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Harteerath Singh: “When You Help Someone, You Sleep Peacefully at Night... And That’s the Best Thing ”

Harteerath Singh’s innovative and functional ‘oxygen drive-thru’ initiative helped thousands of lives During the second wave of COVID-19 in India. Cosmo speaks with the Community Development Director of the Hemkunt Foundation about his journey into philanthropy, initiatives that the NGO has taken to help those suffering, the groundwork being laid to prepare rural areas, and his guiding light during difficult times.  

“My father used to tell me that until you fall yourself or are down on luck, you don’t really think about making a difference. I was a very different person 10 years ago. I was a spoiled brat...but it all changed when 
I got stuck in Uttarakhand during the 2013 floods. I remember I hadn’t eaten for over four days and had to wait in line with hundreds of people for the military to drop food from helicopters. At that moment it hit me, that even though I had everything, I was helpless just like the others. That incident made me realise that there is a huge gap that needs to be filled. And that’s when 
I decided that I need to start giving back to the community. 
When the second wave of COVID-19 struck the country, we [Hemkunt Foundation] started distributing oxygen cylinders in Delhi-NCR, parts of Maharashtra, and a few other metropolitan cities that were experiencing acute shortage. We sent about 4,200 cylinders and they are still in rotation. But as the situation worsened, we launched Oxygen Drive-Thrus in a couple of cities to help critical patients who were unable to procure beds in the hospital. Recently, we opened an oxygen centre in Gurugram, which has a capacity for 500 people, and is equipped to take care of critical cases. Now, we are replicating the same model in cities like Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarkashi and Chamoli in Uttarakhand...areas with little to zero medical resources. And we have successfully managed to set up more than 16 such centres in just 48 hours—our goal is to reach as many rural areas as possible. 

People ask me how the Hemkunt Foundation has managed to source oxygen cylinders and concentrators at a time when there is a shortage not just around the country, but all over the world. And the truth is, it is all about management. When everyone was planning, we were executing. And with the country dealing with the second wave as we speak, we are working on procuring resources like ventilators, should there be a third wave. Right now, big cities are seeing a decline in the number of cases, but the situation has worsened in Uttarakhand. It hasn’t even hit the peak yet, but we have already begun our operations and are setting up centres there. I have also placed an order for concentrators worth `7 crore, because I know we will need them in rural areas. Electricity is another big challenge in remote areas, and without it, the oxygen concentrators cannot function. So we have placed an order for generators and started sending diesel to those locations as well. 

The Hemkunt Foundation has taken these measures based on the data our team has collected after surveying the situation on-ground, and the doctors we are in touch with. What you see on the news is just 50 percent of the ground reality. No-one mentions that something as basic as Paracetamol is not available in rural areas. Or that there are no oxygen masks in the entire district! Each state or area we operate in is very different from the other—you can’t compare. 

Harteerath Singh

Illustrations: Naina Hussain

"Currently, we have a team of 150 people, out of which 100 volunteers are on-ground and 50 are handling back end operations. The volunteers dealing with patients on-ground are all trained to administer medicines, know how to perform CPR and about drug dosage. We spend at least two to three weeks training each volunteer. On an average, our team works 18 to 20 hours daily. And being with patients all day can certainly take a toll on our mental health. Most of my team members have trouble sleeping at night. We don’t even feel like eating. Many of us eat just once a day, because when you see so many people dying in front of your eyes, food is the last thing on your mind... It is, indeed, a grim situation, but there’s no time to think about that. If we focus our energies on the negative, it will hamper our work. That’s why our entire team stays in the same hotel. This helps us stay in a ‘bubble’. We know that we will get emotional if we meet our we prefer isolating ourselves from the world in order to work efficiently.

The situation that we are in is hard, but when I see the comments on social media, about people’s lives being saved, it is all worth it. I remember an incident, where a nine-months-pregnant lady came to us for help. She was expecting to deliver any time, and we gave her oxygen, and then dropped her to the hospital. The next morning, we saw the photograph of her baby, and that was such a touching moment. Messages from patients who are stable now make me smile. Some of them even send us their selfies and when 
I see those photographs, it makes my day. The best part is when people who have recovered reach out to us to volunteer in order to save more lives. This is what we strive help as many people as we can. It’s heartening to see the impact we are making.  

As a Sikh, seva has been one of our crucial principals to live by, for over 400 years. The teachings of Guru Nanak motivate me to do better. The way he served everyone, without discriminating on the basis of colour, caste, creed, or gender is an inspiration to all of us. We believe in sarbat da bhala—which means blessings for everyone, or may everyone prosper—and that’s what keeps us going. These principles have helped me develop a global mindset, and made me more compassionate. You can’t be selfish and do great work...that’s what I believe in.  

As I continue to help whoever I can through the Hemkunt Foundation, 
I feel more satisfied than I have ever felt. Prior to this, even though I had everything I could ever need in life, 
I did not feel content. Now, life feels complete. I have realised that when you help someone, you are able to sleep peacefully at night... And that’s the best thing in life.”