Balms for the poor

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 March, 2012, 12:00am


Having been on his feet since early morning, Omkar Nath is tired by 4pm, but still faces a long journey home to a slum near the airport when most pensioners his age - 75 - are curled up on the sofa enjoying a nap.

He has been going door to door around New Delhi neighbourhoods on his twisted, frail legs, shouting a cry that's very different from that of the vegetable seller or broom hawker you normally hear in residential areas. ''Give me all the spare and unused medicine you have.'

Nath is the Indian capital's medicine man. He begs for unused or surplus medicines so that he can pass them on to the millions of Indians who cannot afford to buy them.

He began collecting medicine four years ago, after witnessing an accident. A gigantic pillar for a new stretch of the metro collapsed, crushing the labourers below. Those who survived were given cursory treatment at a government hospital and then sent home to their villages.

'I knew they would go home and not have money to buy the medicine they needed to get better. They would die. 'That's when I thought that I had to collect the medicines worth millions of rupees that lie unused in people's homes until they expire and are thrown away, while thousands die untreated because they can't afford them,' he says, sitting on a park bench.

When a hawker selling coffee comes round, he takes a cup, eager for some refreshment because he has had no lunch. He keeps the two plastic bags containing the medicine he has collected that day near him. It's precious cargo, obtained after travelling on congested buses or going by foot all over the city.

A short, wiry figure, he attracts looks from the other people in the park who are enjoying the winter sunshine or having a snack. His orange shirt has his two mobile numbers written on it along with the words 'Mobile Medicine Bank'.

'The servant in a house or the security guard will shoo me away sometimes or insult me. They say I'm disturbing the 'sahib' [master], but it makes no difference to me. I am not begging for myself. I have a job to do,' he says.

According to a World Health Organisation report, 649 million Indians have no access to medicine. Many cannot afford a simple painkiller. Government hospitals are meant to provide medicine free of charge but the reality is different. 'A doctor will prescribe six medicines, say, but the hospital will tell the patient it only has two and that he must get the rest himself. But no poor Indian can afford to buy them, so the patient will remain untreated,' says Nath.

As someone who worked in a hospital in Noida, just outside Delhi, for 40 years as a blood bank technician, Nath approaches his job methodically. Whatever medicine he collects in a day, he lists on a sheet, mentioning the expiry date and the chemical composition of each medicine. Once he has a reasonable amount - he says he collects medicine worth more than 500,000 rupees (HK$75,000) every month - he gives them to hospitals, charitable clinics and NGOs to dispense to the poor.

Nath's dedication is all the more admirable given how hard his own life has been, and continues to be. At the age of 10, a car ran over him in his home town of Udaipur, Rajasthan, smashing both legs. He walks awkwardly, with his legs pointing towards each other in a 'V' and a large bone juts out prominently from one knee.

Home is one room in a Delhi slum, where his wife and 40-year-old son live. The couple's son is mentally ill and undergoing treatment.

'My wife thought I was mad to do this. But now that I've appeared on television and the media have written nice things about me, she has changed her mind and supports me,' he says.

He does not complain about his poverty, only that it limits his effectiveness. Asked whether he could do with a scooter instead of travelling by bus and foot, he says, 'Yes, I could donate to 20 hospitals instead of the 10 I do at the moment if I could get around faster.'

He could also do with a computer and an assistant to record all the medicine he has collected. But, despite generous media coverage, no Indian has come forward to help him, although medicine has reached him from as far afield as Kuwait and Cairo.

'I will keep doing this until my last breath. If someone is lying on the road hurt and my medicine helps him live, that is what gives me happiness,' he says.

Contact Omkar Nath at B180, Gali No 4, Mangalpuri, Phase 2, New Delhi.

Tel: (00 91 9250243298, 9971926518)