Mumbai: A line of auto-rickshaws stand in wait outside Mumbai’s Ghatkopar railway station. Among the many black and yellow three-wheelers, 47-year-old Dattatray Sawant’s vehicle stands out because it carries a board saying ‘free rickshaw rides — let’s give a helping hand to patients battling Covid’ in Marathi.
“I began ferrying patients for free from 15 April, when Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced a lockdown,” Sawant, who also used to teach English part-time at a school before the pandemic, told ThePrint.
In mid-April, the daily number of cases in Mumbai was ballooning and the city was seeing a surge of hospitalisations. “The situation is such that, in the area that I live in, a slum area, there’s no ambulance. It takes time to come, and even if it does, it asks for a lot of money. It is difficult for the daily wager to avail such a service. That’s why I thought that through this rickshaw, I can provide this service,” he said.
According to the latest bulletin from 10 May, Maharashtra had reported 37,236 new cases, bringing the total number since the start of the pandemic to 51,38,973. But even now, with the daily number of cases on the decline, Sawant continues to transport both Covid and non-Covid patients to hospitals.
His ‘ambulance’ is pretty bare-bones — it is equipped with a PPE kit, sanitisers, and a plastic divider, but no oxygen cylinder. “In a week I get 6-7, sometimes 10 calls a week. I never say no,” he said.
The service he’s rendering has garnered some attention on social media, most prominently from former India cricketer V.V.S. Laxman.
Dattatraya Sawant, a school teacher by profession and a part-time autorickshaw driver, gives free rickshaw rides to COVID patients
He picks up and drops patients from hospital without charging them. Hats off to his noble initiative.
Pray that we overcome this soon🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/fieGYvWQCu
— VVS Laxman (@VVSLaxman281) May 1, 2021
Making ends meet
Dattatray Sawant’s day begins at 7 am, despite the fact that he no longer teaches at the Dnyansagar Vidya Mandir School in Ghatkopar, because schools have barely had a chance to open up due to the risks of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There aren’t many passengers for his autorickshaw either, meaning that his monthly income of Rs 6,000 has been nearly halved. However, Sawant is more worried about his students, many of whom come from slum areas.
“They’re not able to study online. When things started opening up (after the first set of lockdowns) in January, I started calling a few of my students home to give tuition,” he said.
Dattatray and his wife Jayashree live in a cramped two-storey chawl in Jagdusha Nagar. Jayashree, who teaches children with disabilities at an NGO and earns around Rs 7,000 per month, told ThePrint: “We faced a lot of difficulties in the lockdown… I have a job but I haven’t gotten my salary till now, and even if it’s come, it’s not as much. Autos also haven’t been running, but we have been able to manage.”
However, she added: “It is a good thing that he is helping people in these difficult times. He is someone who has been doing social work; I think it’s good that he is able to do this for patients.”
Help for those who can’t afford it
Among the 31 patients Sawant has ferried to hospitals so far is 23-year-old Sanket Garde, who had tested positive for Covid-19 and developed pneumonia.
“About 10-15 days ago, my condition had worsened, and at 1 am, there was no means of getting me to the hospital. He (Sawant) is my father’s relative, so I had called him and told him about my condition. He took me in his rickshaw,” Garde said.
“We were not getting any auto; we would have had to stay at home. We tried to get an ambulance too, but couldn’t. They were asking for money; we wouldn’t have been able to pay for the ambulance,” he added.
Another patient whom Sawant and his ‘ambulance’ have helped is Ganpat Pathade — not a Covid patient, but someone who has to make regular trips to the H.J. Doshi Ghatkopar Hindu Sabha Hospital for dialysis treatments.
“He takes me three times a week. It’s been a few days that he’s been taking me. It was very difficult before; I wouldn’t be able to find a rickshaw in the lockdown… A lot of money needed to be spent every month for the rickshaw ride, but now, things are good because of him,” Pathade said.
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)