Ever since she first read about Srinagar’s famous houseboats, Meenakshi, a resident of Pune, had wanted to stay in one. On August 23, she along with her husband landed in Srinagar and drove to the Dal Lake where they had booked a houseboat named Peacock. “After spending a day, I fell ill,” recalls Meenakshi. “I had severe cold, cough and fever. I wasn’t able to move out my bed. The houseboat owner called the boat ambulance and I was taken to the main road first and then to the city hospital. Luckily, I tested negative for COVID. The doctors then put me on some antibiotics and I was back on my feet in two days. The boat ambulance is amazing and a real blessing for tourists and locals living in the Lake”.
The only one of its kind plying in the Dal Lake, the boat ambulance now serves the entire population of around 9000 people who live on the lake and its adjoining areas. Once spread over 22-square kilometers, unchecked pollution has shrunk the lake’s area to a fraction of that. But for the people living on the lake, the only way to access health care was to somehow come by boat on their own to the main road, called the boulevard, and be driven to a hospital from there.
But now they can call this boat ambulance at any time of the day/night and get ferried to the boulevard. “I have ferried over 200 sick patients and tourists this year,” says Tariq Ahmed Patloo, the brain and brawn behind this unique boat ambulance service. “While ferrying patients to the main road, I call the ambulance that reaches the main road within 15 minutes. Depending on the condition of the patient, we decide where to take him”.
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First steps towards a boat ambulance
Tariq never tires of relating how he came to start such a service and the effort it took to make it a reality.
Cut to the sunny morning of August 18, 2020. Tariq Ahmed Patloo, a resident of Srinagar, felt severe pain in his body and suddenly collapsed. Little did he know that he had contracted COVID, which had first been detected in Srinagar in March of that year.
For the entire day, Tariq remained confined in his houseboat located in a posh area of the Lake. When news about his illness spread, the majority of locals preferred to stay away, fearing they may catch the virus. But one of his physically-challenged neighbours showed courage and ferried him in a Shikara up to the boulevard late in the evening.
“My brother and a friend Reyaz Ahmed Kanna were waiting for me there,” recalls Tariq. “They took me to Chest Disease hospital where I tested positive for COVID. Then I was shifted to the SMHS hospital for treatment”. Tragically, while Tariq was recovering, his friend Reyaz succumbed to the disease.
Lost in thought on his hospital bed, it was then that Tariq conceived the idea of turning one of his boats into an ambulance, resolving that no one else living on the Lake should face the problem he faced. Soon after he was discharged, he started working on his idea. The only help and support he got at that time was from his nine-year-old daughter Janat, who is known for her work on ‘Clean Dal Lake Mission’.
Janat, along with her father, had started a Clean Dal mission in 2018 when she was just six. She soon grabbed attention as she was often seen rowing a shikara all by herself to clean the weeds, plastic and other pollutants from the Lake. Janat studies in class three and continues to clean the lake whenever she gets time. Besides Janat, Tariq’s family consists of his wife and ailing mother.
It took Tariq over a month to convert his small boat, 35-feet-long and 5.5-feet wide, into a full-fledged ambulance. “I used light-weight materials like deodar, iron and aluminium,” he said. “I freshly painted my boat and gradually converted it into a full-fledged water ambulance. There are no medical facilities available for the people living in house boats, small boats and houses in the Dal Lake and its adjoining areas. Initially, I spent my own money for converting the boat into an ambulance”. The boat that was converted into an ambulance costs Rs 3 to Rs 4 lakh out of which Tariq spent almost Rs 2 lakh from his pocket.
Nothing makeshift about it
As cash ran out, Tariq got help from a New Delhi-based non-profit organisation, Satya Rekha Trust (SRT), working on social causes. Tariq had earlier been interviewed by an Asian News International (ANI) team from Srinagar about his boat ambulance initiative which had been telecast on various channels. SRT contacted him after seeing that interview. Tariq has also got some help from Adhaar Housing Finance Ltd, Delhi. “I got a solar light and a ventilator from this organisation,” he said.
Today Tariq owns a water ambulance worth Rs 20 lakh that has all the basic facilities for the sick and was formally launched in January 2021. “It is motorized and equipped with life-saving support systems that includes oxygen facility, oxy-meter, PPE kits, basic medicine, first-aid facility etc”. A ventilator will be fitted soon, added Tariq. “I have also ferried six dead people to the main road from where they were taken to the local graveyards. The boat can accommodate 10 people at a time.”
Despite the size and the distant locations of some of the lake’s permanent residents, the average time the boat ambulance takes to pick up a patient and drop him at the boulevard is around 30 minutes only.
Tariq has been circulating his ambulance’s phone number via WhatsApp groups and through posters displaying messages about the service. “I get scores of calls every day from the people who need my ambulance, which is free of cost,” says Tariq. He has a small loudspeaker fitted atop his boat ambulance that he uses for making announcements about vaccination drives, use of masks etc.
“Vaccines are the best treatment for COVID,” believes Tariq. “I have tried my level best to ensure that every one living in the lake takes the vaccine”.
Tariq, however, rues that no one from the local administration Srinagar helped him in any way. “A few leaders from the local BJP unit visited with a bouquet and a shawl. That’s it”.
Seeing Tariq’s service, the J&K administration is now planning to introduce one or two boat ambulances. But the need for clearances from different departments is holding up implementation. Vice-Chairman Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) Dr Bashir Ahmed told Citizen matters that introducing boat ambulances was a good idea which they are working on. “Since it’s a health related issue, we will be taking it up with the health department and also with the tourism department,” said Dr Bashir. “A consensus can be evolved as to which department wants to start and run thenboat ambulance”.
Read more: Up close with life and death : stories from ambulance workers
Javaid Ahmad, a boatman in the lake said that for the past 70 years, people living around the Dal Lake have had to travel on their own up to the main road to see a doctor. “The boat ambulance is a big hope for all of us,” said Javaid. “Once a patient reaches the road, there is always an ambulance waiting to ferry them to a hospital. This boat ambulance is not just a boat, but a real hope for all of us.”
For Ghulam Ahmed Patloo, a houseboat owner, Tariq’s water ambulance has been of great help. “I fell ill last week and I right-away called the water ambulance,” says Patloo. “I was ferried upto the shore where an ambulance was waiting. For a moment I thought I would die, but I was given oxygen support in the ambulance till I reached the SMHS hospital”. Patloo was treated for breathing issues and discharged after a week.
Here’s what another tourist from New Delhi had to say about the service:
Pregnant women are particularly thankful to Tariq for this service. Like Shareefa, 38, who developed labour pain on July 30th, when there was no male member present at her home located in the interior of the lake. “I called the boat ambulance which reached my house in just 12 minutes,” said Shareefa. “I was taken to the local maternity hospital where I delivered a baby boy. The ambulance didn’t save only my life but my baby’s as well”. Shareefa urged the local administration to keep at least five to six such ambulances in the lake for those living in the lake so that precious lives may be saved through timely medical intervention.
Tariq is now planning to introduce a fire-fighting boat. “As of now, if a houseboat catches fire, it takes hours for the fire fighting vehicles to lay pipes etc to douse the fire,” says Tariq. “Since 90% of a houseboat is made of wood, it turns to ashes in no time. I have seen many houseboats gutted. I am planning to convert another boat into a full-fledged fire-fighting boat with a water motor that cam pump water out of the lake and water pipes with pressure controlling devices etc.”