2008. A bridge collapses in east Delhi. Two labourers are killed and 16 are injured. The local hospital simply administers basic first aid. They are let off. Some of them return home to die.
A witness to the accident, retired lab technician Omkar Nath, decided that this won’t happen again. He had an idea. “I thought, why not collect medicines for the poor?” recalls the short, wiry man. “No one else seems to be doing it.”
According to a World Health Organisation report, 649 million people in India have no access to medicines. Nath, through his efforts, collects medicines worth Rs 5-10 lakh per month from Delhi alone. He distributes these free of cost at 12 charitable clinics and two government hospitals. If a lower-income family spends roughly Rs 500 on healthcare, his efforts are benefiting at least 1,000 people.
Nath’s medicine bank, Raahat Hi Raahat, has been in operation for the past four years.
Crippled at the age of 10, the 75 year-old travels daily by bus and foot from a slum near the Palam airport to collect donations. Shouting for free medicines on thoroughfares or outside bungalows, despite the barbs, he says, is the easy part.
“When servants shoo me away saying my shouts are disturbing their babus’ newspaper read, I don’t mind. If you’re on the street to beg, you should leave shame at home. Besides, I’m not asking for bread; all I want is medicine.” But there were other complications.
Nath, no doctor or pharmacist himself, had no idea if or how he could stock medicine. A lawyer told him he would get into trouble if he did. So, he tied up with clinics such as Dr SL Jain’s in Rajinder Nagar and Dr Naseem Meraz’s at Matia Mahal, bringing his collection to them for inspection. The NGO Goonj donated him a fridge to store his medicines for short periods.
Nath maintains a work schedule: weekends are for sorting and record-keeping and Mondays to Thursdays for begging. Ten days ago, he bought a R 400-magnifying glass to help him read medicine labels. He even rents an extra room for R 2,000 per month — plus electricity — for his medicine cabinets.
Nath’s initiative is striking, given his own history of crises. Without any income or savings, this father of two has had to wash dishes in hotels, stay on railway platforms and support his 41-year-old mentally impaired son.
However, Delhi has warmed up to him. A 2-3 minute spot on television has granted him a respectability of sorts. He is no longer seen as a Chaplinesque tramp or a con artist. His saffron shirt, on which his contact numbers (9250243298, 9971926518) are printed, has made him a familiar face on campuses such as the Janki Devi Memorial College in west Delhi which supports his mission.
Nath names a Mrs Malati of Vasant Kunj, a retired corporate officer; an Anupam Dev, a chartered accountant at Moolchand; Sudnya Kulkarni, a college teacher; as some of his benefactors. Sometimes they gift him a bag or a pair of shoes. Each meeting with them of course, ends with a parcel of unused medicines or a new chain of contacts.
“My medicine bank is always the basis of the relationship. I don’t want to spoil my setting,” he says. He has also learnt to work his contacts. Apart from his medicine collection efforts, Nath has gone the extra mile to help the poor. Recently, he helped a handicapped man get a tricycle. But he keeps the
proceedings clean. “I just make the call, and put in the request. The person in need himself goes in to collect.” The medicine bank, however, needs new blood. Dr SL Jain, says he needs “at least a vehicle, a team. A medicine bank is a great idea.”
For Babli, the wife of a roadside hawker who will be going home with a healthier child, Nath’s trek all over the city has not been in vain. His medicines are a life-saver, reaching the people they should. Omkar Nath’s name is mentioned in bold print as a donor at Dr Jain’s clinic. And that’s just the beginning, it seems.