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“I have named my auto ‘Khidmat’ which means selfless service of others. When I saw ailing people walking miles to visit the hospital opposite my house, I felt ashamed to see my three-wheeler parked when it could be used to ferry people. I immediately got permission from the police and started giving free rides to the sick and their families,” Ayaz Faquih, an auto-driver from Uran, a coastal town in Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra tells The Better India (TBI).
Ever since the countrywide lockdown was imposed, Ayaz has been ferrying people in medical emergencies and frontline health workers for free. He is also helping NGOs distribute meals to the needy.
Like Ayaz, Purushottamlal Gupta, an auto-driver from Thane is also going out of his way to help citizens amidst the clampdown. He is aiding his fellow drivers and construction workers by distributing ration kits for free.
Though the pandemic has affected entire rickshaw community as they earn on a day-to-day basis, these two unsung heroes are helping strangers without expecting anything in return.
“It has been over a month my income has come to a halt. Though fortunately, we are able to afford ration, a lot of auto drivers and daily wage earners in our basti are struggling to get even a morsel of rice. When no help came forward, I decided to raise donations and buy ration kits for them,” Gupta tells TBI.
Unsung Heroes of Maharashtra
There are close to five hospitals near Ayaz’s house that serve people from around 50 neighbouring villages.
People flocking the hospitals is not a new sight for the 55-year-old but watching the elderly, pregnant women, sick children struggle without any public transportation due to the lockdown was something he witnessed for the first time.
With the help of his daughter, Ayaz immediately made a banner with ‘Emergency free rides’ written in bold along with his phone number. He gave his number to hospitals and clinics offering the frontline health workers free rides.
Initially, Ayaz would stand outside the hospitals and offer a free ride to patients. But soon, he started receiving calls from across Navi Mumbai and villages on the outskirts to avail the service. Touched by his gesture, many people took a picture of his auto and uploaded it on social media pages and shared on WhatsApp groups. Calls began pouring in within a week.
From a lady in labour, an elderly with muscle pain to a child with high fever, Ayaz has given over 200 free rides to the needy so far. Seeing his dedication and enthusiasm, the Uran municipal health department sanitises Ayaz’s auto every day for free.
Every time a passenger insists on paying the fair or offers to fill his CNG as a token of gratitude, Ayaz politely refuses. Instead, he asks for their blessings and prayers to end the pandemic.
“The content on my passenger’s faces is my fees. Troubled times are a golden opportunity to help people and that is all I am trying to do,” he says adding that he always wears a mask and gloves to follow lockdown protocols.
‘We Are All One Big Family’
Gupta, who is known for his plantation activities in Thane, rose to the challenge after he witnessed food-related problems in his slum. Gupta is a part of Sadbhavna Hara-Bhara Foundation, and he requested people to donate money via the foundation’s official page on Facebook.
Help poured in from individuals, NGOs, environment and social activists. He has been able to distribute ration kits to almost 90 families with the money he received. Priced at Rs 460, each kit contains food essentials like rice, dal, flour and oil.
He roped in his family to pack the kits. Maintaining social distance, Gupta either drops them at the beneficiary’s doorstep or keeps the kits outside his house for people to take.
Gupta is now collecting donations for the second batch of kits as the lockdown has been extended.
When asked if he fears to visit hotspot areas of the city, Gupta says, “Only a family can help you overcome turbulent times. Your parents or children won’t leave you if you feel sick. They will try their best to ease your life. Likewise, I am treating every needy as part of my family. I was scared initially but with proper safety measures and permission from the police the fear is gone.”
As rightly pointed out by Gupta, helping strangers as we would our family members is the need of the hour.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)