rushed there too and helped ferry the dead back to Pune. The bodies were burnt and some were unrecognizable,” says Mulla, recounting that transporting the dead bodies of the German Bakery blast was another nightmarish experience. “I had lifted bodies that had no legs,” says Mulla, with a heavy heart.
Recalling another incident in 2012 when bus driver Santosh Mane drove on the wrong side of the city’s busiest roads and killed nine people, Mulla said they heard the news and rushed to the spot. Then also, we ferried the bodies to Sassoon General Hospital, Hingne says. “At times there are unclaimed bodies lying on the roads and while there is a fear that the police might hold us responsible for the incident, we feel that they need to be buried or cremated in a proper manner. So, we take the dead body to the mortuary,” says Mulla.
What motivates these drivers to continue transporting the dead is their own personal experiences. “There are so many instances… I was an autorickshaw driver in the initial days. I saw a young boy die in a road accident, but nobody came to help him. He was the son of a beggar who could not afford to pay for his last rites. We helped the beggar. There was another incident when a woman was badly burnt but she was alive. Her relatives could not get an ambulance despite trying for several hours and she died. I decided to buy my own vehicle and use it as an ambulance and hearse,” says Mulla.
“Like Mulla, there are several others in our association, including Abbas Inamdar, Shakil Mulla, Sarfaraz Inamdar, Rupesh Dhamal and others, who have helped people lift the dead bodies of their loved ones, cover them and transport free of cost,” says Hingne, adding that their only demand “is to allocate proper parking arrangement for their ambulances”.