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Newspapers assail us with accounts of road accidents each day. After particularly horrific ones, statistics on deaths in accidents are touted with editorial comments on conditions of our roads. For most of us such news evoke some sadness, some anger at mismanagement and then… we turn the paper over… it is only when a tragedy strikes close to home that we are able to appreciate the human element in these tragedies, most of which are avoidable. Recently I had a close encounter with one such tragedy…

MAITRI (www.maitripune.org), a civil society organization that I am loosely associated with for the last nine years, organizes batches of volunteers to go and work in the tribal areas of Melghat region of Maharashtra. For the last two years, groups of doctors have been going into the villages in Melghat and working on issues of personal hygiene, diseases, malnutrition deaths etc. These groups are part of the Dhadak Mohim launched by MAITRI a couple of years ago. In the last two years, hundreds of volunteers from Medical colleges round the state have participated in the campaign.

Recently two batches of students were coming back from Melghat after having completed their stint of 10 days in the villages. There were 27 doctors, some of them interning after their MBBS, some in their second or third years. All of them were in their early 20s… One group broke off and decided to visit Shegaon whereas the other comprising 10 volunteers were making their way back from Amrawati to Pune by a State Transport bus. They were a happy lot… they had learnt a lot… made friends in the tribal areas… contributed their mite to the mission of alleviating sickness and malnutrition in the tribal areas. They were looking forward to sharing their experiences with the next batch..

Around 0230 hrs on the 31st of August when all were asleep tragedy struck… a truck driving at breakneck speed tried to avoid, unsuccessfully, a bullock cart on that narrow road… it scythed through the driver side of the bus … four passengers died on the spot and three succumbed to their injuries later in the Akola government hospital.. 20 others were injured…

Amongst those dead were two doctor volunteers from MAITRI, Renuka and Mangesh. Two other volunteer doctors Umesh and Mayur were seriously injured and are still in hospital in the ICU … three other volunteers Abhilasha, Mandar and Vilas were injured… three were unscathed… Though seriously injured, Dr. Abhilasha, the team leader, organized the rescue from the bus. She called the MAITRI team in Amrawati and apprised them of the accident. She also flagged down a private luxury bus and managed to transport the injured to the government hospital in Akola…

While all this happened the group of 17 who were in Shegaon were unaware of the events… They realized only when the news broke on radio and television in the early hours of the 31st… Information was sketchy and they had no idea of what the fate of their friends was… They wanted to rush to Akola but were asked the stay on in Shegaon till some one reached them…. One cannot imagine the turmoil that the group must have gone through in the period where they did not know anything for certain… A colleague and I were in the general area. We changed our plans and made our way to Akola. After getting to know the facts in Akola I reached Shegaon at noon with three of the unhurt members who had been traveling in the ill fated bus… … I had expected to be dealing with an emotionally fragile group… frankly I was not sure of what was needed… and whether I would be able to deal with the situation… I only intended to accompany the group back to Pune. Only after we reached did the group get the news first hand… Now it was confirmed that they had lost two of their friends, and five others were injured…. Two of them seriously…

After a hasty lunch and a prayer we started back to Pune… Over the 12 hour journey, my admiration for the group rose by the minute. There were tears no doubt and grief was writ large on the faces … but there was something else… there was determination… a steely resolve… they were not willing to give up… they were planning to continue working for the betterment of the lesser privileged… they expressed the need to work that bit extra on behalf of their friends who were no longer with them… it was a fantastic almost epiphanic experience for me… Another thing that must have given them strength was the superb response from the civil society… MAITRI volunteers and their families and friends from all over the state responded in whatever way they could… some were talking to families of the volunteers, some with doctors, some with the State machinery… a number of very senior MAITRI volunteers were waiting to receive us when we reached Pune at 2 in the morning!

I feel privileged to have spent time with this group of youngsters… and seeing the dedication of all involved in MAITRI. To me it was a true triumph of human spirit over all odds…

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