Public affairs analyst Vivek Sengupta is Founder and Chief Executive of the consulting firm Moving Finger Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The friend of the rape victim, who through her ordeal and death galvanised an entire nation, spoke out a few days ago. In his first pronouncements to the media he lamented the fact that he and the girl lay naked and grievously injured on the roadside that fateful night and not one among the many that saw them in that state rushed them to the hospital. "Nobody helped us when we were lying on the street battered for more than an hour", he said. Folks in cars, auto-rickshaws and two-wheelers passed, saw them, but did not stop to help.
Had they been rushed sooner to the nearest trauma centre, the girl might have lived. It is well known that the Golden Hour after a mishap is the most critical for the survival of the victim. It was during this vital hour that the couple did not receive help. Sadly, they were no exception. Such incidents occur all the time in our country.
Not very long The Times of India carried a news report headlined, "Onlookers all around, boy bleeds to death in Lucknow". The story said, inter alia : In a glaring example of the general insensitive attitude towards accident victims, a 15-year-old was left to bleed after being hit by a truck at Jankipuram crossing on Wednesday evening. The boy, with a severe head injury, was lying in the middle of the road in a pool of blood and not a single passer-by cared to stop. The incident also exposed a total absence of quick medical help to trauma patients in the city...
"The most insensitive was the attitude of those who drove past in cars and bikes. Some of the people were heard saying that touching the boy could land them in unwarranted police interrogation."
Why does this happen time and again? It is suggested that no help is forthcoming from passers-by because people in India have learnt from experience that what awaits them if they help in such cases is harassment at the hands of the police and frustration as a result of hospitals, especially private ones, refusing to take in accident victims-because a medico-legal case is the last thing they want to get entangled in.
And so, it is suggested that what India needs is a Good Samaritan Law that proffers protection to those come to the aid of accident victims. It seems that the Supreme Court is also looking into the matter. It has appointed a committee to examine whether India needs such a law.
While the Court awaits the outcome of the exertions of this committee, it must be remembered that the Supreme Court itself has explicitly pronounced on the subject. In Pt. Parmanand Katara vs Union of India in 1989, the Supreme Court had clearly stated, "Preservation of human life is of paramount importance. That is so on account of the fact that once life is lost, the status quo ante cannot be restored as resurrection is beyond the capacity of man."
Therefore, the learned judges said, "The effort to save the person should be the top priority not only of the medical professional but even of the police or any other citizen who happens to be connected with the matter or who happens to notice such an incident or a situation."
And when the injured person is brought to the hospital, the first priority of the doctors should be to save his life and attend to his injuries, no questions asked. Everything else can follow. No doctor can refuse treatment on any ground, the Supreme Court said.
In February 2004, the Joint Secretary, Road Safety Cell, Department of Road Transport & Highways, Government of India, wrote to the Transport Secretaries of all states and union territories, with copies to their Directors General of Police, forwarding a circular that was put out by the Additional Commissioner of Police (Training), Delhi on November 20, 1987. The circular said unequivocally that those who "bring accident victims to hospitals (should) be treated with (the) utmost courtesy and should not be harassed in any way. Even if they are unwilling to give their particulars, the same should not be insisted upon."
The Delhi Police circular went much further. It said that the police must reimburse the expenses of those who rush the injured to the hospital.
Thus, for over a quarter century now, the police have been aware of this problem and have clearly laid down the law on the matter. And yet, due to lack of public awareness, even those who are inclined to be Good Samaritans still dither and hesitate to come to the aid of the victims of mishaps. And precious lives continue to be lost, injuries continue be unmitigated and India continues to be the country with the worst record in road safety in the world. When will the tide turn?