A short horse ride at Matheran turned into a complete nightmare for the Singh family from Kurla after one of them fell off her mount and injured her head. Although the 32-year-old Neelam had received grave injuries, her family had no idea just how hopeless the situation was until they reached the local medical centre — the nearly hundred-year-old hospital did not have the facilities to handle a simple fracture, and the doctor was only qualified to practice ayurveda. The woman received the most basic patch-up before they made their way to the nearest hospital all the way in Panvel, where she eventually died.
Neelam Singh (extreme left) pictured with her sister Suman and Suman’s fiancé Karthik moments before the fateful horse ride
"All we could do was watch her helplessly as she bled for over two and a half hours in the ambulance. There was no nurse to take care of her and the doctor sat in the front, with the driver. Neelam was bleeding from her head and ears. She couldn’t breathe and was spitting blood. It was unbearable," said her sister, Suman.
This is the third fatal incident of a tourist falling off a horse at Matheran in the recent years (see box), but Neelam’s case highlights the glaring lack of safety regulations or emergency facilities at the popular hill station.
She was the eldest daughter in the Singh family. The 32-year-old was a resident of Kurla, where she would run her family’s publishing business and B2B magazine ‘Packaging Solutions’, while also working at a call centre in Malad.
Suman Singh and her fiancé Karthik had gone to Matheran with Neelam to celebrate their birthdays. Pic/Sameer Markande
It was to celebrate her younger sister, Suman’s birthday that they went to Matheran on Saturday. Two days later, they would have celebrated Neelam’s birthday as well. They were accompanied by Suman’s fiancé Karthik Adhishesha and a family friend. "We thought it could be a good surprise for Suman since it was her birthday. We had all been to Matheran before, but Karthik had only heard about it and was very enthusiastic," said the family friend.
Horse rides are a highlight for tourists at Matheran, and the Singh sisters had done it several times in the past. When they saw their regular horse handler, they decided to go on a horseback tour of the popular sights around 4.30 pm.
No safety measures
Suman and Karthik confirmed that none of them were wearing any helmets, or any safety gear for that matter. Only one handler was accompanying them on foot as they each mounted a horse. He wasn’t holding the reins to Neelam’s horse, and she was riding alone at the front. As the quartet trotted towards Louisa Point (which offers a view of Prabal Fort), they approached a sharp bend on the road and Neelam’s horse suddenly galloped away.
"Neelam and the horse disappeared around the turn; there was a steep curve and some bushes, so we couldn’t see them. We heard a scream and froze in terror," recalled Suman. When they ran to check on Neelam, they were horrified to see her lying unconscious on the ground, bleeding from her head.
"It was a no-pollution zone, so there were no cars to take her to hospital, but the locals were helpful and immediately arranged for a handcart to carry her," said Karthik, adding that it was unfortunate that even in her vulnerable state, someone stole Neelam’s mobile phone.
Hospital poorly equipped
Neelam was taken to Bairamjee Jijibhai Hospital, but their horror was far from over. "The civic hospital is a hundred years old and had been built by British. There is no MBBS-qualified doctor there. Even if they get a world-class specialist, what can he do without equipment," said Sunil Shinde, a native of Matheran who works as a teacher in Mumbai. He was present at the hospital during the incident and confirmed that very little has been done to prevent such incidents or to develop the local medical facilities, which could play a major role in saving lives.
The doctor present on duty was Dr Uday Tambe (BAMS) immediately told the family that Neelam’s condition was serious and she would have to be moved to Panvel. He told mid-day the hospital had limited resources and just two doctors (both qualified in ayurveda), one nurse, one ward boy and two servants.
"Even with fracture cases, all we can do is give them painkillers and send them to a specialised facility. The patient was bleeding from her left ear and head, suffering from repeated fits and had breathing difficulty. Prima facie, it seemed like an intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding inside the skull) and the patient was in need of immediate ventilator support. We called for an 108 ambulance, gave injections for the fits, intubated her and took her to the hospital. After she was handed over to doctors at Life Line Hospital in Panvel and stabilized on ventilator, I left," said Tambe.
Although Tambe accompanied the patient in the ambulance, he sat ahead with the driver instead of assisting her. Questioned about this, Tambe said there wasn’t much more he could have done, as the ambulance wasn’t fitted with a ventilator.
Neelam reached Life Line Hospital around 7 pm, and was immediately put on ventilator support. But the hospital did not give the family any hope for Neelam’s survival. "Within half an hour, they called us to the ICU and told us there was zero chance of survival. They said they would operate, but even that would yield no results," said Suman.
After discussing the matter with their own doctors in Mumbai, they decided to shift Neelam to Habibi Hospital in Dongri. Then began a tussle with the hospital authorities who demanded R30,000 before they could discharge the patient against medical advice. The family had exhausted their cash and credit card limit already and could only pay R5,000. In the midst of all this, Neelam suffered a brain hemorrhage.
Dr Prakash Patil, chairman and managing director of the hospital said, "The family wanted to shift the patient but she wasn’t in a condition to be shifted, that’s why we advised against it. If a patient just doesn’t have money, we let them go. But eventually, you have to pay the charges."
The hospital provided a cardiac ambulance fitted with a ventilator and Neelam was shifted to Habibi hospital. The doctors there put her on ventilator support but informed the family that Neelam was already brain dead. On Monday, she succumbed to multiple organ failure.
"It was her birthday on February 22. She met with an accident on my birthday and died on hers. What can be worse?" said Suman.
The family said they don’t want to take action against the horse owner but want the shabby medical facilities to be improved. "We don’t want anybody behind bars. We just want some concrete solutions," said Karthik.
As a first step to improve safety, NCP leader and former chief of the Matheran Municipal Corporation, Ajay Sawant said, "Saturday’s incident is really unfortunate. I personally feel that the government should take serious note and make helmets compulsory while riding horses."
mid-day got a similar response from Asha Kadam, chief of Sthanik Ashwapal Sanghatan, which has close to 200 horses under it.
According to an official, there are other issues. "Now there are 460 horses in Matheran, but few horse handlers. One man manning four horses can hardly control all of them," said the official, adding that the horses are forced to work without any rest, causing them to go berserk at times, which is what happened in a 2015 incident that killed a 7-year-old British girl (see box). "The horses work relentlessly. It is animal after all, it is bound to retaliate," said the official.
— Inputs by Ranjeet Jadhav
MMRDA has plans to spend over R46 crore to make improvements in Matheran, which includes relaying the 5.5-km road between Dasturi naka and Matheran, renovation of tourist points and installation of benches to help tourists mount horses. But there is no mention of improving medical services. When questioned about this, Joint Project Director Dilip Kawatkar refused to comment.
Two past incidents, but nothing has changed
Actor-director-producer Manish Acharya, of the 'Loins of Punjab Presents' fame, fell off a horse and hit his head in Matheran in December 2010. He was on a holiday at the hill station with his two children and wife. He was rushed to the Ambani Hospital in Nerul but was declared dead. Acharya was a Matheran regular and was described as a fairly good rider. His wife, Dhruvi, said that even after so many years, and more such deaths, nothing has changed. "People continue to ride the horses despite the risks. There is no regulation. The horses are unhealthy and there is no one to keep a check on the joyriders. I ran for half an hour before finding a taxi to take my husband to Nerul. He had died by the time we reached," she said.
The nearly hundred-year-old local hospital did not have the facilities to handle a simple fracture, and the doctors are only qualified to practice ayurveda.
In April 2015, a seven-year-old British national, who was visiting Matheran with her family, died on Tuesday after the horse she was riding went out of control and dragged her for 100 metres.
'Helmets not practical'
"A majority of tourists go to tourists points that are not too far, and wearing helmets for such small distances is not practical. The path on which the horses walk is not dangerous, and it is rare to see cases of tourists falling off the horse," said Yogesh Chavan, a naturalist and wildlife photographer who co-wrote the book, Matheran: A Practical Guide.