A free pharmacy Why this elderly gentleman likes to beg

Omkar Nath Sharma has a dream: Every sick Indian should have access to affordable medicines. This is why he walks several kilometres every day through Delhi’s better areas to beg for leftover or expired medicines.
Omkar Nath Sharma has a dream: Every sick Indian should have access to affordable medicines. This is why he walks several kilometres every day through Delhi’s better areas to beg for leftover or expired medicines. | Photo: Ulrike Putz

Omkar Nath Sharma has a dream: every sick Indian should have access to affordable medicines. As this is not provided by the government, the 79-year-old has taken matters into his own hands. Sharma represents millions of Indians who refuse to look on while others are suffering.

His telephone number is displayed proudly on his orange kurta, he wears plush slippers on his feet, both indoors and outdoors: Omkar Nath Sharma is a phenomenon that catches your eye. And this is intentional, as the 79-year-old makes a determined effort to attract attention while wandering through New Delhi. Day in day out he shuffles his way through the better areas of India’s capital city, covering five to seven kilometres a day. In his self-designed outfit, he announces himself with a vendor’s cry. ‘The Medicine Baba is here! Give me your old medicines! Don’t throw them away, they can save the lives of the poor!’

Medicines for India's needy

The retired blood bank technician, whose mobility has been seriously impaired ever since he was hit by a car in his youth, just loves to beg because he runs a free pharmacy with the medicines given to him by Delhi housewives. With leftover medicines or ones that have expired and would otherwise have landed in the trash, he helps India’s needy.

In Sharma’s messy, garage-sized room located in the poor quarter of Manglapuri, the shelves are overflowing. Boxes of medicines in all colours of the rainbow, opened blister packs, half-full medicine bottles, are all alphabetically arranged. Sharma rummages a bit and then finds what the young man waiting outside needs: a broad-spectrum antibiotic and an anti-inflammatory cream. 

Bridging the glaring gaps

Ram Prakash is the local plumber. A couple of days ago he fell off a roof. The 23-year-old has badly grazed the left side of his face, from cheek to chin. Now Manglapuri is not the kind of place that would help the healing process. Like many other areas in Delhi, it has grown faster than its infrastructure, the narrow lanes serve as sewers. A stench wafts over from the local garbage dump – only a stone’s throw from Sharma’s pharmacy – where wild pigs romp. Everywhere in India, poverty and poor hygiene go hand in hand, and disease is therefore widespread.

The antibiotic that Prakash is to take for five days would have cost Rs 63 (just under one euro) at the chemist’s. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to afford that,’ says the young man. In theory, India has a public health system under which the poorest of the poor receive free treatment. But the system is overstretched, there is no money anywhere. Activists like Omkar Nath Sharma are trying to bridge the glaring gaps in medical care.

‘In 2008 I happened to witness an accident at the Laxmi Nagar metro station,’ says Sharma, explaining his social streak. Two workers died and 16 were injured when a bridge that was under construction collapsed. Sharma and other volunteers brought the injured to hospitals. Sharma saw how the overburdened hospitals gave the patients, some of them seriously injured, rudimentary first aid before sending them home. Some subsequently died. ‘I was shocked and thought: if the state is incapable of helping its citizens, then the citizens must help each other. Each and every Indian should have access to the medicines that he needs. And if he is unable to pay, he should get them for free.’

NGO Boom

Sharma represents a phenomenon that helps make the grim reality of India’s everyday life slightly more bearable. Where the state fails, several Indians, instead of just whinging, take matters into their own hands. In medicine, the media, agriculture, education, justice – there is virtually no shortcoming in India that is not being addressed by citizens working on a voluntary basis. 

According to a CBI study conducted in February 2014, there are at least two million non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the country. This means one NGO for 600 Indians. In comparison: according to information from the home ministry, there is only one policeman for 943 inhabitants. 

Experts believe that the NGO boom in India has to do with the changes in the country since it liberalized its economy in 1992. Since then, the gap between rich and poor has opened up dramatically, said Madhav Chavan from the website www.scroll.in. Chavan is the founder of an extremely successful campaign that enables children of primary-school age to have a school education. The activist believes than many members of the new, affluent middles class consider it their duty to help their less fortunate countrymen and women.

Support from the state

The state supports the private initiatives: a change in the law in 2013 brought Indian NGOs an unexpected windfall. Companies making an annual profit of over EUR 700,000 are now obliged to donate around 2% of their profits to charitable organizations.

The money from large companies does not reach Sharma. While it is true that philanthropists occasionally donate a hospital bed or an oxygen cylinder, his initiative basically lives off what he can bring back from his daily forays. It’s incredible to see what treasures are to be found in bathroom cupboards in Delhi, says the old man. ‘I collect and distribute medicines worth four to six lakhs a month.’ EUR 5500-8300 – as a lab technician he did not earn so much money in a year.