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1298 ambulance founder hails Obama summit

April 29, 2010 16:36 IST

Shaffi MatherShaffi Mather, 41, founder of the yellow ambulance or the 1298 service, was appreciative of US President Barack Obama's vision of trying to bring together grassroots and community-based entrepreneurs, instead of the regular Fortune and Forbes 500 and 100 businessmen, to the parley.

The 1298 ambulance service has revolutionised medical transport in Mumbai and Kerala.

Cochin-born and raised Mather lived and worked in the US for nearly two decades before returning to India to start his venture with four other friends.

Mather was one of the six Indian delegates invited to the Presidential Entrepreneurial Summit.

Obama's stand 'communicates his vision of connecting at the grassroots well and it was an incredible set of people from around the world, who were invited,' he told

Mather had participated in "all the panels and listening to each other's experiences was amazing. And they listened to my story too. It was very inspiring. I hope they continue this and create a platform for all of us", he said.

Mather, who has three master's degrees from the US -- in finance, business and public policy from the University of Connecticut, University of Pittsburgh and Harvard University respectively -- , said, "My take-away from the summit is that he (Obama) is making a concerted effort not only for the Muslim community but also for the developing countries, the least developed countries at large.

"He says that America under his administration is not going to be the Big Brother, they don't want to be the Big Brother -- they want to interact as partners.

"For example, at the sessions, there were hardly any speeches but interactive panel discussions. Therefore, there was a lot of emphasis on listening as much as they (the senior US officials) were willing to talk."

Mather acknowledged that by convening a summit for entrepreneurs from largely Muslim majority countries and nations with sizable Muslim minorities, Obama was being 'pretty bold and that his was a pretty radical idea'.

"Obama has been radical and has been a grassroots man -- community organiser during his Chicago days," he said.

Mather argued that "the other aspect -- the other perspective -- to look at is that when you want to repair a damaged relationship, you have to go that extra mile and take steps for outreaching, which obviously has to equal the damage done in the past.'

"Therefore, I don't think it's going out of the way," he said on Obama organising the Muslim Entrepreneurial Summit.

"For all the damage that has been done in the past, this is a step forward. I don't think this is enough. They have to do much more."

Mather said the idea behind the 1298 ambulance service had nothing to do with healthcare since he was not a healthcare provider. It was all about 'a few close friends who sustained near-death experiences and also about losing a dear friend in a road accident.'

"We didn't actually start off to launch an ambulance service. We thought we'll study it and present it to the political and bureaucratic leadership", he explained.

Unfortunately, the insensitivity of the political and bureaucratic leaders, whom we met, motivated us to put together a little bit of money and buy one ambulance. We started the service in 2004. We were a group of five friends, all educated in the US."

Mather said 1298 was essentially a 911 service and used the same US and UK ambulance template of 'same quality service'. The control room uses the latest technology -- global positioning system tracking of ambulances etc.

"The service, which is for profit, has a sliding scale of payment, where the rich pay higher, the poor pay lower and the absolute poor gets free service."

Initially, all the calls had everyone claiming to be poor, but to rectify this it was decided that calls taken to private hospitals would be charged a higher fee whereas calls to public hospitals would be charged much lower or be granted free service.

"Roughly, 26 per cent of the transports that we do, are either subsidised or free", Mather said.

The service, which began with just one ambulance in 2004, had grown to 51, including 31 in Mumbai, 13 in Kerala, and the rest in Patna, he said.

Image: Shaffi Mather

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC