Last year, while India grappled with the double challenges of a mysterious pandemic and an unprecedented lockdown, unlikely heroes emerged to rescue those in need. One of them was Buddy Cabs, founded by Chandigarh-based Army wife-entrepreneur-supermom Sartaj Lamba.
The specialised cab service, operated by ex-servicemen, was designed in fact to help wheelchair-bound customers become mobile. It turned into an emergency service ferrying Army officers who had been stranded without public transport during lockdown and needed to report to duty or rush home from duty due to personal emergency (in one sad case, a spousal suicide).
On one foggy December night, Buddy Cabs also helped evacuate an 82-year-old woman, two children and others from a car wreck on the Delhi-Chandigarh highway, and to arrange to take them to the nearest hospital.
“Our aim is to ensure total mobility for the most vulnerable sections of society, while also keeping our venture as eco-friendly and people-friendly as possible,” says Sartaj, whose larger-than-life personality and unflinching optimism can light up a room.
Daughter of an Air Force officer and wife of an Army officer, Sartaj – who was born in Ambala and raised mostly in Chandigarh – says she has gone the entire gamut of an Army wife’s life from joining the Army Wives Welfare Association to hosting events for charity to even volunteering as a traffic marshal with the Chandigarh police.
Ten years ago, in order to give employment to women in need, she launched AJ Travels providing travel and tourism related services. She involved her entire family in the venture, even her adolescent son and daughter, who designed the logos. “I always keep everyone busy – my husband, my kids, my parents, my in-laws, my staff,” laughs Sartaj, whose daughter, 23, is now a dentist and son, 21, is in final year of engineering college.
When her father-in-law was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and needed frequent visits to the hospital, Sartaj realised her position of relative privilege.
“We have support staff in the Army, and even then, my husband and I were stretched thin in caring round the clock for an ailing senior citizen. I wondered what normal civilians must go through when faced with similar challenges,” she recalls.
Unafraid of taking entrepreneurial risks, Sartaj jumped headlong into her second venture in summer 2019 – India’s first wheelchair-enabled car rental system. The name Buddy Cabs was inspired by the Army’s custom of ‘battle buddies’ assigned to defend soldiers.
With a fleet of about a dozen cars specially outfitted and customised for wheelchair-bound patients, the service is headed by five ex-servicemen who train all other drivers and porters in soft skills and safety protocol.
Available in Delhi, Gurgaon, Mohali, Chandigarh, Ambala, Faridabad and Noida, Buddy Cabs has tied up with hospitals such as Fortis to ferry their patients. In addition, it also serves as a regular point-to-point cab service for wheelchair users, the elderly and even unaccompanied pets.
“We send porters or handlers who are courteous, properly trained and know the protocol of dealing with physically challenged people and seniors,” says Sartaj, who is now working on an app so that people can book services directly from their smartphones.
They also plan to offer a membership system for those who live abroad and may be concerned about their elderly parents back home in India. Each cab goes through a 20-point check every morning before it is released for duty, and is equipped with a music collection to suit all tastes.
So far, they have a base of about 1,500 to 2,000 customers across north India, most of whom are repeat clients who need regular transport services for chemotherapy or dialysis visits to the hospital. Since the company had curfew passes during the lockdown last year, they were able to help many people from other sections of society as well.
They are now entering the category of assisted living for those with special needs by giving them a disciplined, safe driving experience along with a ‘buddy’ at their beck and call for daily chores and shopping.
“In India, we have not created an ecosystem to allow those with special needs to be independent. There’s this concept of terming the elderly and specially abled as bechara (helpless persons),” regrets Sartaj. She adds with her customary gusto: “This is what I want to erase from our vocabulary.”
First published in eShe’s April 2021 issue
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