‘Medicine man’ brings pills to the poor in In­dia

‘The health care costs have in­creased greatly over the years’

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

NEW DELHI: It’s early morn­ing but al­ready “Medicine Baba” Omkar­nath Sharma is pound­ing the pave­ment in one of New Delhi’s up­scale neigh­bor­hoods, col­lect­ing the well­heeled’s leftover pills, cap­sules and syrups. Like a mod­ern­day 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. “All of us have some medicines ly­ing around in our houses but we end up throw­ing them in the dust­bin,” said Sharma, whose af­fec­tion­ate ti­tle means wise man.

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

Moth­ers clutch sick ba­bies

At his run­down Delhi home, Sharma painstak­ingly checks and sorts his haul that in­cludes every­thing from cal­cium tablets to an­tibi­otics, be­fore the queues 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 two mil­lion ru­pees ($30,864).” In­dia spends just 1.3 per­cent of its gross do­mes­tic prod­uct (GDP) on health, ac­cord­ing to a 2013 World Bank re­port, lower than wartorn Afghanistan on 1.7 per­cent.

“The health care 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. “So many peo­ple do not seek treat­ment sim­ply be­cause they do not have the money to pay for medicines,” he said as moth­ers line up clutch­ing their sick ba­bies. More than 60 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion’s out of pocket ex­penses for health are for medicines, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates. With her car­pen­ter hus­band earn­ing just 5,000 ru­pees ($77) a month, mother-of-four Pushpa Ka­mal fears for the fu­ture of her fam­ily as she waits at the clinic for treat­ment.

“My youngest son has asthma. He needs reg­u­lar med­i­ca­tion. The other kids also fall sick. Tell me how can I af­ford to buy so many medicines each time?” In­dia’s generic drugs industry is a ma­jor sup­plier to the world of cheap, life-sav­ing 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 mam­moth 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. “Con­sumers are highly vul­ner­a­ble as their re­quire­ment is ur­gent and they are not in a po­si­tion to com­pare prices or bar­gain,” he told AFP.

Uni­ver­sal health plan

Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, who swept to power at elec­tions last May, promised in his poll man­i­festo to in­tro­duce an am­bi­tious uni­ver­sal health care 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. A se­nior health min­istry of­fi­cial said the scheme, with a planned roll out from April this year, was now on the back burner. “It (the plan) could have been a game-changer,” he told AFP on the con­di­tion of anonymity. “We are not sure now if it will see the light of the day.”

Jagdish Prasad, di­rec­tor gen­eral of health ser­vices, ac­knowl­edged the prob­lem fac­ing those liv­ing on the mar­gins, and that the gov­ern­ment needed to do more. “Peo­ple are spend­ing 60 to 70 per­cent out of their pock­ets for pur­chas­ing medicines which is a great bur­den for the poor,” he told AFP. “(We) must make a pol­icy so that es­sen­tial medicines are made avail­able to those who can­not af­ford it.” — AFP

NEW DELHI: In this pic­ture taken on Oc­to­ber 6, 2015, Omkar­nath Sharma, known as “Medicine Baba”, sits in a room full of medicine col­lected by him. — AFP

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