Equipped with oxygen cylinders, the vans will boost rural health infrastructure and help bring down deaths by helping patients swiftly access critical healthcare facilities

In a first of its kind initiative in the country, gram panchayats under the Pune Zilla Parishad have pooled underutilised health fund money to purchase 92 ambulances and firm up the rural health infrastructure amid the rise in COVID-19 cases.

Ayush Prasad, CEO, Pune Zilla Parishad, said this is probably the first instance where the rural administration of a district has taken the lead in buying ambulances since such purchases usually fall under the domain of the State government.

A sarpanch of a gram panchayat told The Hindu, “Under the 14th and 15th Finance Commissions, a portion of funds allotted to gram panchayats under the rubric of ‘health’ was lying unutilised. Often, the gram panchayats don’t know where to use their ‘health’ money and generally expend them in local-level sanitary works like repairing drainage systems.”

Mr. Prasad, in an innovative move, directed purchases of ambulances to be made under Section 139 of the Maharashtra Village Panchayats Act, 1959. “The gram panchayats passed resolutions and then pooled in their money, with each contributing their share as a proportion of their population. After obtaining a ‘technical’ sanction from the State government, we went ahead with the purchases, which were made over the one-stop Government e-Marketplace hosted by the Directorate General of Supplies and Disposals, where common user goods and services can be procured,” he said.

Each ambulance, a TATA Winger van purchased at ₹14.22 lakh, is equipped with two portable oxygen cylinders of 2.2 litre capacity, Global Positioning System, auto-loading stretcher facility and storage space for first aid and nursing kits. The driver’s remuneration and the cost of fuel are to be borne by the Zilla Parishad from its cess funds, authorities said.

Mr. Prasad said, “At present, 51 of these ambulances have been purchased. The remaining 41 will be procured next week. Of the 82 ambulances purchased by the State government, 41 were designated for rural areas. However, only 28 of these were equipped to ferry COVID-19 patients. The addition of 92 ambulances will be a tremendous boost to the healthcare system in rural parts.”

The move is expected to significantly firm up the healthcare infrastructure in Pune Rural, which has witnessed a dramatic surge in cases in the past three weeks. With an average daily case surge of nearly 1,000, the region has reported around 15,000 active cases and more than 1,200 deaths.

“Many a time, patients in far-flung areas lack easy access to multi-specialty hospitals. Moreover, ambulances are not fully equipped to cater to the urgent needs of critical patients. We hope to eliminate these problems with this new fleet of ambulances,” said Mr. Prasad.

Pune Zilla Parishad authorities said once the COVID-19 cases dwindle, the vehicles would be converted into 102 ambulances in a permanent augmentation of the Pune’s rural healthcare infrastructure

This isn’t the first time that the Pune Zilla Parishad has come up with a novel solution amid the COVID-19 crisis. In April, it came up with another out-of-the-box solution: placing errant spouses in institutional quarantine to counter rising cases of domestic violence during the lockdown.

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