An obnoxious rule is corrected by a new law that should have come ages ago
‘G ood Samaritan’ is a biblical term. It has crept into common use and, for many, it means a person who helps others. But then, is a father, helping his child, a good Samaritan? Is a teacher, aiding her students, a good Samaritan? Is Moneylife, assisting its readers with financial literacy, a good Samaritan? Or is this author, belting out these articles on law, seeking good Samaritan status?
Well, not exactly. All of them fall a bit short; the common thread above, in all cases, is that the two parties know each other. A good Samaritan falls out of the blue. Not only unknown, but he is one putting aside all his work to oblige a fellow human being. In short, above and beyond the call of duty.
Out of the Supreme Court come some interesting judgements. One intriguing, or very helpful judgement, recently passed by the Court, refers to critical aspects of everyday life. It dwells on the duties of what may be called the responsibilities of a citizen in his call to be a good Samaritan.
We had once considered the question of whether or not one is duty bound to quench a fire in a neighbour’s house; even when the neighbour and the person cannot stand the sight of each other! The legal requirement, for those who remember, is that you are required to save your enemy’s property. The two of you are not at war, declared, that is. If, today, there is a calamity just across some border, we are compelled to save both, life and goods.
Why should one save his obnoxious neighbour’s home from being gutted? Two reasons. Any destruction is a national loss; grief for other citizens. Secondly, the fire may spread, destroying more homes. Poetic justice might include your own, too. This calls for concerted effort, yours and the fire brigade’s and the medical services’. Incidentally, the law demands it.
Samir Zaveri and his work is a giant step in this direction. It is a proven fact that the Golden Hour is often lost. The term is used for the first hour after a major accident, or incident, including medical emergencies. This is the timeframe in which injuries take an irreversible toll. Help in those vital 60 minutes saves countless lives. However, apathy, delay, confusion, red-tape or plain callousness kills people. Literally. Yet, it happens every day. The question is: ‘Why’?
Apathy. Apathy kills. Apathy destroys. “It’s not my funeral” has become a way of thinking that has got ingrained. Sometimes, it is even a time of enjoyment. As this example will show.
Sassoon Dock, 30 years ago, was a major fish distribution centre. Trucks, tempos and handcarts carried the frozen fish out. The ice would melt and moisten the road, together with the fish oil. As long as it was relatively dry, not much happened. But a lot happened when unseasonal showers hit the spot that November. Mayhem followed. As we tried to get on our feet and drag the motor-bike away, around us were skidding cars, ricocheting buses and slipping pedestrians. Chaos reigned all round but the greatest roar was from the pavements where the ‘spectators’ vented their sickening approval at every entering vehicle that lost control.
A study at an American college proves this lack of concern. Behind closed doors, a girl was made to scream. ‘Help, help’, she cried, loud enough for those in the corridor to hear. Hardly anyone stopped to inquire, let alone help. The same sorry story played itself out in a study in Telengana (Andhra Pradesh) where it was found that only 10% of bystanders give a hand. People DO NOT STOP to help.
The authorities found that there was another side to the coin; maybe a valid, though not a legitimate, reason. It was discovered that though people may be inclined to help, the aftermath of the investigations made life miserable for them. Police enquiries were not the only cause, though it was the major drawback. The cops have a duty to perform. They need witnesses. They need addresses. They need statements. They need proof. So do the insurance companies. And who else but the good Samaritan to get hold of?
In one recorded instant, a Vishal Sharma, after failing to get the police on the phone, took the late-night victim to the hospital in an auto-rickshaw. That is when his ordeal started. Admission to the hospital was a problem. It took half a day. Next, he was detained until the victim’s family arrived. He could not attend work. And, more was to come.
The family would now not get off his back. He was pestered to visit the insurance company with them. The rough going lasted seven days. “No more,” says
Mr Sharma. “Will call 108, and that’s it.”
Fortunately, this dilemma was recently solved by the ministry of road transport and highways, egged on by the Supreme Court. Guidelines have been issued to prevent the victim-aider from becoming a victim himself. It reminds one of the days when an accident victim was denied medical assistance at a hospital until the police arrived. Some hospitals had a cop on duty at all times; some did not. That was later mercifully changed into stipulations for immediate help, cop
or no cop.
The new guidelines are impressive. Notices in English, Hindi and the vernacular are to be put up at all hospital entrances which will declare that good Samaritans are not to be detained nor asked to pay for the treatment. They can remain incognito and need not fill in any forms. All that is voluntary, now. Pressuring the ‘Samaritan’ for personal information will invite disciplinary action. If required, the helper can be submitted to video-conferencing and no more, to avoid harassment. And the interrogation will take only one sitting. And end there. The notification is meant to encourage the public to help. Less will shy away. More will live.
The law, as it stood, had a reason, a sound one. It was meant to verify whether the victim was injured, or killed, by accident or by design. Dumping a body on the hospital and making a run for it would naturally arouse suspicion, especially if the wounds bore certain tell-tale marks.
There still is a provision that only the address of the helper will be noted, he being allowed to leave immediately. Whether this will not invite harassment of the type discussed above is not a settled issue. Only time will tell.
Savelife Foundation, the entity that moved the Supreme Court against the Union of India, needs to be commended. Rules, meant to solve one problem, quickly degenerate into a quagmire bereft of common sense and balloon into unwieldy ‘procedures’, where the inept and the corrupt find shelter and fruition. Shades of Nero fiddling while Rome burnt.
The injunction against asking for details of the Samaritan is a bit difficult to comprehend in today’s world, so totally wired and televised. Can a person arriving at the hospital or police station really remain anonymous? There is also the camera phone in every one’s hand. Every step of the way is permanently recorded. The only way to remain unrecognisable, then, will be to wear a mask.
Another suggestion in the notification seems rather quaint. It is proposed that any person helping a stranger must be honoured, instead of being subjected to any kind of legal involvement. Does the honour mean a certificate of recognition? Going by our national trend to collect pieces of paper, it may well be that we will see a day when bystanders and the odd helpers will rush in to be counted. One body, one dozen carriers?
(Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected])