When a well-intentioned WhatsApp forward went viral in September last year, little did 67-year-old Vijay Mehta know that it would end his initiative to use his food supply network to provide free medicines to train passengers during emergencies. Mehta stopped the nearly decade-long service in the wake of the viral message. Reason: he started getting calls 24×7 from commuters across the country, asking for “medicines for headache to gripe water for loose motion”.
Mehta, who started the food supply network across railway stations in 1987, started out with supplying food to outstation trains at Mumbai Central. “A lot of people do not like the food served on the train. Hence, I started the food supply network,” says Mehta, sitting in his 8×8 ft cabin at his ground-floor opera house office. “Nearly a decade back, a passenger who was extremely ill requested me to use my network to get a particular medicine to him along with food. I obliged and did not charge for the medicine. He thanked me and told some of his relatives about me,” he says.
Six months later, one of the relatives called him up, saying he was travelling on a train and that his child was unwell. “I arranged medicines for him free of cost as well. Over a period of time, I would frequently receive calls for medication, sometimes at least one call every week. These calls were from within the city as well as other states. I did not mind that at all and would happily provide these medications free of cost. I saw this as good work and a way to earn some blessings,” Mehta says.
But, around September last year, someone circulated a WhatsApp message that if someone was facing a medical emergency, they could contact Mehta and the medicine would be available at the next railway station. The message had the mobile number of Mehta. “I was flooded with calls. You will not believe it but in a day, I would get over 500 calls from across the country, asking for medicines like Crocin for headache and gripe water for loose motion,” Mehta says.
Initially, Mehta tried explaining to the callers that his service was meant only for medical emergencies but after a point, the calls were so many that he stopped answering them. “I made losses in business since calls made by the nearly 4,000 employees would go unanswered,” he says. By March this year, he stopped using the number that had been circulated.
Mehta then changed his mobile number. “Even then, the numbers of my other mobile phone got circulated. I tell people I have stopped the service but they still call. But now the number of calls I receive everyday has dropped to 20-25. I have over 5,000 unread WhatsApp messages. I really do not know what to do,” he adds. When told his alternate numbers were given out by a friend of his who had posted his number online in good faith, Mehta immediately called up his friend, requesting him to take the post down.
Mehta’s phone rings again while talking. He answers and informs that he is not interested in any business loans. “I also get many calls from banks offering me loans and real estate brokers offering me residential property,” he adds, finally breaking into a smile at the “comedy of his situation”, as he puts it.