National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), a much hyped public healthcare initiative – has it delivered since its inception in 2005?

National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), a very ambitious and noble initiative for the rural population of India was launched by the Government of India on April 12, 2005. The interim budget allocation of NRHM for the year 2009–10 has been increased to Rs. 12,070 crore. The primary purpose of NRHM, as announced by the Government, was to improve access to quality healthcare for the poor population of 18 states, to start with, of rural India.

Along with such a commendable initiative, the Government declared an increase in its spending towards public health from mere 0.9% to 2–3% of the GDP over a five year period. This decision was in line with the well articulated prime focus of the Government on public health and education.

During the launch of NRHM, the Health Minister of India announced that the nation would see the results of these efforts in three years time.

Three years are over now. Let us, therefore, have a look at the key achievement areas of this ambitious scheme for the budget year 2008-09, as announced by the Finance Minister recently in his interim budget speech for 2009–10.

The performance areas were highlighted as follows:

• 462,000 Associated Social Health Activists were trained
• 177,924 villages have sanitation committees functional
• 323 district hospitals have been taken for up gradation

Against such a soft performance parameters of the Government, let us see some hard facts, which are real indicators of performance of NRHM. A report on the recent study done by Chronic Care Foundation indicates that in India about 86% of highly populated rural districts still do not have provisions for basic diagnostic tests for chronic ailments.

The study also highlights that in rural areas, as a percentage of total expenses, out of pocket healthcare costs are more than the urban areas, with hospitalization expenses contributing the most to the total costs. In many rural areas the healthcare costs have been reported to be as high as around 80% of the total expenses. Such a high out of pocket expenses have mainly been attributed to the lack of facilities in these rural areas, requiring patients to travel to distant areas for medical treatment. It was also reported that even in rural areas due to inefficient and inadequate services at the Government healthcare units, there has been a very high dependence on more expensive private healthcare facilities.

After almost four years from the inception of NRHM, if this is the state of affairs for rural public healthcare, the obvious questions which come to my mind are as follows:

• Where is the huge money allocated for NRHM going?
• Who is or are accountable for such a poor performance of this great scheme?

In my opinion, to make NRHM work satisfactorily the Government should outline, decide and announce the key success parameters for performance evaluation of the scheme. This is to be done disclosing the names and designations of the responsible senior Government officials who will be held accountable for the success or failure to deliver the deliverables. All these details should be uploaded on to the website of the Ministry of Health for public scrutiny, at least half yearly. With tax-payers money being utilised for this important and critical public health arena, no non-performance should escape attention and go unpunished.

Moreover, with the help of experts, the Government should decide, which elements of each identified success parameters the Government will be able to deliver better with its own internal resources and which are those areas where the Government should outsource.

Such an approach when worked out in great details will be able to ensure whether through NHRM the country is making progress to improve access to quality healthcare for a vast majority of its rural population. Otherwise this scheme may well be treated just as one of those which failed to deliver and vanished in the oblivion.

By Tapan Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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