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'Medicine Baba' delivers to poor

By Agence France-Presse in New Delhi | China Daily | Updated: 2015-11-10 08:03

79-year-old collects drugs from capital's wealthy for those who can't get them

It's early morning, but already "Medicine Baba" Omkarnath Sharma is pounding the pavement in one of New Delhi's upscale neighborhoods, collecting the well-heeled's leftover pills, capsules and syrups.

Like a modern-day town crier, the 79-year-old calls to residents to bring out their medicines, rather than throw them away, to donate to the Indian capital's millions of desperate poor.

 'Medicine Baba' delivers to poor

Omkarnath Sharma, known as "Medicine Baba", or "wise man", has a room full of unwanted medicine that he has collected in New Delhi. Sharma, 79, asks the city's wealthy to donate their unwanted medicine, which goes to the poor. While medical care in the country is free, drug supplies at dispensaries frequently run out because of budgeting constraints. Money Sharma / Agence France-Presse

"All of us have some medicines lying around in our houses but we end up throwing them in the garbage can," said Sharma, whose title of "Baba" means "monk".

Sharma is hopeful his unorthodox service is making a difference, albeit small, in a country where 65 percent of the population lacks regular access to essential medicines, according to the World Health Organization.

In his trademark bright orange smock, Sharma cuts a familiar figure in Delhi's leafy neighborhoods, and residents routinely carry out handfuls of medicines for him.

"This idea struck me a few years back when I saw how the poor struggled to buy medicines. When I first started, I was ridiculed and called a beggar, but now people respect what I am doing," he said.

Medical treatment is free in Indian government-funded hospitals, but drug supplies at their dispensaries run out, forcing patients to fork out for medicines at nearby drugstores.

Overburdened public hospitals blame a lack of resources, saying they can only budget a certain amount for medicines, with funding stretched across the board.

At his run-down Delhi home, Sharma painstakingly checks and sorts his haul that includes remedies as diverse as calcium tablets and antibiotics, before the lines form outside.

"Some medicines have to be stocked in the fridge, so I have to be very careful," said Sharma, a retired blood-bank technician.

"All these medicines lying here are worth more than 2 million rupees ($30,100)."

India spends just 1.3 percent of its GDP on health, according to a 2013 World Bank report, lower than war-torn Afghanistan's 1.7 percent.

"The healthcare costs have increased greatly over the years," said doctor S.L. Jain, as he examined a newborn at his charity clinic that receives some of Sharma's medicines.

More than 60 percent of the population's out-of-pocket expenses for health are for medicines, according to government estimates.

India's generic-drugs industry is a major supplier to the world of cheap, lifesaving treatments for diabetes, hypertension, cancer and other diseases. But experts say even these are out of reach of many of the 363 million Indians living below the poverty line, who make up about 30 percent of the country's population.

"There are hardly any checks and balances because health is unfortunately not a priority in our country," said Ajay Lekhi, president of the Delhi Medical Association.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May 2014 elections, promised in his poll manifesto to introduce an ambitious universal healthcare plan that assures free drugs and insurance for serious ailments.

But the plan, pegged initially at $26 billion over the next four years and envisioned to be fully operational by 2019, has been pushed back because of budget constraints.

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