What are the three things you wish for from the Budget?
For all people in India, including those living with HIV/AIDS, a dream budget means a universal health scheme that covers all medical needs.
Medical bills force families into poverty and should the earning member of the family fall critically ill, chances are the rest of the family will not survive. This reality is also true for people living with HIV/AIDS and has now been confirmed by the survey findings of the National Council for Applied Economic Research. The Budget must include medical insurance that covers the cost of treatment and diagnostic facilities for all citizens for all health care needs.
Revival of public sector pharmaceutical companies: Ram Vilas Paswan, minister for chemicals and fertilizers, has made a public commitment to revive ailing public sector pharmaceutical companies such as Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Ltd. This is a positive step towards universal access to treatment. We hope this commitment will be reflected in the Budget to bring the public sector companies from the era of manufacturing penicillin to that of manufacturing newer essential drugs like antiretrovirals in the 21st century. Brazil and Thailand are among a few developing countries to provide universal access to treatment. The most critical factor to this success is the capacity of the public sector to manufacture medicines.
Loon Gangte (Photo: Pankaj Nangia/Mint)
Strong financial commitment for research and development (R&D): Today, one of the biggest public health challenges before India is multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (TB). For many of us living with HIV/AIDS, newer drugs and diagnostics for TB are critical. Therefore, funding R&D for diagnostics and drugs for neglected diseases, such as tuberculosis, is very important. As pharmaceutical companies are market-driven, they do not want to focus their resources on neglected diseases that affect people in India; therefore the government should not only focus on R&D for such health problems, but also create economic incentives and make budgetary commitments for TB related R&D.
If you were the finance minister, what would be the one thing outside your industry you would want in the Budget?
Increased budgetary outlay for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act so that it can be enforced across the country to address poverty and malnutrition. Malnutrition further compromises the immunity of people living with HIV/AIDS, besides fuelling the tuberculosis epidemic.
What is the one thing that you don’t want changed?
Increasing government commitment to the social sector, including health care, education, right to food, right to work and so on. The trend to continuously increase budget outlays for these essential sectors should continue.
Which budget disappointed you the most? Why?
The last railway budget disappointed me as it failed to strengthen travel subsidies to those travelling long distances to access health care and treatment. For people living with HIV/AIDS in rural areas, the nearest HIV/AIDS treatment centre is often located several hundred kilometres away, imposing a high economic burden on the patients.
One proposal you think is shot down in every budget but shouldn’t be.
Significant increase and allocation to health should not be shot down in every budget. Reform of the public health care system is crucial as people in India, including those living with HIV/AIDS, are unable to access even basic health care. Besides insufficient health care providers, there is little or no access to diagnostics and essential medicines in government health care facilities. As much as we need guns and tanks to safeguard our country from foreign invasion, we equally need food and treatment to save the lives of Indian citizen.
What would you consider to be inclusive growth?
I would consider growth to be inclusive only when it empowers each and every Indian to access food, work and health care with respect and dignity. Too many Indians are being pushed into poverty, too many homes are being sold, life savings being lost to try and get the basic necessities of life.
Loon Gangte is president of the Delhi Network of Positive People (DNP+), an organization of HIV/AIDS-affected people in Delhi that takes up issues that impact access to affordable treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS.
By Bhuma Shrivastava