Two unrelated incidents of reckless or negligent driving made news last week.

The first was that of a private school bus that fell into the river Palka while crossing an inundated bridge at Bijoliya in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan.

The second case involved a 36-year-old Matibool, an e-rickshaw driver, who was was on his way home from a night shift when he was struck by a small van and then left to bleed for over an hour on a main road in west Delhi's Subhash Nagar.

Instead of the drivers, the focus in both cases shifted to the role of bystanders. In the first case, visuals showed people risking their lives and successfully rescuing the children stuck in the school bus.

In the other case, vehicles and people walked past the bleeding man without intervening.

No one tried to help; the one man who stopped is seen on CCTV footage picking up his mobile phone and walking off.

By the time policemen took him to a hospital just half a km away, he had died.

The notion that Indians are apathetic by nature is unfounded. There are countless cases where bystanders have intervened and saved lives in incidents related to building collapses, bomb blasts, fires, train accidents and so on.

But, when it comes to road accidents, their attitude changes.

A nation-wide survey conducted by SaveLIFE Foundation in 2013 revealed that three out of four people hesitate to assist road accident victims, 88% of whom said their hesitation was due to the fear of possible legal and procedural problems.

The same bystanders who become rescuers in other situations are reluctant to come forward to help road accident victims only because of the fear of police harassment, possible detention at hospitals and the judicial process that they might get sucked into for years.

Force of law

These impediments have been addressed in the March 30, 2016 judgement of the Supreme Court in SaveLIFE Foundation v. Union of India, which lays down the law of the land and provides protection to Good Samaritans who come to the aid of road crash victims from ensuing legal and procedural problems.

The judgement provides “force of law” to the approved guidelines issued by the government of India on May 12, 2015 along with the Standard Operating Procedures for police issued on January 21, 2016, that protect the bystander from any civil or criminal liability. Any disclosure of personal information or offer to be a witness, in the event of the Good Samaritan also being an eyewitness to an accident, ought to be voluntary, the judgement added.

Realising that by just delivering the judgement the situation on the ground will not change, the Supreme Court also directed the Central and state governments to ensure wide publicity of the provisions for protection of Good Samaritans. It has been over five months since the judgment saw the light of day, but a sustained awareness campaign by the state governments to educate people of their new rights is yet to take off. The message has not reached the masses nor has it percolated down to the police constabulary and hospitals.

For decades, the system has operated in a manner that is inimical to a bystander who offers help not just at the police level but also at the hospital. It is well entrenched in the psyche of Indians that the police and the hospital will harass and detain and this is not without reason.

Simplifying the law

Take for instance, the Medico-Legal Case form that has to be filled as a procedure when a victim is brought into the hospital. This form, as with almost all of our archaic laws, is a vestige of British India, designed by the British authorities to track down freedom fighters who used to get injured in police action. The form has a column which requires the name of the person who has brought the injured and is often used to detain the person who brings the victim to the hospital. With anonymity guaranteed under the Supreme Court judgment in the SaveLIFE Foundation case, this field in the form should be done away with completely. The medico-legal formalities should not take precedence over treatment of accident victims.

Further, the judgement clearly directs the hospitals to

“publish a charter in Hindi, English and the vernacular language of the state and Union territory at their entrance to the effect that they shall not detain bystander or Good Samaritan or ask depositing money from them for the treatment of a victim.” 

The state governments have to step in to ensure that hospitals do publish the charter and follow them diligently.

Article 21 of our Constitution guarantees us the “Right to Life” which entails that preservation of life is paramount and therefore means that every accident victim should be guaranteed the right to receive medical treatment in such form and manner that works towards preserving his or her life. Sadly, in India the situation on the ground is designed against protecting this very “Fundamental Right”. The “right to investigate” and the “right to question” gets precedence over the Right to Life and the system leans heavily towards harassment rather than protection of Good Samaritans.

The Supreme Court’s judgment in the SaveLIFE Foundation case is the first landmark step in transforming this system and restoring the fundamental right of a citizen who lies injured on the road by protecting and encouraging every Indian to become a Good Samaritan and help his fellow citizen in distress.

But, if the state governments do not propagate and widely publicise this new right of the citizen, the message will not trickle down and cases like that of Matibool will continue to occur on a daily basis.

Saji Cherian is Director, Operations, SaveLIFE Foundation