Taking on spurious drugs and colas, Sushma Swaraj gave health industry a shot in the arm

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on August 08, 2019 Published on August 08, 2019

File Photo of Sushma Swaraj.   -  BusinessLine

In late 2003, the Clinton Foundation clinched a deal with four drugmakers including Indian firms Cipla and erstwhile Ranbaxy to get anti-AIDS drugs at one-third the original price for Africa and the Caribbean. The high-profile announcement did not miss the attention of the then Health Minister Sushma Swaraj.

Speaking her mind to a small group of media persons in her office, Swaraj said she would take up a similar “negotiated price” approach with Indian companies for India as well. After all, “if they could give a low price for Clintonji, why cant they give a better price for Vajpayeeji,” she asked, in her characteristic smiling yet commanding manner. And indeed, this went on to trigger many a conversation locally to get anti-retroviral (ARV) or anti-AIDS drugs at better prices for the local population.

Swaraj may be remembered for her social-media-savvy avatar as the External Affairs Minister in the earlier government under Prime Minister Modi, particularly her personal connect with people in distress in foreign lands. But her public-minded approach was evident well before this, in a couple of critical developments that formalised under her watch as the Health Minister.

Picking up from where her predecessor in Health, Shatrughan Sinha, had left off on the issue of spurious drugs, Swaraj kept the issue front and centre by calling for death penalty for offenders. Sinha had called manufacturers of spurious drugs as the “merchants of death”.

At that point, foreign media reports citing the World Health Organization (WHO) had suggested that one in four medicines in India were spurious. This was, however, denied by a representative of the WHO at a high-powered media interaction attended by Swaraj and others of her ministry to publicise a report on the subject. The report was by a committee headed by RA Mashelkar, the then chief of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

“Manufacturing spurious drugs is equivalent to mass murder, and in this case, there is no justification. It is sheer greed that perpetuates the trade,”Swaraj had said.

While tackling spurious medicines, the Health Ministry found itself on the back foot when the controversy of pesticide residues in aerated beverages, colas and bottled water erupted around the same time. After the initial lack of clarity, Swaraj acted to get the missing standards for pesticide residue in colas, aerated beverages, water, etc, formalised. Coming at a time when the ubiquitous social media was absent, actions taken under her watch continue to define public health even today.

Published on August 08, 2019
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