Mahatma Gandhi constantly spoke of the “Daridra Narayan” — the poor and the disadvantaged. However, successive “followers” of his have favoured policies that ignore the interests of the poor in favour of promoting the cause of the wealthy. In practice, policymakers framing policies appear to have focused their attention not on the poorest individual they have met, but the richest, ensuring that the latter get more goodies, usually at the expense of the former. Now news reports have emerged that the Ministry of Health is refusing to act on a plea by Cipla, a domestic drug company known for its generic products, to waive patent rights in five drugs for which the patent is held by a multinational company known for the unaffordable prices it charges for several of its products. Indeed, the Ministry of Health has in the past as well been very stingy in the use of the powers granted to it to ensure that medication be made available at prices affordable to those who are not millionaires. Section 66 of the Patents Act, which seeks to empower the state to override efforts by companies to use the excuse of patents to charge predatory pricing for life-saving medication, has been used only twice during the past two decades, even when the situation facing millions of patients is desperate. While the US and its allies across the Atlantic constantly talk of “human rights”, they have ensured the often painful death or continued suffering of millions of the underprivileged by the way in which they have protected the profits of a handful of drug companies at the expense of the general welfare. Indeed, Cipla and other generic drug manufacturers from India have over the years faced considerable harassment from governments which claim superiority over others in their adherence to human values. Killing poor patients by depriving them of affordable medication is clearly not in their list of desirable values.
Now that J.P. Nadda has become the Union Minister for Health, it is expected of him that he will place the interests of the “Daridra Narayan” above that of billionaires while taking decisions. What is needed is to ensure that more action get taken on the lines of that done by the Manmohan Singh government in 2012, which sharply brought down the price of a cancer drug by allowing a domestic manufacturer to make the medication and sell it at a small fraction of what was being charged by the multinational corporation, which till then had a monopoly over manufacture. Hopefully, now that President Barack Obama appears in the final two years of his term in office, to be closer to the idealist he seemed to be while first campaigning for the job, he will reverse his administration’s policy of blocking rather than encouraging generic medicines from India into competing with higher-priced alternatives. Unless universal healthcare in the US is made affordable, it will never have the welfare benefits sought by supporters, and for healthcare to be affordable, the Indian generic drug industry needs to be encouraged and not suppressed.Already, India has become a haven for the poor across the globe who have thus far been denied medication at affordable prices. Health Minister Nadda needs to set about ensuring that this country becomes the world’s manufactory for affordable medication, but for this to happen, he has to reverse the mindset of those in government who have succumbed to the lobbying of multinational companies and their army of supportive NGOs. The Supreme Court of India is the fountain of justice to which the people of this country can turn to, should multinational companies and their well-funded lobbies attempt to use the legal system in order to delay or even block efforts by the Health Ministry to ensure affordable medicine for all, rather than continue with a situation in which multinational monopolies charge prices which 95% of the people of India would be unable to afford. Rather than concede defeat before the battle has even been joined, the Ministry of Health should examine the need for the medications sought to be manufactured by domestic companies and act wherever the public interest is involved. An international campaign needs to be launched by India on the shameful way in which millions of seriously ill poor are being condemned to death and suffering because of the obstinacy of governments that should know better. Certainly patent protection needs to be given, but this ought not to get tweaked into indefinite extension of monopolies. Also, while the costs of research do need to be met, such discoveries ought not to become an excuse for price gouging. We are not talking of lipstick or haute couture, but medicines. We are talking of the difference between life and death, between illness and health.
It is expected of the government that it will stand by the poor in the matter of licensing drugs for domestic manufacture rather than succumb to the siren call of lobbyists. The Health Minister needs to be made aware that already such monopoly interests appear to have made deep inroads into the decision-making levels in his department. Instead, what is needed is a policy designed to ensure that India becomes the global laboratory and producer of affordable medicines, a development which would benefit even those countries now standing in the way of such policies.