Among the four Padma awardees from West Bengal this year, there are two good Samaritans both of whom say they never expected they would ever land themselves such an honor!
Bipin Ganatra, a voluntary firefighter, who was featured in a BBC series from India last year, has been given the prestigious government award, Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award for “rescuing people whenever there is fire, often putting himself in danger”.
He was featured in Unsung Indians, a BBC series on people working to improve the lives of others. He told the BBC that he “just wanted to continue doing my work” in the eastern city of Kolkata.
“I am an ordinary person and am completely overwhelmed by the news. I don’t want to make it a big issue. I just want to continue doing my work,” Mr Ganatra told the BBC on Thursday. “I worry whether I will be able to honor the award. It is such a big responsibility”.
He has helped Kolkata fire department douse over 100 fires in the city for the past 40.
Ganatra could not stop his tears the moment he received a call from a news channel on Wednesday evening telling him that he had bagged the prestigious Padma Shri award. An emotional Ganatra was lost for words. “It feels weird, I’m not sure how I can manage this sudden recognition,” he says.
The 59-year-old school dropout had reached almost all fire accident sites in Kolkata. He has even endured several rescue operations endangering his own life. The journey started when he was twelve. It was the eve of Diwali around five decades back when his brother Narendra was cleaning his motor parts shop.
“We would clean the shop with kerosene oil and petrol. Suddenly a burnt cracker fell in the shop. My brother was wearing a silk cloth….” His voice trails off. The shop was gutted in the fire and after being admitted to a hospital for about a month, Bipul’s brother succumbed to his injuries.
The fate of his brother unnerved him somehow, but soon afterwards came a steely determination, a need to not let what had happened to him, happen to others as well. He hunts fires by watching news on his TV all day and night. Whenever news breaks of a blaze, he calls up the fire brigade headquarters, gets into a taxi and goes to the site.
When asked if he remembers how many lives he has saved during the five decades of his service, Bipin replies, “I am not into the business of saving the lives of people. My only aim is to bring the fire under control and save those trapped with less or no injury. Hence I do not have a count of how many people I have saved.”
When asked how he feels after winning the prestigious award, Bipul goes on to add, “I am feeling happy. It is a boost for a poor man like me. I am thankful that my work is recognized.” He continues, “Now when I have no one to share my happiness with, I just want the elders to bless me that I continue to serve to mankind till my last breath.”
On the other hand, ‘motorbike ambulance dada’ Karimul Haque, a 52-year-old tea garden worker who runs a free 24×7 motorbike ambulance in northern Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district has been awarded with the prestigious award.
Away from Kolkata, in the tea gardens of Jalpaiguri, Haque did not quite understand the magnitude of the situation. After villagers and local media men explained him his achievement, Karimul was overwhelmed. “Just as one gets a trophy after winning in sports, it feels as if I’ve won in this game with the support of my poor villagers. I’m happy,” he said.
On his motorbike ambulance, he has transported over 3,000 patients from various parts of Jalpaiguri district to North Bengal Medical College and Hospital in Siliguri city on his motorbike free of cost since the last 22 years. At first he used to ferry passengers in bicycles, then gradually saved enough money to buy a motorbike.
It was his mother’s death due to lack of medical attention that drove Karimul to take up this mission in life. With the new found recognition, Karimul hopes to inspire others to do their bit for his community. “I want other youngsters in my village to take up my work.” He also helps set up health camps in the region.
A private motorbike manufacturer has honored both the Padma Sri awardees with two custom-made motorbikes that may serve their needs.