As dusk falls on Jhuggi Jhonpri Colony No. 8, a teeming slum that sprawls along the Yamuna River, a barefooted parade of fish peddlers, maidservants and rickshaw pullers line up at the storefront offices of their neighborhood "doctors."
Though there is a clinic here where a qualified doctor sees patients two mornings a week, the slum dwellers, too poor to give up even a morning's wages, usually rely on ill-educated amateurs who are open for business until 10 every night.In dingy little shops that swarm with flies, weary people, illuminated by dangling bare light bulbs, unquestioningly accept all manner of pills and shots from young men who have never gone to college.
As the rural poor have streamed into India's great metropolises in recent years, these men have come along with them. Since there is no law that explicitly prohibits their work, they operate with impunity in more than a thousand slum areas that are home to about a third of this capital city's 10 million residents.
The health minister for the state of Delhi is trying to shut them down, but so far he has been stymied. But some leading health policy researchers believe that in a city where the public health care system for slum dwellers is seriously inadequate, it may make more sense to train these young men to correctly dispense a limited array of medicines than to simply forbid them to work.
At J.J. Colony No. 8, a slum where people bathe, wash their dishes and prepare meals next to open drains filled with excrement and garbage, ill-educated "doctors" have many devoted customers. One of the doctors is Mohammad Gulam Mustafa, 27, who completed only 11 years of school. The son of a rice farmer, he migrated to Delhi thinking he would "do whatever I got first." He landed a job at the age of 16 in a doctor's office, then opened his practice when he was 19.
He is a friendly man with a kindly face. He can make ordinary aches and pains go away. When someone has a headache, he gives them tablets of acetaminophen. If they have a cough, he pours them a small bottle of syrup.
Mustafa and others like him said they make about $70 to $100 a month. His earnings are strongest in the monsoon season, when diseases fester in the heat and damp. "Summer is a very good season for us," he said.