NRHM of India: Yet to ‘Tick all the Right Boxes’

‘National Rural Health Mission (NRHM)’, one of the largest and a very ambitious healthcare initiative for the rural population of India, was launched by the Government of India on April 12, 2005.

The primary purpose of NRHM, as announced by the Government, was to ensure universal access to affordable and quality healthcare for the rural poor of 18 states of India, namely, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Madhya Pradesh, Nagaland, Orissa, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tripura, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, to start with.
During the launch of NRHM, the then Health Minister of India announced that the nation would see the results of these efforts in three years’ time.

The key objectives of NRHM:

• Decrease the infant and maternal mortality rate • Provide access to public health services for every citizen • Prevent and control communicable and non-communicable diseases • Control population as well as ensure gender and demographic balance • Encourage a healthy lifestyle and alternative systems of medicine through AYUSH

As announced by the government NRHM envisages achieving its objective by strengthening “Panchayati Raj Institutions” and promoting access to improved healthcare through the “Accredited Social Health Activist” (ASHA). It also plans on strengthening existing Primary Health Centers, Community Health Centers and District Health Missions, in addition to making maximum use of Non-Governmental Organizations.

NRHM was to improve access to healthcare by 20 to 25% in 3 years’ time:
To many the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) has made a significant difference to the rural health care system in India. It now appears that many more state governments are envisaging to come out with innovative ideas to attract and retain public healthcare professionals in rural areas.
On January 11, 2010, the Health Minister of India Mr. Ghulam Nabi Azad, while inaugurating the FDA headquarters of the Western Zone located in Mumbai, clearly articulated that the NRHM initiative will help improving access to affordable healthcare and modern medicines by around 20 to 25 percent during the next three years. This means that during this period access to modern medicines will increase from the current 35 percent to 60 percent of the population.
If this good intention of the minister ultimately gets translated into reality, India will make tremendous progress in the space of healthcare, confirming the remarks made by Professor Sir Andrew Haines, Director, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, as quoted above.

The Achievements:

More than five years are over now. Let us have a look at the key achievements of this ambitious health scheme as on January 2010, as available from the Ministry of Health:

  • 71.6% (10.86 million) institutional deliveries across India as compared to only 41%
  • 78.8% (19.82 million) children across the country fully immunized
  • A total of 23,458 primary health centers (PHC) have been set up against NRHM goals of 27,000 during the same period.
  • 5,907 community health centers were upgraded against 7,000 as was planned under the NRHM.
  • 462,000 Associated Social Health Activists were trained
  • 177,924 villages have sanitation committees functional
  • 323 district hospitals have been taken for up gradation

Free Care to Mothers and Children: A new initiative

In the recent publication of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) titled, ‘Two years (2009-2011): Achievements & New Initiatives’, the ministry has highlighted another commendable initiative to provide free care to the mothers and children, which includes as follows:

Provision of free drugs,

  • Free Consumables and Diagnostics,
  • Free Diet during stay and
  • Free transport to health facility and drop back home. 

Still to ‘Tick all the Right Boxes’:

Despite all these, a 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 healthcare expenses, out of pocket 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.

Obvious questions:

Thus even after over five years from the inception of NRHM, the current status of rural public healthcare system, poses the following obvious questions:
• How is the huge money allocated for NRHM being utilized? • Who all are accountable for the current state of affairs of this great scheme?
Even our Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh has admitted recently that “the shortage of human resources was becoming an impediment in strengthening the public health delivery system through the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM)”.

Economic Survey 2010 did raise a flag:

The Economic Survey 2010 highlighted that ‘several glitches in the flagship NRHM needed to be ironed out to improve health infrastructure’, some of these are the following:

  • Shortage of over 6,800 more hospitals in rural areas to provide basic health facilities to people
  • Shortage of 4,477 primary healthcare centers and 2,337 community healthcare centers as per the 2001 population norms.
  • Almost 29% of the existing health infrastructure is in rented buildings.
  • Poor upkeep and maintenance, and high absenteeism of manpower in the rural areas are the main problems in the health delivery system.
  • Basic facilities are still absent in many Primary Health Centers (PHCs) and Community Health Centers (CHCs) to provide guaranteed services such as in-patient care, operation theatres, labor rooms, pathological tests, X-ray facilities and emergency care.

The Economic Survey further highlighted that “An assessment of the health related indicators would suggest that significant gains have been made over the years. However, India fares poorly in most of the indicators in comparison to the developing countries like China and Sri Lanka. The progress in health has been quite uneven, across regions, gender, as well as space.”

It now appears that this great initiative of the government of India called the NRHM, has made, if at all, only marginal impact on the healthcare needs and systems of the nation.

Leveraging capacity of the Private Healthcare sector is critical:

Though the private sector contributes over 70% in healthcare space, unfortunately NRHM has not yet been successful to leverage this key strength.  Participation of the private healthcare players through Public Private Partnership (PPP) initiatives could be one of the key determinants of success of NRHM of India. Electronic Media outreach program, though quite sporadic, has started creating some awareness about this project within the general population.

Role of the State Governments:

In the federal governance structure of India, health being a state subject, respective state governments should play more creative and proactive role with requisite allocation of fund, freedom of operation and accountability to make NRHM successful across the country.

Who will bell the cat?

To make NRHM deliver desired results the Government should at the very outset significantly increase in health expenditure to around 3% to 5% of GDP and simultaneously outline, decide and announce the key measurable success parameters for performance evaluation of the scheme. This is to be done by uploading for public scrutiny in the respective Health Ministry websites of both the Central and State Governments the names and designations of the responsible senior Government officials who will be held accountable for the success or failure to deliver the deliverables for NRHM. All these details should be updated at least half yearly.

With tax-payers money being utilized 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 what are those areas where the Government should outsource from the private players.
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 affordable and 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 over a period of time vanished in the oblivion.


Thus, in my view, despite publication of all the details done for NRHM by the MoHFW in its latest publication titled, ‘‘Two years (2009-2011): Achievements & New Initiatives’ and witnessing some sporadic flashes of brilliance here or there, I reckon, the overall implementation of this excellent healthcare project called NRHM has failed to tick many of the important boxes as was eagerly expected by the common man of India.

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.

Hype on “Superbug” – national pride – rational mind

Since around last fortnight Indian media of all types and forms, have been fiercely competing with each other to attract the ‘eye balls’ of the viewer/readers through ‘alarming’ news items starting from the situation in the J&K to the ‘rampant corruption’ involving the Commonwealth Games, with of course their usual (over)dose of sensationalism.

In a situation like this to prove ‘enough is JUST NOT enough’, as it were, on August 11, 2010, the well-known medical journal of repute “The Lancet” published a routine article, which further added to the ‘media sensationalism’ in India. The report highlighted that a new ALL antibiotics-resistant “Superbug” originating from Pakistan, appears to have taken its first life. This happened when a patient who was brought to a hospital in Belgium and died in June this year after having met with a car accident in Pakistan, where the diseased was infected by this ‘Superbug”.

This article in ‘The Lancet’ written by a team of international researchers including an Indian, elaborated that a new variety of enzyme named after India’s national capital New Delhi, called, “New Delhi Metallo beta lactamase” in short “NDM 1” turns any bacteria into a deadly “Superbug”, making it resistant to ALL types of antibiotics, leaving virtually no cure in sight.

It was also reported that this deadly “Superbug” has already reached the United Kingdom through patients who acquired it from the hospitals in India. The article reported that the deadly “Superbug” originated from the hospitals of Pakistan and India has the potential to precipitate serious health issues across the world.

“The New Delhi Superbug” was discovered even earlier:

This report generated a sharp reaction in India and from some of its authors regarding its authenticity. Some experts even termed this study as the ‘Western plot to undermine medical tourism in India’.

A leading daily of India reported, “Indian medical journal first documented Superbug”. It stated that that the first ever formal documentation of this ‘Superbug’ was made last year at the P.D. Hinduja National Hospital and Medical Research Centre located in Mumbai. This finding was published in the ‘Journal of the Association of Physicians in India (JAPI’) in March 2010. The reason for the emergence of the ‘Superbug’ was attributed to the ‘worrisome outcome of the indiscriminate use of antibiotics’.

“Unfair to blame the country for the ‘New Delhi’ superbug”:

Reacting to this article, Indian health authorities opined, “It is unfortunate that this new bug, which is an environmental thing, has been attached to a particular country.” The reasons being, “Several superbugs are surviving in nature and they have been reported from countries like Greece, Israel, the U.S., Britain, Brazil and there is no public health threat and no need to unnecessarily sensationalize it”. Some experts, however, feel, “such drug resistant bacteria is a matter of chance, is a global phenomenon and is preventable by sound infection prevention strategies which are followed in any good hospital.”

It has been reported that the ‘National Center for Disease Control of India’ is working on guidelines for appropriately recording these types of nosocomial (hospital acquired) infections.

“Superbug” Hype and Medical Tourism:
Many people of both India and Pakistan have felt since then that in absence of an effective response by the health authorities, especially, in India the fast evolving Medical Tourism initiatives, providing medical services ranging from complicated cardiovascular, orthopedic and cerebrovascular surgery to other life-threatening illnesses, may get adversely impacted.

The root cause and the ‘blame game’:

Experts have opined that overuse and imprudent or irrational use of antibiotics without any surveillance protocol are the root cause for emergence of such ‘Superbugs”, though some Indian parliamentarians have termed this article as the propaganda by some vested interests. It has been alleged that the study was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Wyeth, the two global pharmaceutical companies who produce antibiotics to treat such conditions, together with the European Union.

In this context it is worth mentioning that ‘The Lancet’ article in its disclosures says:

“Kartikeyan K Kumarasamy has received a travel grant from Wyeth… David M Livermore has received conference support from numerous pharmaceutical companies, and also holds shares in AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer, Dechra, and GlaxoSmithKline, and, as Enduring Attorney, manages further holdings in GlaxoSmithKline and Eco Animal Health. All other authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.”

Such a situation has not been reported for the first time:

This type of situation has indeed some precedents. When ‘MRSA’ was reported for the first time, it caused similar scare. However, this time many experts feel that it is too early to conclude whether or not ‘NDM-1’ will eventually prove to be more dangerous than ‘MRSA’.

Several such “Superbugs”, as stated earlier, have already been reported from countries like Greece, Israel, USA, UK, and Brazil. However, as I know, in the battle against infectious diseases involving both the scientists and the bacteria, the later had always to succumb, in the long run.

‘NDM-1′, as well, perhaps will be no exception. All concerned MUST continue to make it happen, not by mere wishful thinking but by establishing a strong procedural mechanism to keep a careful vigil on the reasons for emergence of drug resistant bacterial strains in the country.

The World Health Organization (WHO) perspective:

On Saturday, August 21, 2010 the WHO commented, “while multi-drug resistant bacteria are not new and will continue to appear, this development requires monitoring and further study to understand the extent and modes of transmission, and to define the most effective measures for control”.

The hype created and motives attributed by the media and the politicians over one such routine scientific papers published in a medical journal of international repute, in my view are unwarranted. There are built in systems within the scientific discourse for raising questions and even challenge any findings. Remarks made by one of the authors of the article to the media, perhaps added more fuel to the fire. Politicians seem to have joined the bandwagon to politicize even a benign medical issue captured in the said article. In an era where news items mean “sensationalism” and ‘politicization’ of most such news items is the order of the day, the civil society should be helped to understand the core issues behind all such raging debates.

Besides the reasons, as discussed earlier, attributed to repeated emergence of such “Superbugs”, one more issue I could foresee in today’s environment compared to the same in the past. This issue possibly lies in the shift in focus of pharmaceutical R&D from discovery of novel drugs for infectious diseases to discovery of drugs for non-infectious chronic illnesses like, metabolic disorders (diabetes), hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, psychiatric disorders, cancer, vaccines etc. This shift in the R&D focus has obviously been prompted by the tilt in the prevalence of the disease pattern towards the same direction.

Perhaps for this reason, one notices hardly any significant and novel molecules in the research pipelines of either global or local pharmaceutical companies to treat such antibiotic-resistant infections. It is understandebly not an ‘either/or’ situation. However, as we all know, in life-threatening conditions both types of drugs have their respective places to save precious lives. Let us ponder over it.

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.