Omkar Nath: India's medicine man

Omkar Nath is on a personal mission to heal Delhi's poorest, sickest residents – by touring the city begging for drugs
  • @AndrewBuncombe

As soon as he gets close to the houses, Omkar Nath cries out. “If you have any medicine you have no use for, and you want to help the poor,” he says, “then please donate it.”

In English, set out on the written page, his entreaty looks clumsy. But on this bright morning, in Mr Nath’s easy, fluid Hindi, it comes across more as a song.

For the last three years, the 75-year-old has been traveling the streets of Delhi, collecting unwanted medicine in two plastic shopping bags, and then donating it to clinics that provide care for the poor. In doing so, he has earned himself a city-wide celebrity status and a nickname that has stuck – Medicine Baba.

“The best places are the middle-class and lower middle-class neighbourhoods,” says Mr Nath, explaining that he rarely receives donations from wealthy areas. “One morning I got a strip of anti-cancer medicine that was worth 35,000 rupees (£450)”

Mr Nath makes no special claims about himself or what he does. But his daily collections around India’s capital, dressed in a bright orange smock that bears the numbers of the two mobile phones he carries  – 09250243298 and 09971926518 - are testimony to a quiet determination of someone facing considerable challenges themselves to try and help others.

As a boy of 12, his legs were badly injured when he was hit by a car as he crossed the road. For two months he was unable to walk and his bones grew back skewed and awkward. Today, his daily five mile sorties around Delhi and his bus journey back and forth to the slum area where he lives close to the international airport, are made with no small difficulty.

The former hospital technician has faced other challenges too; when he first announced his plan to start his collections, his family was not entirely happy. “The family thought I was shaming them by basically begging” he explains. “They admonished me. Now they accept it.”

On a recent morning, the streets warm with winter sunshine, The Independent accompanied Mr Nath as he went about his collection in the Laxmi Bai Nagar neighbourhood of south Delhi. One of the first to hand over some medicine was Manoj Sharma, who dropped some painkillers formerly belonging to his mother, into Mr Nath’s bag. He said he was well aware who the Medicine Baba was. “He comes here every three or four months. We think he is doing a very good thing,” he said.

Many people came out to look, others watched from their balconies. One resident, 46-year-old Roshni Devi, had some antibiotics for Mr Nath. “He has come here before and I have donated. I am quite inspired by what he is doing. If he did not do this, we would otherwise have to throw them away,” she said.

Not everyone gave Medicine Baba such an easy ride. A man dressed in a blue tracksuit, said he had heard nothing about the collections and had no idea who Mr Nath was. Why are you doing this, he asked, though not unpleasantly. “I am doing it because of my inner calling,” Mr Nath smiled back. “When I retired I decided I would put my time to good use. This work gives me pleasure and satisfaction.”

As his fame around Delhi has grown and the television channels have got to know about him, he often tells people to look out for him on the evening news. When he answers his phone, he does so with a flourish: “Medicine Baba speaking.”

The slightly-built retiree, said he got the idea for his collections after witnessing the aftermath of a construction accident in Delhi in 2008 when a concrete pillar being erected as part of the city’s metro system fell, killing two people and injuring many others. “The injured were taken to a hospital but only gave them basic treatment. The hospital said it did not have enough medicine,” he added. “If struck me then that if I could obtain medicine, it could be distributed free of charge.”

At the end of every collection, he finds a quiet corner in a park or on a bench to go through his haul and to carefully catalogue it. With the benefit of having worked in a hospital, he reckons that he recognises around 25 per cent of the medicine he gathers. Everything gets written down in his binder - the name of the drug, the manufacturer, where he collected it and the expiry date. Anything that is open to the air gets discarded. “I have to think of the welfare of the people receiving this,” 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.

One of those he donates to is run by 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 Mr 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 anaemia.

“Mr Nath got in touch with me 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.”

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 Mr Dr Jain handed her some tablets for her son’s cough and something for her daughter’s persistent diaorrhea.  “Here we get looked at almost immediately. There, I have to stay the entire the day.”

Also among those whose children were receiving Dr Jain’s care and the Medicine Baba’s drugs, was Meenakshi Sharma, a 25-year-old woman whose five-year-old son Kishi was suffering from a cough and a cold and a lack of appetite.

Mrs Sharma’s husband ran a stationery shop and earned around 300 rupees (£3.90) a day. Money was tight. “I like to come here,” she said. “These medicines work, compared to those at the government hospital.”