When a road accident occurs, bystanders will usually try
to help the injured, or at least call for help. In India it’s
different. In a country with some of the world’s most
dangerous roads, victims are all too often left to fend
Kanhaiya Lal desperately cries for help but motorists swerve
straight past him. His young son and the splayed bodies of
his wife and infant daughter lie next to the mangled
motorbike on which they had all been travelling seconds
The widely broadcast CCTV footage of this scene – showing
the suffering of a family of hit-and-run victims in northern
India in 2013 and the apparent indifference of passers-by –
troubled many Indians.
Some motorcyclists and police eventually came to the
family’s aid but it was too late for Lal’s wife and daughter.
Their deaths sparked a nationwide debate over the role of
bystanders – the media hailed it as a “new low in public
apathy” and worse, “the day humanity died”.
But what safety campaigner Piyush Tewari saw wasn’t a lack
of compassion but an entire system stacked against helping
His work to change this began nearly 10 years ago, when his
17-year-old cousin was knocked down on the way home
“A lot of people stopped but nobody came forward to help,”
Tewari says. “He bled to death on the side of the road.”
Tewari set out to understand this behaviour, and found the
same pattern repeated time and again across the country.
Passers-by who could have helped were holding back and
“The foremost reason was intimidation by police,” he says.
“Oftentimes if you assist someone the police will assume
you’re helping that person out of guilt.”
The discovery spurred Tewari to set up SaveLIFE. In a 2013
survey, the foundation found that 74% of Indians were
unlikely to help an accident victim, whether alone or with
Apart from the fear of being falsely implicated, people also
worried about becoming trapped as a witness in a court case
– legal proceedings can be notoriously protracted in India.
And if they helped the victim get to hospital, they feared
coming under pressure to stump up fees for medical
In a country with smoothly functioning emergency services,
bystanders often need to do little more than call an
ambulance, do their best to provide first aid and reassure
victims that help is on the way.
But in India ambulances are in short supply, sometimes very
slow to arrive and often poorly equipped. This makes it a
country in need of Good Samaritans – and according to
Tewari there are many Good Samaritans out there. They just
choose carefully when to leap into action.
He contrasts the reluctance of passers-by to help victims of
road accidents with their response to train crashes or
In these cases, he says, “before the police or media arrives
everybody’s been moved to hospital”.
The big difference with road accidents is that there are
usually just one or two victims. “The chances of getting
blamed are much higher,” he says.
SaveLIFE filed a case with India’s top court to introduce legal
protection for Indian bystanders and a year ago there was a
breakthrough when the Supreme Court issued a number of
allowing people who call to alert emergency services about
a crash to remain anonymous
providing them with immunity from criminal liability
forbidding hospitals from demanding payment from a
bystander who takes an injured person to hospital
Just two months later, though, another hit-and-run incident
caught on camera shocked the nation.
“See how they’re just watching?” murmurs Anita Jindal as
she scans the CCTV footage, once again, on her mobile
phone in the cramped room-cum-corner shop she once
shared with her son, Vinay.
A speeding car had hurled 20-year-old Vinay off his scooter
in east Delhi, and the footage shows a crowd of onlookers
surrounding him, and doing nothing.
It went viral on social media last July, triggering a new bout
of soul-searching, and was even mentioned by Prime
Minister Narendra Modi in his monthly radio broadcast to
“If someone had helped he may have been here today,”
says Anita Jindal. “Everyone told me they were scared of the
For Piyush Tewari and SaveLIFE the struggle goes on.
In March the Supreme Court guidelines were declared
compulsory. To ensure that they will be enforced, the
foundation is now campaigning to get each of India’s 29
federal states and seven union territories to enshrine them
in a Good Samaritan law.
The scale of the problem
Fifteen people are killed every hour in road accidents in
Twenty children are killed every day in road accidents in
One million people have died in road accidents in India in
the past decade
Five million people were seriously injured or disabled in
road accidents in India in the past decade
The equivalent of three per cent of GDP is lost annually due
to road accidents
Source: SaveLIFE Foundation, 2014
Shrijith Ravindran, the chief executive of a restaurant chain,
is one person for whom this legislation cannot be
introduced soon enough.
In January he came across an elderly man bleeding by the
roadside in the western Indian city of Pune. A gathering
crowd of people was still deliberating what to do when
Ravindran put the man in his car and drove him to hospital.
The closest hospital gave him a bunch of papers to fill in
before turning him away.
The next one swamped him with more paperwork before
tending to the patient.
In total, he says, he spent three hours filling in these forms.
“They ask, ‘Are you a relative?’ The moment you say ‘No’,
they don’t do anything,” says Ravindran.
“They wait for somebody to give them assurance that they
will pay the bill. Valuable time is lost.”
The elderly man finally received treatment once the
paperwork was completed, but it was too late. He died of his
When a road accident occurs, bystanders will usually try