It’s 8am on a Saturday. The short, grey-haired old man waiting for me outside New Delhi’s INA metro station looks very different from all the others there. He wears a saffron kurta on which “Mobile Medicine Bank” and other details, including his cellphone number, are printed in large white letters.
What’s this? you’ll wonder, if you don’t know what 75-year-old Omkar Nath is up to.
Today, he has chosen East Kidwai Nagar, a middle-class government colony opposite the metro station, to collect as many strips, vials or bottles of unused medicines as he can get. “Please donate the medicines you don’t have any use for!” he shouts in Hindi, looking up at one of the apartment buildings. Just then, a woman signals from her first-floor window, and comes down with a bag of medicines. “Pardon me for troubling you,” he says, bowing, on accepting the medicines, “aapka bahut bahut dhanyavaad!”
Although in a hurry to start her day, Uma Pande, the donor, recalls her first meeting with Omkar Nath. “He came calling in 2009 and I noted his phone number,” says Pande, who went on to gather all the extra medicines she had at home and called him back. Later, Pande also gave Omkar Nath the walker, kneecaps and all the medicines left behind by her mother, who’d just passed away. “Seeing the good work Omkarji does,” says Pande, “I try to help too.”
Omkarji is at an age when most people need medicines for themselves. But he’s in good health and thankfully doesn’t require what he collects. For the past four years he’s been a Robin Hood of sorts, going about Delhi to pick up medicines—good stuff that would otherwise have just gone bad or discarded—and getting them efficiently to people who can’t afford to pay for them.
Omkar Nath, who lives in a slum area in Manglapuri, not far from Palam airport, started out on this mission after witnessing the sorry fate of injured labourers after an October 2008 Delhi Metro construction accident. A grandfather and long-retired blood bank technician, he was saddened to see some of those labourers being turned away by government doctors because their hospital didn’t have medicines. “Those itinerant labourers lived in temporary shelters by the construction site,” says Omkar Nath, who rushed to the hospital to help just after the disaster. “Who else would give them medicines if government hospitals couldn’t? I decided to do something about this myself.”
At first people were suspicious. They called him a fraudster, while others took him for a beggar—some still do. “I feel bad when people say hurtful things,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean I can give up. I’m doing this for my own satisfaction. Even my wife was ashamed of my ‘begging’ but after some newspapers praised my work, she changed her mind.”
In fact the local media gave him a new name—Medicine Baba! A well-wisher even made a Facebook page by that name.
Trailing Omkar Nath as he strolls about shouting for more medicines today is an elderly toy-seller on a bicycle. “Do you have anything for a toothache?” he asks Nath.
“I don’t sell medicines,” Omkar Nath replies, and the toy-seller goes away. On second thought, Omkar Nath rummages through his pockets. “Oh, I’ve forgotten my visiting cards today or I’d have given him one so he could find me again,” he thinks aloud. “These are the kind of people I need to reach.”
How does Medicine Baba reach out to the needy? “Most of the medicines go to a few charitable dispensaries,” he explains. “Drugs for big diseases like cancer and heart disease go to three
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