Is health care currently a low priority area for the Government of India? Probably yes, and thus it is worth trying to fathom it out.
Besides planned frugal spending on overall public health in 2015-16, even as compared to the past trend, two other health related budgetary decisions of the Government are indeed baffling, at the very least.
As many of you, I too know that the incumbent Government in its first full-year budget of 2015-16 has sharply reduced the budgetary allocation on many important health related other projects, such as:
- Union budget allocation for the National Rural Drinking Water Program (NRDWP) that aims at providing safe drinking water to 20,000 villages and hamlets across India, has been drastically reduced this year. Curiously, this decision has been taken at a time, when India loses 200 million person days and Rs 36,600 crore every year due to water-related diseases.
- The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, which provides food, preschool education, and primary health care to children under 6 years of age and their mothers, has also been hit by a 54.19 percent budget cut this year. This decision too of cutting public expenditure on food, nutrition and health care for children to more than half, defies any logic, especially when 40 percent of growth stunted children in the world are reportedly from India, exceeding the number of even sub-Saharan Africa.
I hasten to add that the Union budget 2015-16 has indicated, as the states’ share in the net proceeds of the union tax revenues has increased, as per recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission, these central Government programs will now be run with a changed funding pattern between the Union and states. However, according to financial experts in these areas, regardless of devolution, the total money available to run these critical projects is sharply decreasing.
That said, on the other pages of the same Union Budget, public funding in the current fiscal year for bridges and roads has more than doubled. The budgetary allocation for these two areas now stands more than even education.
I deliberated on similar subject of access to health care in my blog of March 16, 2015, titled, “With Frugal Public Resource Allocation Quo Vadis Healthcare in India?”
Health care sector is important for job creation too:
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health care sector is one of the largest job creators, not just in India, but globally. Thus, Indian health care industry being one of the fastest growing industrial turf in the country with a reasonable base, deserves a sharper focus of the Government.
Additionally, the socio-economic benefits that this sector provides in creating a sustainable, healthy and highly productive work force, has been well documented and can’t just be wished away, in any case.
The neglect is intriguing:
Currently, total healthcare spend of India is no more than 4.2 percent of the GDP with public spending being just 1.2 percent of it. Other BRICS nations are way ahead of India, in this area too. To set a direction on country’s public healthcare spend, breaking the jinx of a long period of time, the draft National Health Policy 2015 of the Government aimed at initial increase in health expenditure to 2 percent of the GDP.
As a result of the legacy of neglect over a long period of time, which continues albeit more blatantly even today, only 16 percent of the Indian population declares today that they have access to free or partially-free health care. I shall dwell on this area subsequently in this article.
Keeping these in perspective, it was intriguing, when the union budgetary allocation for health care in 2015-16 was kept at Rs. 297 billion or U$4.81 billion for its main health department, almost the same outlay as in the previous budget.
When compared against public fund allocations, such as, US$ 93 billion for highway projects or US$ 7.53 billion for 100 smart cities in the country, one will get a realistic perspective of this meager health budget allocation, in terms of effectively addressing the health care needs of around 1.25 billion people of India. Over 70 percent of this population live in the hinterland.
Agreed that the Government focus on these ‘infrastructure projects’ are not unimportant by any means. Nevertheless, the above comparison only highlights how much priority the Government assigns to the health care sector of India and for the health of its citizens. This issue assumes even greater significance in combating several challenging health situations, such as, ongoing fight against increasing incidence of life-long chronic ailments and deadly life-threatening diseases like, cancer, fueling already high rate of morbidity and mortality in the high country.
A quick glimpse on a few outcomes of neglect:
The Working Paper No. 1184 dated January 8, 2015, titled “Improving Health Outcomes And Health Care In India” of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), highlights some interesting points, as follows:
- Chronic diseases are the biggest causes of death and disability accounting for 50 percent of deaths, with cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, respiratory conditions and cancers figuring most prominently.
- Preventive interventions such as improving access to a clean water supply, reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS through better sexual education, and vaccination campaigns for other diseases will each deliver more significant returns in life years.
- Vaccination rates for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, for measles and for hepatitis B are all much lower than in OECD and peer countries.
- Minimal access to free or partially-free health care.
It is an irony that ‘life expectancy’ in India still remains well below the countries at a similar level of development.
Abysmal overall hygienic conditions:
The OECD survey brings to the fore abysmal hygienic conditions still prevailing in India. It can only be improved through active intervention of the Government with necessary budgetary allocations, sans photo ops for some celebrities and most politicians. Sincere support and participation of the civil society and intelligentsia, in general, are also equally important.
The paper underscores, among others, the following extremely unhygienic conditions still prevailing both in urban and rural India:
- Most households in rural India do not defecate in a toilet or latrine, which leads to infant and child diseases (such as diarrhea) and can account for much of the variation in average child height. Even today the sight of poor children defecating openly in the streets, that too in a city like Mumbai, is also not very uncommon.
- The burning of solid fuels in particular (undertaken by more than 80 percent of the population in cooking) is a major risk factor behind ischemic heart disease, lower-respiratory tract infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and could also increase cataracts and stroke.
- Exposure to air pollution is a significant problem.
- Many of the poor continue to smoke heavily.
- 11 of the lowest income quintile did not undertake sufficient physical activity, compared with 16 percent in the highest income quintile.
India provides minimal access to free or partially-free health care:
As I mentioned above, India provides minimal access to free or partially-free healthcare to its citizens, as compared to all the BRICS nations, many other countries in South East Asia and even in Africa.
The above OECD paper states that with poor health intertwined with poverty, the greatest gains lie with policies that address the social conditions which enable combating communicable and non-communicable diseases.
Among BRICS countries, India provides least access to ‘Free or Partially-Free Health Care’ Services to its general population. This is despite being the largest democracy in the world, which is now striving hard to emerge as an economic and military superpowers.
The following study shows that only 16 percent of the Indian population declares having access to free or partially-free health care from the government:
|% surveyed said ‘Yes’ to the question: “Does your household have access to free or partially free health care from the State”
Source: Credit Suisse Research Institute, Emerging Consumer Survey Databook 2014.
As the OECD paper states, in this study approximately 1500 respondents were surveyed in each country, with India and China both having larger sample size of 2500. The male-to-female split between respondents was roughly 50:50 in all cases with rural-to-urban split varying by country.
Poor satisfaction level with existing health care services:
This is very important; as public facilities are the predominant source of qualified health professionals in rural areas where much of the Indian poor reside. In addition, significant population growth is occurring in urban slums, where urban public health care facilities are struggling to provide basic services. In a situation like this, slum dwellers face challenging economic barriers to accessing expensive private health care services (MoHFW, 2012).
The OECD survey indicates that 41 percent of those in rural areas and 45 percent in urban areas were not satisfied with treatment by their doctors or facility.
The reason attributed to this dissatisfaction are as follows:
- Distance was cited by 21 percent of people in rural areas and 14 percent in urban areas.
- Public health care centers remain closed more than half the time and lack basic medical supplies, such as stethoscopes and blood pressure scales.
- Non-availability of required services was cited by 30 percent of people in rural areas and 26 percent in urban areas.
This is quite credible, as according to the Government’s own estimates:
- 10 percent of primary health care centers are without a doctor
- 37 percent are without a laboratory technician
- 25 percent without a pharmacist (MoHFW, 2012)
The above picture is quite consistent with large scale surveys in poor communities of India, by OECD.
Health care business for up market is booming:
Growing inequitable distribution of healthcare products and services is now wide open and blatant, more than ever before. There is no signal yet that the Government would soon consider health care sector as its one of the key focus areas, along with education, just as infrastructure, such as, building roads, highways, e-highways, flyovers, bridges and smart cities.
For up-market patients, the private sector is creating world class facilities in India. We can see today a good number of ‘five-star’ hospitals, with more number of newer ones coming up offering jaw-dropping facilities, quite akin to, may be even surpassing what are being offered for patients’ luxurious comfort in the developed world. Although these facilities cost a fortune, one would usually need to be in a queue to get admitted there for any medical or surgical treatment.
Most of these hospitals are now in high demand for ‘medical tourism’. According to available reports India currently caters to health care needs of over 200,000 foreign patients. ‘Medical tourism’ business reportedly fetched around US$ 2 billion to India in 2012.
On the flip side of it, as we all read in the recent media reports, some of these hospitals in Delhi refused admission even to seriously ill dengue patients, as they can’t afford such facilities. A few of these patients ultimately succumbed to the disease and the parents of one such poor child, who died without any hospital treatment in that process, committed suicide unable to withstand the irreparable and tragic loss.
Giving ‘Infrastructure Status’ to health care sector:
When creating basic infrastructure is the priority area of the present Government for financial resource allocation, why not give ‘infrastructure status’ to the health care sector now? This is not just for the heck of it, but purely based on merit and earlier detail evaluation by a Government Committee of experts.
To address the critical health care needs for the vast Indian population with appropriate infrastructure, quality products, services and manpower, providing ‘infrastructure status’ to the health care sector could facilitate the whole process. Additionally, it can transform the Indian healthcare sector as one of the biggest job-generating industry too.
This has been a key demand of the industry until recently, though not so much being talked about it today. A few years back, the previous Government was reportedly mulling to assign full fledged infrastructure status to the healthcare sector, as it merits inclusion in the category of ‘infrastructure’, satisfying all the nine criteria set by the erstwhile Rangarajan Committee.
I find in my archive, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) also demanded ‘infrastructure status’ for the health care sector in its pre-union budget memorandum for 2010-11. In that proposal CII had estimated that health care industry in India requires an investment of around US$80 billion, whereas in the current fiscal year the public expenditure on health still languishes at U$4.81 billion.
This specific issue seems to have taken a back seat today, for reasons not known to me. However, it is interesting to note that not just the Government apathy, no such demand is being made today by the large multi-industry trade associations of India, as vociferously as we witness, for example, in the case of ‘The Goods and Service Tax (GST) Bill’.
Health care debate is not to the fore today:
Critical health care issues of the country don’t seem to be in the fore front today for comprehensive debates even for the Indian main stream media, to influence the government.
We have been experiencing for quite while that Indian media, including social media, in general, usually goes ballistic 24×7 mostly with selective sensational topics. These may include, among others…glitzy events on Government’s high profile advocacy initiatives to attract more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from large overseas companies…Or back home some unfortunate and tragic Dengue fever related deaths due to negligence just in Delhi, though the same and equally grave incidences taking place in the other states of India, are hardly getting any coverage…Or on some high profile alleged murder pot-boilers announcing media verdict conclusively, even before completion of police investigation and charge-sheet being filed in a court of law.
These are probably neither bad, nor unimportant, nor avoidable, nor can come within the ambit of any media criticism. I am also not trying to do that, either.
As the saying goes, variety is the spice of life. We, therefore, generally want to get a feel of it everyday early in the morning, mostly glancing through the newspaper headlines, or in the late evening watching impatient anchor with strong personal opinion trying hard to dominate over all other participants in high-decibel ‘TV debates’, as these are called by the respective channels.
In an era of sensationalized and eye-ball grabbing ‘Breaking News’ of all kinds, flashing everywhere almost every now and then, critical health care issues seem to have become a mundane subject to the newsmakers for any meaningful debate to influence the Government. Serious debates on critical health care issues presumably would not generate all important Television Rating Points (TRPs) to the TV channel owners. Though I have no idea, the TRP of such debates probably has been estimated to be even lesser as compared to the cacophony aired by the TV channels on the cost to exchequer for the MPs subsidized meals in the Indian Parliament…with intermittent high pitch ‘war cry’ of the dominating anchor… ‘the nation wants to know this’.
Be that as it may, health care environment impacts all of us, quite appreciably. There is not even an iota of doubt on it. However, we can feel it mostly when the reality hits us or our families hard…very hard, as serious and cruel ailments strike suddenly, or as we face avoidable disease related deaths of our near and dear ones, or when illness makes a loving one virtually incapacitated, even after facing financial bankruptcy.
Health care is a serious matter for all of us, just as it is a serious and critical business for every nation and every Government. This criticality factor is independent of whatever level of economic development the country is aspiring for. Thus, the indifference of the Indian Government, if I may say so, despite promising so much on health care earlier this year, is intriguing, and more so, when just 16 percent of the total population has access to free or partially-free health care in our India of the 21st century.
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.