Nothing can fill the void of a person’s death. With only memories left, the Tambwekar’s channelised the loss of their daughter– to a road accident– into The Arundhati Foundation. The Bengaluru based Goans received a grant for the Youth Service America and Underwriters Laboratories to further Road Safety Awareness in India. NT NETWORK highlights the work done by Sanjay and Shubhangi Tambwekar
Danuska Da Gama I NT NETWORK
The Arundhati Foundation (TAF) was registered in Bangalore in 2014. A private, non-profit foundation, it was started by Shubhangi and Sanjay Tambwekar in the memory of their daughter Arundhati who passed away in a road-traffic accident in Vellore in 2014.
Arundhati, a 23-year-old medical doctor, was pursuing her post graduation in pathology in CMC Vellore. She was a topper in MBBS with an outstanding record and was awarded gold medals and laurels at Devraj Urs Medical College, Kolar. Her family remembers her as an avid reader, writer and poet; she was also an extremely talented dancer and a philanthropist.
On September 9, 2014, Arundhati was crushed under the rear wheels of a tipper truck en route to the hospital. She was riding pillion with her fiancée; both wearing helmets and slowly negotiating a dirty pothole ridden Gandhi Marg in Vellore.
Finding it difficult to revisit the accident which took Arundhati away, her uncle, Rajesh Dhume tells us: “The oncoming tipper was swaying on the so called ‘road’ or should we say what remained of it. And in a freak tryst of fate the tipper dashed a more or less stationary bike throwing the lithe framed Arundhati under its tyres who died on the spot.”
The family in shock wasn’t able to decipher much. The only thought that came to their mind was: “Who is to be held responsible for the death of Arundhati? The Municipality, police, government, bureaucracy, politicians or people?” Dhume then filed a petition on public opinion website Change.org highlighting the potholed roads which claimed the life of a young citizen abiding to traffic rules. The petition signed by many led authorities to pay heed and get the road re-carpeted within ten days of Arundhati’s death. “Did it really take Arundhati to die to repair a road?” asks an angry Dhume.
The point being highlighted is that road accidents in India can be prevented by all means through precautions and join efforts. Shubangi Tambwekar trying to make sense of the situation explains: “In India, over 400 people die (cases reported) every single day in road traffic accidents. This is equivalent to a planeload of people who would die in a crash and grab eyeballs. The ground reality is that every single day almost 1 plane load of people die. The accident scenario in India is an epidemic and most of the ones who die are always less than 40 years, and that over 90 per cent of accidents can be prevented.”
While we definitely don’t need accidents to wake up the government, the death in the Tambwekar family shook them to the extent of starting the organisation. Shubhangi describing what it meant to start TAF says: “I needed to do something. It wasn’t an option but a compulsion that came out of a tragedy.”
Recently the foundation has received a grant from Youth Service America, a leading NGO in the USA, which lends its hand in funding many social activities in many countries all over the world. Together with Underwriters Laboratories, a safety testing company, they have been giving grants to further Road Safety Awareness in India. “Getting this grant is a feather in our cap,” says Shubhangi.
The Foundation is also leading a bunch of ten enthusiastic students in a road safety programme, with the youngest child being nine. “These children have been going to schools to spread the word on Road Safety on behalf of the Foundation, conducting road safety audits and coming up with solutions in making Indian Roads safer,” says Sanjay. The couple has no mega plans, but they would like to spread the word around and hope people realise that two years back, it was them. Tomorrow it could be us. Nobody is safe.
In Goa, everyday you read about at least two young people dead in an accident. Goan youth should realise that their lives are precious. Helmet should be worn to protect their heads; not to avoid fines. Don’t drink and drive. To drink or not is an individual choice, but you have no right to put other people’s lives in danger; especially when you drink and drive, over speed or use a mobile when driving.”
Excerpts from an interview
Q: How did you manage to get support – finance and likeminded people in your endeavour to create awareness of road safety?
Shubhangi: The Foundation was started with the savings our daughter Arundhati had. She wanted to use it for a good cause and her future. Unfortunately, she died nine months before her marriage. We decided to use it because it was her hard earned money and philanthropy was close to her heart. She would contribute every year to a blind school instead of ‘celebrating’ her birthdays, since she turned ten.
We have been funding the Foundation through our own savings and friends step forward to help with individual projects. The foundation has got an 80 G exemption from the Income Tax Department. But currently, we do not actively lobby for donations.
Q: Tells us about how ‘Friends of the Arundhati Foundation’ help to carry on the work in various parts of India?
Sanjay: Friends of the Foundation work on voluntary basis. They help by taking up road safety issues in their cities or the road they live on, or work. Friends pitch in with their time or sometimes finance an activity that we undertake.
One of our friends, Savita Thakur from Mumbai, constantly lobbied and worked with the municipality to close an open drain. Another doctor friend, Chitra Dhume, conducts BioQuiz every year at Goa Medical College for First Year MBBS students where winners get Pathology textbooks through the Foundation. My brother-in-law and psychiatrist, Rajesh Dhume has been creating awareness about riding safely, and about potholes in Panaji. Others help to arrange lectures in various schools or corporate, to spread the message to the youth. In fact, we have conducted lectures for students in People’s High School, Shubhangi’s and my alma mater, last year in October. Some help by volunteering their time whenever we take up pothole filling activities in our neighbourhood.
Q: We always hear how the government doesn’t wake up in time to get the roads done up. Instead you choose to get the potholes done up yourselves. Comment.
Shubhangi: We lost our daughter because the government did not maintain a road in Vellore.
Similarly, Dadarao Bhilhore in Mumbai who lost his 17-year-old son on a badly maintained road filled 350 potholes with his own money to date. He is not a rich man. Yet he does it. This is an emotional reaction. How long do we wait for the Government? Somebody else can lose their lives while the ‘government’ waits for ‘orders’ or ‘funds’.
At times we have noted that when the public acts on their own and media starts supporting these initiatives, the officials ‘wake up’. If we wait for the government to wake up, many people may go to sleep permanently; in their grave!
Q: What change have you’ll seen after taking the first step?
Sanjay: We knew, from the outset, that we have chosen a very difficult path. The change in ‘authorities’ may not take place. Our laws are archaic. Our enforcement is poor. But we see things changing. What however can change is the attitude of the citizens and young adults. It is not easy to bring about the change, but we will persevere.
When we tell our story, people sit up and notice. It’s personal, and therefore every one can relate to it. They realise that if such a loss can happen to us, they may also be victims. We have seen friends change and acquaintances become more aware. It is a matter of awakening the slumbering consciousness of parents to pay more attention to safety for themselves and their children. Children can be more powerful in conveying the message. Hence we conduct Road safety awareness in schools.
Q: Does all the work being done through the Foundation take the pain away?
Shubhangi: The pain, loss, and grief never go away. We accept it is here to stay. However, there is some sense of worth which helps give solace that we might be able to save a precious life and another happy family from being destroyed. It is also a way of keeping the memory and the name of a wonderful daughter alive in the minds of people not just in thought but by concrete actions.
Q: Like you two, there are so many families who await justice, not judicial, but measures taken to curb accidents…
Shubhangi: Yes. I am sure. Justice in such cases is delayed or denied. Many a times there is no closure as there is no systematic or scientific method of investigating accidents in our country. Often the driver of the larger vehicle is arbitrarily arrested for no fault of his/ her. We are awaiting justice. We want a new and effective Road Safety Bill. The current government promised this in early 2014 after the death of Gopinath Munde in a road traffic accident. The bill has been introduced in the parliament and is being debated upon. We hope it is passed successfully in both the houses soon.
Q: We also know that people are hesitant to help during accidents or to become witnesses as they believe their daily life will be ruined going to court. How can witnesses play a vital role?
Sanjay: We are proud to say that we have been a part of a legislative change. The Good Samaritan Bill has already been introduced by the government in the parliament. This bill should help individuals to come forward and help accident victims. The first hour after an accident is crucial and if people come forward to help victims, many lives can be saved. The bill now promises many things. A person can just take the accident victim to a good hospital and leave him in the care of the doctors. Neither the police nor doctors can detain the person who brings in a victim. Neither can the hospital ask the person who brings in a victim for money. In fact, the Good Samaritan need not even give his name if he does not want to. So the Good Samaritan can now breathe easy and help save lives. In Bangalore, the Columbia Asia hospital has started rewarding Good Samaritans by offering them a public acknowledgement and award.
Q: Are fines the only way to achieving road safety?
Shubhangi: If each of us respected our lives, the lives of our loved ones and citizens, this would have been the best solution. Unfortunately, we are used to being ‘ruled’ or ‘governed’ or ‘monitored’ hence the need for enforcement.
Stricter and heavier fines are in the pipeline. If the fine for not wearing a helmet is more than the cost of a helmet, nobody will ‘forget’ to wear helmets.
Electronic surveillance of streets is needed. This is happening in bigger cities.
Seizing vehicles is also an option, especially for repeat violation and drunk driving. Cancellation of license is also in the pipeline. However, we would still like to hope that appealing to people and youth is our biggest hope.
Sanjay: Road Safety is a function of education, enforcement, and engineering.
Engineering is about building an infrastructure that brings safety by design: safe and durable roads, adequate lighting, clear and visible signboards, streamlined flow through use of signals/roundabouts/lanes/one-ways, adequate walkways, etc. It is also about using technology to gather objective data on accidents and hot spots. Improved public transport is known to reduce accidents.