Here’s another classic instance of apathy in governance; only in this case, the cost is human life. In a story we front-paged on 30 April, this newspaper wrote about the conspiracy of silence that surrounds the problem of fake drugs.
The bleak truth is that in an over-populated country such as ours, the price of human life is low—more so in the case of those using state-supplied medical care.
As legal definitions go, there are four classes of drug quality-related offences—sub standard, misbranded, adulterated and spurious drugs. Each of these takes place due to the cost ‘incentive’ they offer to unaware and/or negligent buyers and the profits they offer to the manufacturers. And it is a matter of immense shame that laxity on the part of the government in its own procurement opens up a significant market for such criminal activities, forget getting its act together on controlling the crime effectively.
While media reports have quoted a World Health Organization study that estimates of the fake-drugs market at around Rs4,000 crore, there really is no authentic assessment, yet. This in itself speaks volumes of the failure of the official bodies in India that exist for monitoring drug standards, as also of all the various ministries associated with health and medical care.
Periodically, over the years, there has been public noise made by the legislature, the judiciary and even the executive wings of government, apart from concerned parties outside it. But not even the bare act of introducing appropriate penalties and specifying these offences in the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, as cognizable and non-bailable has been achieved. Note that for an offence that’s not cognizable, the police cannot register a case even if you were to go report one to them!
In July 2003, in response to a PIL (public interest litigation) filed by PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties), the court concerned had pointed to the sad fact that those guilty of playing with the lives of millions were not being brought to book. Later, the same year, the R.A. Mashelkar Committee on tighter regulation of quality of drugs submitted its report. The suggested amendments to the toothless existing law were then introduced in two versions of a Bill—first by the NDA in December 2003 and later a tempered down version by the UPA government in the summer of 2005. It is 2007 now but nothing has been done.
So, now that Harinder Sikka of Nicholas Piramal India Ltd has filed a PIL in his personal capacity demanding that the crucial recommendations of the Mashelkar Committee be implemented, what can make the outcome any different?
We suggest all stakeholders outside government—medical professionals, legitimate members of the pharma industry, NGOs, the media and the public—get together and urge the government to garner the political will to take prompt action.
The Mashelkar report had clearly concluded that the crux of the problem was the weak drug control infrastructure at the state and central levels, both in terms of testing facilities and also skilled personnel. It had made several sound recommendations for strengthening the system, including that of making the penalty far more stringent. It had noted “with dismay” that most of the prosecution cases pertaining to spurious drug-related offences remain undecided for years and said there was no greater deterrent than a “severe and sure” punishment. That problem, it said, needed to be “solved squarely” through a separate provision for speedy trials.
As anecdotal evidence suggests, even when the links in the supply chain of fake drugs are known, there’s little that has been done. Not only is there a serious lack of capability to test and monitor quality of drugs, there’s also the ‘hint’ of corruption in the government’s own procurement and monitoring machinery.
Surely, it’s time for strong collective action. Being passive here can amount to being a partner in crime.
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