Omkarnath, a retired blood-bank technician from New Delhi, is a modern-day medical Robin Hood. For the past three years, the 79-year-old has been collecting unused prescription drugs from the wealthy and distributing them among the less fortunate. His efforts have earned him the nickname ‘Medicine Baba’.
‘Baba’ is a term used in India to describe a wise, elderly man. New Delhi’s very own Medicine Baba walks over seven kilometers each day, combing the city and stopping at almost every door, asking for unused medicines. He’s also set up dozens of collection boxes in private clinics around the city, where people can make donations. According to Omkarnath, “Every bungalow in Delhi has extra medicines, but they are throwing them in their dustbins.” But the best neighborhoods, he insists, are the middle-class and lower middle-class ones. “One morning, I got a strip of anti-cancer medication worth 35,000 rupees ($545),” he recalled.
At the end of every trip, he sits in a quiet corner in a park or a roadside bench and goes through his haul. He then organises and carefully catalogues everything in his binder, including the name of the drug, the manufacturer, and the expiry date. Anything that is not properly sealed, he discards immediately. Over the course of several weekend trips, he has managed to amass a decent stock of medicines worth tens of thousands of dollars. He stores them all in a small rented room next to his house – there are rows upon rows of common flu medication, insulin injections, and even cancer medication. He also has equipment like oxygen cylinders, wheelchairs, walkers, and nebulizers.
Omkarnath was inspired to start his unique mission after he witnessed a few construction workers getting badly injured. He accompanied the men to government hospitals, but they were refused treatment and asked to find other sources for the necessary medication. That’s when he got the idea to take from the rich and distribute to the poor. Although he’s not a trained pharmacist, he does not supply a drug unless he sees a doctor’s prescription. But he doesn’t charge a penny for his service. He estimates that he gives out medication worth about $9,000 per month!
He works in conjunction with non-profits and doctors to make his medicines available to as many people as possible. Dr. Lalima Rangwani, one of the doctors who distributes his medicines, said she wasn’t so sure she could trust him at first. “But when he brought the medicines, I checked it out, the batch number, all he has written on the list,” she said. “So only then I got convinced that these are genuine medicines.”
Lots of people have benefited from Omkarnath’s generosity and hard work, and they’re all very grateful to him. 52-year-old Dhulichand, a former shoemaker who has been suffering from emphysema for many years, gets his much needed supply of oxygen cylinders from Omkarnath. If not for the man’s help, he’d have to shell out $100 for 20 cylinders each month.
“I can’t move around or even shower without these cylinders,” said Dhulichand, who is now confined to his bed. “Government hospitals don’t take me. They tell me to go back home.”
Omkarnath’s family is quite proud of what he does, but that wasn’t always the case. When he first announced his decision to start collecting medicines, they weren’t happy about it. “The family thought I was shaming them by basically begging,” he said. “They admonished me.” But they eventually relented, once they understood the huge positive impact his work has on people’s lives.
Today, Omkarnath lives on about $500 a month, which he receives through cash donations and has no plans to stop collecting medicines to earn a better living. In fact, he dreams of building a nationwide network of medicine banks. “My efforts make up merely a drop worth of solution to a huge ocean of problems,” he said. “I hope, before I die, this becomes a bigger movement and I contribute at least a glassful.”
Photos: Medicine Baba/Facebook