The “Medicine Baba,” Omkar Nath Sharma, 75, spends his days knocking on doors in Delhi’s upper and middle class neighborhoods, collecting their leftover medicines and giving them to the poor.
Mr. Sharma, a former medical technician, was jolted out of retirement in 2008, after an under-construction Delhi Metro bridge collapsed in Laxmi Nagar, claiming two lives and injuring several construction workers and passers by. Many of those people had no access to health care or medicine. “I was moved by the plight of the people who were running here and there searching desperately for medicine,” said Mr. Sharma in a recent interview. He said he visited the site of the accident and decided “I will do something to help society.”
Mr. Sharma starts his day at 6 a.m., when he leaves his rented home in Manglapuri, a southern Delhi suburb, and travels by buses on his senior citizen pass to wealthier parts of the city. 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. Mr. Sharma estimates he walks about three miles a day, collecting everything from painkillers to multivitamins, despite walking with a limp a since he was 12 after being hit by a car.
Wearing an orange shirt that says “Mobile medicine bank for poor patients,” he picks up medicines that he estimates are worth 200,000 rupees, about $3,860, a month, and then distributes them to individuals and charitable clinics for no charge. 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.
While 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. According to the World Health Organization’s World Medicine Report in 2004, 649 million Indians did not have access to essential medicine.
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.
He also distributes medicine to more than a dozen nongovernmental organizations, and a large portion of what he collects goes to the Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, a government-run charitable hospital in Central Delhi.
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.
Dr. S.L. Jain, who runs a charitable clinic for children in the Patel Nagar section of West Delhi and has known Mr. Sharma for five years, said that the Medicine Baba contributes 10 percent of medicine available in his clinic
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.
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. He continues to live in a small rented room with his wife and mentally challenged son.
His work is sustained thanks to financial aid from a few benefactors, including doctors he works with.
Mr. Sharma and Dr. Jain of the children’s clinic have teamed up to build a free medicine bank for the poor that they hope will expand on Mr. Sharma’s work and reach more people. “Mr. Sharma is making an important contribution, but it is still a small effort,” Dr. Jain said. “To build a well-equipped medicine bank would require more manpower, funds and resources,” he said.
“We need a full system to collect unused medicines for the benefit of the poor and needy,” Mr. Sharma agreed.
(Abu Zafar, a New Delhi based journalist, can be contacted at [email protected] and this article was first published in The New York Times)