Harsh Vardhan, the new health minister, is meeting a crowd of visitors when The Indian Express reaches Nirman Bhawan. These have arrived without an appointment, while 400 others have sent requests for an appointment. On his desk is a copy of Understanding Gandhi by Usha Thakkar and Jayshree Mehta. Excerpts from an interview:
What is your vision for a healthy India?
We have to launch a mass movement on health issues. We have to prevent people becoming ill, educate them, give them enough motivation, change the way they live. We have to pursue these things repeatedly. Eighty per cent of health problems can be solved with preventive measures.
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The UPA’s flagship NRHM has been hit by corruption, while there has been alleged corruption in the Medical Council of India too. How do you propose to address these?
The scheme [NRHM] is not bad… We have to implement it properly and monitor it. I have made it clear to officials that there will be zero tolerance for corruption in this ministry… The MCI’s functioning has been under a cloud in the last few years. We will take an objective approach… and look for remedies, remove corruption and weaknesses. We will work to restore the prestige of MCI.
Do you plan any mega programmes like the NRHM?
NRHM is a combination of many schemes. We are planning so many things. Stronger prevention is one. We can eradicate measles, filariasis, kala-azar. We can control infant mortality and maternal mortality. We will launch such programmes on a single day for the entire country. This will create massive awareness about these diseases. We will ensure that every essential drug is available to every citizen free. I am studying how we can cover every citizen under a universal health insurance programme. We need cooperation from several ministries and state governments. I am confident I will be able to convince them all.
Will these be like your campaign against polio in Delhi?
Every disease calls for a different campaign. The basic thing is, every health-related issue will be taken as part of a massive campaign… We need a chain of AIIMS-like institutions in every state.
Will that ensure wider access to health facilities such as dialysis, MRI or ultrasound, which are now restricted to the cities?
We will open new dental institutes, upgrade primary health centres. There are so many things on my mind. We want to convert many district hospitals into medical colleges… If we can convince our children that they need half an hour of sports in their daily routine and to avoid junk food, if we can convince adults to avoid smoking and drinking, we can prevent many diseases.
There is a perception that AIDS is a smaller threat but getting more attention than cancer.
The country has progressed rapidly against AIDS and yes, cancer is a threat. I have told ministry officials we must take care of other diseases. We plan to open several dozen cancer treatment centres in the next few years.
You were once projected as Delhi CM. In the assembly polls, would you like to lead your party again?
There are Modiji and Rajnathji and so many other leaders who will decide that… I don’t want to answer a question when that is not expected of me.