The above flabbergasting assertion came recently from the Union Government of India in context of current health care system in the country.
To be specific, this proclamation of the Ministry of Health was reportedly made at its ‘point by point rebuttal’ letter to the world’s leading medical journal of high repute - ‘The Lancet’, at the end of October 2015, in response to a news report on India’s frugal public expenditure on health.
On October 21, 2015 The Times Of India reported that shortly, a detail study in “The Lancet” would take Prime Minister Narendra Modi to task for failing in make public health a national priority area. It is happening despite his categorical promise of rolling out ‘Universal Health Coverage (UHC), during the last general election of India, in 2014.
The paper would be penned by some of the world’s foremost health experts and the issue is expected to be published on December 11, 2015.
In an interview with ‘The Times of India’, Richard Horton - the Editor-in- Chief of ‘The Lancet’, said that “health is an issue of national security for India, but Modi isn’t taking it seriously.”
Horton further commented, “I don’t see any new policies, any new ideas, any significant public commitment, and most importantly no financial commitment to the health sector, since he came into power in May, 2014.”
According to Norton, since Modi has come to power, health has completely lost focus of the Government. India is on the edge in this regard. If Prime Minister Modi does not tackle health, India’s economy combined with rising population is not sustainable. “The country’s healthcare system will collapse, if the government fails to invest in combating non-communicable diseases, such as, diabetes and heart problems”, he cautioned.
‘The Lancet’ to present contemporary fact-based analysis:
It is expected that the above article on India’s prevailing public health system, would be factual and analyzed based on the latest expert survey in this regard.
As I mentioned in my article of October 5, 2015 in this Blog titled, “Just 16% Of Indian Population Has Access To Free Or Partially-Free Health Care?”, the current Government has slashed union budgets for several ongoing and critical flag-ship schemes for health, such as:
- Integrated Child Development Services
- Mid-day meal
- Aids and STD control
- National Food Security Mission
- National Rural Drinking Water Program
After a drastic reduction in union budgetary allocations for these crucial and very basic health schemes, there would possibly be no scope for any surprise in any quarter, if ‘The Lancet’ survey depicts a rather dismal overall public health care scenario in India.
Indian Government trashes ‘The Editor-in-Chief’s comment:
Trashing ‘The Lancet’ Editor-in-Chief’s above comments, Rakesh Kumar, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Health in a hard-hitting letter to Horton reportedly said:
“…launching an alphabet soup of program every quarter and not being able to implement them in true letter and spirit is a disservice to the people we serve.”
According to this news report, the health ministry maintained that “no existing program” of the ministry has been “curtailed, stopped or truncated due to lack of funds”. It also highlighted that funding to states had been rationalized to break from the straight jacket of ‘one size fits all’ geographies and populations.
“India has moved from strength to strength and some of recent initiatives will ensure improved outcomes for the most vulnerable,” the letter re-iterated unequivocally.
“India has moved from strength to strength” – Government retorted:
The above statement of the Union Ministry of Health that “India has moved from strength to strength” in health care, generally sounds bizarre and also absurd, to say the least. On the contrary, the available facts do not support this sweeping comment, as it were.
When compared with some much smaller neighboring nations of India and even Vietnam, it comes out clearly that they are doing far better on various critical health indicators.
This is vindicated by the ‘World Bank health indicators data’, which show that even Bangladesh, Nepal and Vietnam, with much lesser per capita GDP, are ahead of India in several key health indicators, as shown in the following table:
|Some Key Indicators
|GDP Per capita(PPP) (Constant at 2011 US$) 2014
|Life Expectancy At Birth (Female) 2013
|Survival to Age 65 (% of Cohort) 2013
|Public Health Expenditure (% of GDP) 2013
|Infant Female Mortality Rate (Per 1000 Live Births) 2015
|Mortality Rate (Under 5 year of Live Births) 2015
|Maternal Mortality Ratio (per 1000 Live Births) 2013
|Rural Population With Improved Access to Sanitation Facilities (%) 2015
|Vitamin A Supplementation Coverage Rate (% of Children 6-59 months) 2013
|Immunization DPT (% of Children 12-23 month) 2014
(Source: Live Mint, October 28, 2015)
Similarly, another 2011 study published in the ‘The Lancet’ reported that ‘Out of Pocket’ expenditure on health in India is the highest, again even as compared to its much smaller neighbors, as follows:
|Out of Pocket Expenditure on Health (%)
As I said before, these are just a few examples. In this article, I shall not dwell further on such comparisons, which are already known to many.
Instead, I would prefer to underscore, as many scholarly research papers have already done, that GDP growth of a nation cannot be driven in a sustainable manner without putting in place a robust public health care system in a country.
Reasonable public investment is necessary to improve health indicators:
If India wants to improve its key health indicators and surpass the achievements of just not smaller countries, such as, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, but all other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa) nations, India needs to hike up its public health budget significantly, together with speedy implementation of all identified health projects.
According to the World Bank 2004 report (p56), for developing or middle-income countries with institutions of an acceptable quality, a 10 percent increase in public health expenditures as a proportion of the GDP, would be associated with a 7 percent decrease in the maternal mortality rate, a 0.69 percent decrease in child mortality rate, and a 4.14 percent decrease in low weight for children under five years of age.
Impact of health on economic growth shouldn’t be underestimated:
Between ‘public health’ and ‘other economic growth drivers’, choosing just one as priority focus area, could well be futile, in the long run. This is by no means an ‘either/or’ situation, at all. The Government should take into cognizance that there is a heavy price tag attached on an underestimation of the impact of health on economic growth, which could put its core objective of a sustainable high GDP growth in jeopardy.
I would now illustrate this point with no more than three examples, out of so many available.
According to the ‘World Health Organization (WHO)’, “Good health is linked to economic growth through higher labor productivity, demographic changes and higher educational attainment. In the same way, poor health undermines economic growth.”
India, though, seems to be chasing a high economic growth with all guns blazing, apparently does not believe in this fundamental dictum; neither does the Government accept that current public health care system is generally pathetic in the country and virtually on the verge of crumbling, if inaction continues.
To underscore the same point that impact of health on the economy should not be underestimated, I now quote from another study hereunder.
A December 2012 paper published in the “Global Management Journal” titled, “The Connection Between Health and Economic Growth: Policy Implications Re-Examined”, concluded as follows:
“Evidence presented in this paper illuminates the two-way relationship between economic growth and health. Bearing in mind the substantial influence of enhanced health to economic productivity and growth, governments need to look at health expenses as an investment rather than a cost”.
My third example would be another paper published in ‘OECD Observer’ titled, “Health and the economy: A vital relationship”, written by Julio Frenk, Mexican Minister of Health and Chair of the 2004 meeting of OECD Health Ministers. This paper too reiterates that the impact of health on the economy should not be underestimated. Thus, our challenge today is to harmonize health and economic policies to improve health outcomes.
Julio Frenk further emphasized, “The effects of health on development are clear. Countries with weak health and education conditions find it harder to achieve sustained growth. Indeed, economic evidence confirms that a 10% improvement in life expectancy at birth is associated with a rise in economic growth of some 0.3-0.4 percentage points a year.”
Here comes the critical importance of improving ‘Human Development Index (HDI)’ ranking of India to achieve a high and sustainable GDP growth, as the nation moves on.
Improve ‘Ease of doing business’ and ‘Human development’ indices together:
According to ‘World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2016’, India has moved up four rungs in the global rankings for ‘ease of doing business’. The country now ranks 130 among 189 countries, against its last year’s ranking of 134. This is a significant achievement, which has been widely publicized by the Government and very rightly so.
Whereas, according to the latest (2014) ‘Human Development Index (HDI) report, published annually by the ‘United Nations Development Program (UNDP)’, India ranks 135 out of 187 countries across the world. The next HDI report is expected to be launched in November 2015.
HDI is a statistical tool used to measure a country’s overall achievement in its social and economic dimensions. It captures a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and per capita income indicators, which are used to rank countries into four tiers of human development.
Increase in life expectancy is a composite outcome of long-term effectiveness of a robust public health care system in the country.
Interestingly, the present Government does not talk much about HDI. Its primary focus seems to be now on ‘ease of doing business’, though for a sustainable high economic growth of a nation both should be speeded up and right in tandem.
Reducing Union Budget allocation on health substantially and passing the responsibility of the same to the States with no assigned accountability for implementation on the ground, may not work in India.
Even if the comments of Richard Horton, the Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Lancet’ on this score, are brushed aside with contempt, his factual observations should be noted as valid suggestions. Accordingly, much required action steps need to be factored in by the Government in its 20116-17 Union Budget planning process.
Before concluding, I would very humbly, respectfully and with all humility submit that the Union Government should always be open to outside experts’ comments and suggestions, especially on public health in the country, to initiate a constructive debate. Any voice of discord or dissent, either on Governments’s action or inaction or both, may not necessarily be construed as an act against the national interest.
In this context, I am curious to know, what happened when on October 19, 2015, the Union Cabinet Minister for Women and Child Welfare – Mrs. Maneka Gandhi, who oversees a scheme to feed more than 100 million poor people, reportedly expressed her anguish and concerns in public. She openly said that slashing of her Ministry’s budget by half to US$1.6 billion, has hit her plans to strengthen the fight against ‘Child Malnutrition’ and makes it difficult to pay wages of 2.7 million of health workers.
Leave aside ‘The Lancet’ squabble for a moment. Does the above public anguish of a senior Union Cabinet Minister, in any way, depict that “India has moved from strength to strength” in health care?
By: Tapan J. 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.