Tariq Ahmad Patloo was inspired to launch Dal Lake’s first water ambulance after witnessing the lake’s residents dying from Covid-19.
The Kashmiri region is inhabited mostly by haenjis (dwellers of water). Not all those who live on the lake have small boats. They use a system of taar, or hitchhiking, to get to the banks. The haenjis “feel alienated and discriminated by the government”, but they managed until the Covid-19 pandemic halted their practice of taar.
When Patloo, 52, fell ill and needed to go to hospital for a Covid-19 test, nobody offered him taar. A friend eventually came through for him, sitting at one end of his boat while Patloo sat at the other. “It was the turning point of my life, because those I have spent all these years [with were] running away from me.”
Patloo received his positive Covid-19 test result on 28 August last year. He suspects he got infected at his aunt’s funeral. “Her time also got wasted as there was no one available to ferry her to the bank. She might have survived if ferried to the bank on time.”
Patloo took the necessary precautions and maintained a physical distance from everyone, but there was no boat to take him home after he tested positive. “Somebody whistled when I reached the ghat (bank) and every boatman disappeared into thin air.”
His neighbours feared him and instituted a “social boycott”, so Tariq left and went to live with his brother, who took care of him. But meanwhile, three people in his neighbourhood died from Covid-19-related illnesses and one girl “kept waiting for taar with desperate eyes”. Nobody dared ferry her to the bank. She eventually died.
Patloo didn’t want his neighbours to suffer as he had. He wanted to serve his community, the people the government had forgotten, the haenjis.
He shared his idea of a floating ambulance with the Dal Expert Committee, a group committed to saving and restoring Dal Lake. “Go ahead and we will support you,” they said.
The idea was to convert a wooden boat called a shikara into a water ambulance to help the residents of Dal Lake get medical help. Patloo began working on the boat in November. It took about two months to build.
A very good step
With the motor installed, the ambulance was ready to ferry patients. It is the first floating ambulance in Kashmir to provide basic medical care to Covid-19 patients and help in other medical emergencies.
“The step taken by Tariq is very good. It should have happened 10 to 15 years ago. I believe there should be more such ambulance services at other lakes also. There is Nigeen Lake and other lakes too where such service is required,” said resident Shabir Ahmed.
Patloo got a call a while back from a family asking him to ferry a dead member to the bank. “It was a 36-year-old woman who died from Covid.” The coffin was put in another boat and attached by rope to the ambulance.
Patloo has given his personal phone number to the residents of the lake, but wants to create a helpline. He also wants the health department to assign a doctor to the ambulance, which is equipped with a stretcher, wheelchair, blood pressure kit, oxygen cylinder and personal protective equipment.
The ambulance has a siren and a loudspeaker through which Patloo makes announcements and keeps residents informed about Covid-19. He has distributed masks and sanitiser to his neighbours and is always on standby to help. And he does all this without expecting payment.
“In this second wave of Covid, the ambulance is regularly ferrying patients to ghats and averting health crises on water,” said Patloo.