Bangalore: From 2 October, smokers in India can smoke only on streets or at home as new rules on smoking in offices and other public spaces come into effect. Simultaneously, a series of awareness campaigns will hit the media, linking smoking with impotency, cancer and several other ills, literally to try and “frighten” the youth, says Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss. The outspoken minister has been making news for his firm anti-smoking views and claims he has had to fend off intense lobbying, including from 80 members of Parliament who have asked him to soften his stance. On a recent visit to Bangalore, Ramadoss spoke to Mint about some of the health care programmes he’s trying to introduce. Edited excerpts:
Should we expect any new programmes or policy changes before your term ends next year?
In the light of the recent controversy (involving a Japanese couple and an Indian surrogate mother), I think it’s time we had a law on surrogacy. It’s become more than sporadic and is lending itself to commercial exploitation like the kidney (transplant). In two months, we’ll put up a draft regulation on our website for public viewing and debate, and then take it to the law ministry. Following the Nikita Mehta case, I’ve sought a revision of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act,1971, with some positive recommendations. We are thinking of extending the cut-off time for termination from 20 weeks to 24 weeks. (A Bombay high court bench turned down 34-year-old Mehta’s petition seeking a medical termination of her 26-week-old foetus on grounds that the foetus had severe congenital deformities. She later had a miscarriage.) The government will soon bring the IVF (in-vitro fertility) and Stem Cells Act.
Need for change: Ramadoss says it’s time India had a law on surrogacy since cases such as the recent controversy involving a Japanese couple and an Indian surrogate mother are no longer sporadic and often lend themselves to commercial exploitation. Ramesh Pathania/Mint
We’re tired of hearing this. Tell us when will the legislation come into force.
More than you, I am impatient about this legislation. It got delayed because we decided to bring all cellular therapy under one Act, but I intend to bring this up in the next Parliament session. Even the Central Drug Authority (CDA) Bill is pending with the standing committee. We’ve spent Rs300 crore in training (CDA personnel) and capacity-building.
Mint had reported last month the regulatory mess in the vaccine sector. The National Regulatory Authority (NRA) is on the verge of being derecognized by the WHO. What are you doing about that?
We’ve gone through a turbulent phase. In fact, WHO had warned India in 2004 to pull up its socks. Since then we spent Rs58 crore in modernizing the three public sector units but unfortunately not much could be done.
In January, we relented and stopped manufacturing at those facilities. While we are revamping them, we’ve begun construction of a state-of-art vaccine manufacturing facility in Chingelpet near Chennai, which will be operational in two years. This 400-acre, fully public sector facility will comply with WHO’s pre-qualification standards from Day 1, manufacture all modern vaccines, catering to both domestic needs as well as exports. It will do R&D and will have technology assistance from International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, and WHO. Till that happens, we’ll procure vaccines from the private sector, which we’ve always done.
Out of Rs750 crore vaccine budget, Rs710 crore worth of vaccines are procured from the private sector. Most vaccine issues will be settled in the next three months. Pricing will be sorted out as we’ve increased the budgetary allocation—this year it’s gone up by 25%, next year it’ll increase by 50%. We are going to introduce more combination vaccines in the national immunization programme, including a pneumococcal vaccine in two years.
But isn’t it controversial— this vaccine is supposedly not effective against the strains of pneumo coccal diseases prevalent in India?
That’s why I said two years, by which time we’d have examined these issues.
You seem to be pretty satisfied with the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). Are there any follow-up programmes?
NRHM (with an 11th Plan budget of Rs12,500 crore) is bringing a silent revolution in the country and in two years the world will take notice. The average attendance in a public health centre in Bihar in 2006 was 40, today it’s 4,000. In Orissa, the immunization programme has gone up by 20 points, Assam is doing splendidly well. In Tamil Nadu, Caesarean child births are happening in the primary health centres, which have never happened in India.
The number of specialist doctors under NRHM has doubled to 7000; the number of nurses has increased from 20,000 to 32,000… The infrastructure is bursting but for me it’s positive pressure—to put more resources to bolster our healthcare facilities.
In two months I am going to launch the National School Health Programme in association with the HRD (human resource development) ministry and state governments. This will have two components—screening of all children for anaemia, dental, eye, skin, heart, and ENT (ear, nose, and throat) disorders; and introduction of health as a compulsory subject with focus on lifestyle issues, junk food and physical activity. Initially, it’ll cover a third of the country and in states where a similar programme exists, we’ll supplement it.