A lifesaving project under threat

MERC, an ambulance service in Balochistan, may be shut down due to non-payment of approved funds

On January 19, Assistant Professor Dur Muhammad Pirkani of the University of Balochistan left for Karachi from Quetta by road with his family. In the evening, he was crossing the Sakin area of Lasbela district when a truck, coming from the opposite direction, lost control. While trying to overtake a vehicle, it collided with Pirkani’s car.

Munir Jalib Baloch, also traveling in the car, suffered minor injuries but others were badly wounded. Baloch called the nearest hospital in Lasbela for help but there was no response from them. Someone on the scene told him to call the Medical Emergency Response Centre (MERC) at 1122. “The MERC ambulance arrived within minutes and carried all of us to their centre after providing first aid,” he tells TNS.

Dur Muhammad Pirkani succumbed to his injuries. His young daughter, Nimra Pirkani, a budding social activist, too, was in a critical condition. However, MERC ambulance promptly carried her to Karachi, which saved her life.

The MERC started functioning in October last year, to provide emergency medical aid to victims of accidents of the highways in Balochistan. In the first three months after it became operational, the MERC attended to 754 highway accidents and saved lives of 1,083 passengers through its six centres. However, this project cannot continue beyond March because the government of Balochistan has stopped providing funds for it.

Chief Minister, Jam Kamal, often cites the success of MERC on twitter as a major success story of his administration. He was the chief guest at the passing out ceremony of the members of MERC team in September last year.

The MERC project was approved with a Rs3.41 billion budget. It envisaged establishing 25 centres on 8 highways in Balochistan. In the fiscal year 2018-19, a sum of Rs260 million was released to this project by the provincial government. This amount was used to establish 6 centres and train the emergency medical technicians at Rescue Services Academy in Lahore. In July 2019, the government approved another sum of Rs427 million for this project but even after 7 months, these funds have not been released to the MERC.

Due to poor conditions of Balochistan highways, hundreds of people lose their lives every year and thousands are wounded in highway accidents. The establishment of the MERC had provided some relief to the victims of highway accidents by saving lives through medical emergency aid on the deadly Quetta-Karachi highway.

Due to poor conditions of Balochistan highways, hundreds of people lose their lives every year and thousands are wounded in accidents. The establishment of the MERC had provided some relief to the victims of highway accidents.

TNS interviewed over a dozen people whose lives were saved by the MERC staff after they had met highway accidents. Amanullah, a daily-wage labourer was travelling towards Luck Pass tunnel on his motorbike when he collided with a large container truck. “I could have suffered permanent disability had MERC staff not provided me with first aid,” he says.

Anwar Magsi, another citizen who faced an accident near Wali Khan Thana of Mastung, says he might not have lived if he had not been taken to Ghanja-Dori centre by the MERC staff.

Syed Abdul Wali was traveling on his bike near Mastung city when he slipped off the highway and suffered head injuries. Fortunately for him, Levies personnel on patrol spotted him and took him to a nearby MERC centre where he was provided first aid and referred to another hospital. “Had there been no MERC centre nearby, I would need to be taken to Mastung City hospital, which would have resulted in a waste of time and I might not have survived,” he tells TNS.

MERC is saving lives and getting appreciation from the public but it’s under threat of closure due to non-release of approved funds. This situation is baffling for common citizens.

Aziz Ahmed Jamali, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Primary Healthcare Initiative (PPHI) and Project Director (PD) of MERC, tells TNS that MERC is waiting for the second tranche of funds since July. “We had ordered several ambulances for our medical emergency centres. The vendors are not handing them over to us because we do not have the funds to pay them,” he says. “The PPHI has lent some money to MERC so that we can pay for some of the ambulances and get them on highways where they are badly needed.”

A government official privy to the matter told this scribe on the condition of anonymity that some government officers are deliberately creating hurdles for this project. “MERC project is free from the influence of the government. There are many government officers who want to control it,” says the official, adding, “Stopping funds of the project on frivolous grounds is a means to cause this project to fail,” he believes.

MERC project is being run by People’s Primary Healthcare Initiative (PPHI), a non-profit company funded by the government of Balochistan. The PPHI also operates all the basic health units (BHUs) in the province. It has been more successful than the health department possibly because it operates as a business. All PPHI employees are hired on a contract basis and if anyone does not perform his or her job well they are terminated.

On the other hand, health department employees are permanent and it’s difficult to sack them even if they remain absent. The PPHI is also running the MERC on the same model and, hence, it has greater control and monitoring power over its staff. At the same time, both the PPHI and the MERC are immune to provincial government interference.

Liaqat Shahwani, a spokesperson for Balochistan government, says the delay is due to the procedure of the release of funds. “The additional chief secretary (ACS) will soon authorise the payment and then it will be released by the Finance Department,” he says. In response to the question about MERC not being able to pay salaries after the month of March, Shahwani says the government will release the funds on an urgent basis.

The problem of survival faced by the MERC is also a case study in flaws in the government’s procedures. The provincial cabinet has approved the MERC project and its funds but subordinate departments can still find a way to not obey the directives of the top decision-making body of the province. If such flaws are not rectified then no chief minister can ever bring about any meaningful reforms in Balochistan.

The writer is based in Balochistan

A lifesaving project under threat: A Balochistan ambulance service MERC may shut down due to non-payment of funds