“If you have any medicine that you have no use for, and you want to help the poor, then please donate it,” booms the voice of Medicine Baba, through many a middle class suburbs of Delhi as he treads his way through the length and breadth of the Capital collecting unused medicines.
Dressed in an eye catching saffron kurta, on which the name of his medicine bank ‘Raahat Hi Raahat’ is printed along with his two contact numbers (9250243298, 9971926518), Nath goes from door to door asking for medicines. Over the past three years, 75-years-old Omkar Nath Sharma aka Medicine Baba has made it his job to trek from door to door, calling out to people to donate their surplus or unused medicines to him. He then distributes them to needy families, charitable hospitals and to those who cannot afford them otherwise.
“The best places are the middle-class and lower middle-class neighborhoods in government colonies,” says Omkar, explaining that he rarely receives donations from posh or wealthier areas. He walks around 5-6 kilometers per day avoiding the Metro Rail as he is unable to afford its fare. From the slums in Manglapuri, where he lives in a dingy rented room with his wife and a 41-year old mentally challenged son, he travels by buses with the help of his senior citizen pass. In remote areas where buses do not ply, he simply walks. He maintains a work schedule with weekends reserved for record keeping and weekdays spent in the field asking for medicines. . He has built up a pool of regular contributors in neighborhoods like Green Park, who he calls on when they have medicines they no longer need. For more than three years he has been collecting everything from painkillers to multivitamins, despite walking with a limp, a since he was 12 after being hit by a car.
A retired blood bank technician from Kailash Hospital, Noida, Omkar realized the acute lack of accessibility of medicines, after an under-construction Delhi Metro bridge collapsed in Laxmi Nagar, claiming two lives and injuring several construction workers and passersby. Many of those people had no access to health care. The local hospital administered basic first aid, but nothing else and the injured returned home to die, unable to afford the cost of treatment. That incident shook Omkar and he became determined to not let something like this happen again.
India is the 4th largest producer of medicines in the world and exports to over 200 countries. But this is also a fact that about 900 million Indians do not have access to essential medicines. “Medicines are not manufactured to be dumped in garbage. They are essential lifesaving drugs. When a person wastes a medicine, a life gets wasted,” he says. Many people visit his bank regularly to take medicines. Meanwhile, he faced resistance from an unusual quarter — his family. When he first announced his plans to the family, they were all pretty unhappy. “The family thought I was shaming them by basically begging,” he says. But over time, they have come to accept it, he adds.
. Based on Omkar’s estimates, he collects medicines worth Rs 5-10 lakh per month. “One morning I got a strip of anti-cancer medicine that was worth Rs. 35, 000,” he says. Apart from his medicine gathering efforts, Omkar has also been helping people with disabilities to get tricycles. This Samaritan certainly has walked that extra mile to help those in need. The Medicine Baba’s self-created medicine distribution system seems unorthodox, it is also filling a real need in Delhi, patients and doctors who work with the Medicine Baba say. Treatment is free at India’s government hospitals and clinics, but they are often understaffed, overcrowded and their dispensaries sometimes out of key medicines. Mr. Sharma knows that loosely distributing medicine brings real risks, so he said he will only give them out if a patient has a prescription from a doctor.
Shayam Lal, 45, whose only son was suffered through two days of fever because he was unable to purchase medicine that was too expensive, ultimately obtained the medicine from Mr. Sharma. “I am more than obliged to Baba ji as he helped us in those critical times,” said Mr. Lal, a migrant worker from Bihar, referring to Mr. Sharma with a ji, used in Hindi as a mark of respect. “There should be more practices like this for the poor people.”Vimla Rani, a 47-year-old maid, said she is alive because of Sharma’s medicines, which help to control her asthma. “I keep on getting inhalers and other medicines from Medicine Baba,” she said.
“Thousands of poor people die as they can’t afford expensive medicines, while at the same time unused medicines worth millions get wasted,” Mr. Sharma said. “There are people who can’t even afford simple painkiller tablets.” His patients have included a heart patient in Central Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, an injured man in South Delhi and a young child suffering from an influenza virus, he said.
The Medicine Baba is performing a valuable service, say doctors who work at charitable clinics, and his contributions have become a formal part of their clinics’ operations. “He is a man of mission,” said Dr. Jaswant Singh, a general physician at the Guru Angad Dev Medical Center (Charitable), run by the Sikh trust at Gurudwara Guru Singh Sabha, in West Delhi’s Tilak Nagar. Even though Mr. Sharma is disabled himself, “he collects medicine and donates to poor people,” Dr. Singh said. Some of the more expensive medicine Mr. Sharma collects goes to bigger hospitals, while his own clinic often takes antibiotics and syrups, Dr. Singh said. Doctors who work with the Medicine Baba say their clinics treat him just like any other medicine distributor, except that they don’t pay him money. “We check all medicines given by Sharma, and he also takes my signature on a receipt,” said Dr. Naseem Meraj, who runs Habib Dispensary at Matia Mahal of Jama Masjid, and has been working with Mr. Sharma for two years. The clinic charges patients about 20 cents per visit.
One of the clinics where Mr Sharma donates medicines is run by Dr SL Jain, a friendly pediatrician with more than 30 years experience, who for the last nine years has operated a free clinic in west Delhi, an hour on the bus from Mr Nath’s house, where he treats around 20 young children every day and hands out medicine. “My slogan is ‘one window and zero charge’,” said Dr Jain, explaining that people liked to come to him because he combined the services of a clinic and dispensary together. Most of the children he treats are malnourished; many of the mothers suffer from anemia.One of those waiting for treatment at the basement clinic was Manju, a 35-year-old woman with three children. Her husband worked as a labourer. “I prefer coming here compared to the government hospital,” said the woman, as Dr Jain handed her some tablets for her son’s cough and something for her daughter’s persistent diarrhea. “Here we get looked at almost immediately. There, I have to stay the entire the day.”“Mr Nath got in touch with Dr Jain around four years ago and explained that he collected the medicine, “ he said, as a row of mothers with their children heaped on seats, sat in line to see him. “Now he provides around five to ten per cent of the medicine I distribute.”
Omkarnath collects medicines from people, and supplies them free of cost to even the leading hospitals like All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Deendayal Upadhyaya Hospital, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, Lady Harding Hospital, Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute, etc. He also distributes them to a number of dispensaries run by different religious, sewa organisations, temple committees or Gurudwaras.
But there are complications while dealing with medicines at every step. Apart from the legal and professional problems, there are complications in storing them too, as injections need to be stored in refrigerator. “In the beginning I took the help of some doctors, but now I can do it on my own. My weekends are for sorting and record-keeping and Mondays to Thursdays for ‘begging’. I have purchased a magnifying glass to read the medicine labels. I have also taken a room on rent for Rs 2,000 per month—plus electricity—for the medicine cabinets. A kind hearted man has donated a fridge for storing injections,” he said.
Shri Nath, has become a familiar face in the campus of Janaki Devi Memorial College in West Delhi, which supports his mission. Media coverage on TV has given him a respectability of sorts. His work has moved some people to the extent that they are willing to help him. Dr Mamata Bhushan Singh, Professor of Neurology in AIIMS, regularly calls him offering every possible help. Shri Omkarnath has kept some boxes at Janaki Devi College, Ahimsa Bhavan (Rajinder Nagar), Arya Samaj Mandir (Rajinder Nagar), Sat Manjila Mandir (Tilak Nagar), Ahimsa Vihar Apartment (Sector 9, Rohini) and Sunrise Apartment (Sector 13, Rohini) for collecting medicines.
Apart from donating unused medicines from home, some people have now offered to give medicines after purchasing from market. Impressed over this idea, some students of Jamia Millia University and also from IIT Delhi are regularly helping him in this cause. He has also been invited by some universities for sharing his idea with the students.
Mr. Sharma said he is very careful about managing all the medicine he collects and distributes, and tries to carefully document the process. He prepares a list of all the medicines, syrups and drugs he receives and always asks for receipts so there is a paper trail to prove their authenticity. “It is matter of peoples’ lives. I can’t ignore it. I know it is important to note the expiry date,” Mr. Sharma said.“Initially it was difficult to convince people,” to part with their extra medicines, Mr. Sharma said. “They used to get suspicious and think that I run a racket, but now things have improved.”Mr. Sharma makes no profit from the collection and distribution of the medicines, he said.
Mr Nath’s eventual aim is to establish a free medicine bank, properly catalogued and available to NGOs and charities. For now, however, he has teamed up with various clinics around the city that can make use of the collected supplies. Dr Mahavir Prasad Vast, head of pharmacy, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, says, “It’s difficult to find people like him, who despite their handicap are willing to serve mankind.”