Between a one-year deferment of the decision to have larger pictorial warnings on tobacco packs and a home ministry crackdown on NGOs who had been vocal advocates of the decision – a move that was publicly feted by the tobaco lobby – the NDA government has repeatedly tripped on the tobacco question over the last three years in power.
This, even as its focus on vaccination, both in terms widening the basket and deepening the coverage has earned it plaudits. Increasing vaccination coverage and countering a vociferous anti-vaccine lobby is not an easy task. The health ministry, led by J P Nadda who had replaced former minister Dr Harshvardhan, pursued that agenda in the form of Mission Indradhanush and notched an impressive 7 per cent increase in vaccination coverage against the earlier annual rate of increase of just 10 per cent.
Vaccination is a cost effective means for ensuring maternal and child health but when it comes to measures that require big monetary investments, the government has been less proactive.
Fourteen months after Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced in the Union Budget last year and five months after the relevant proposal was sent to the Union Cabinet, the National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS) that aims to provide health cover to 40 crore needy people, is still to be approved. Health insurance was the first promise of the NDA government made by then health minister Dr Harshvardhan when he took charge in May 2014.
Nadda has repeatedly said there is no dearth of funds but the long delay in the scheme’s approval has led many within his ministry to suspect that the Rs 6,000 crore annual bill of the NHPS is the real deterrent. NHPS envisages health cover of up to Rs 1 lakh for 8 crore families with provision for an additional Rs 30,000 for senior citizens.
The National Health Policy was passed and publicised with much fanfare but shied away from making health a right, effectively making it as much of a damp squib as documents before this have been.
On the other hand the Mental Healthcare Bill brought in a paradigm shift in assuming a rights’ based approach. Admittedly, the severe dearth of mental health professionals in the country will make implementation a bumpy road but a good start has been made.
However, the government’s commitment to tobacco control appears more lukewarm. After Nadda took over, he unilaterally decided to put on hold the implementation of larger pictorial warnings for an entire year – paying heed to a parliamentary committee that had among its members a beedi baron from Uttar Pradesh. The warnings did materialise one year later from April 2016.
Meanwhile the recent crackdown by the health ministry on the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) which was accused of illegally using foreign funds for anti-tobacco “lobbying”, and some other NGOs working against the use of tobacco was welcomed by the tobacco lobby in a hoarding barely a stone’s throw away from the health ministry headquarters at Nirman Bhawan– once again raising doubts on what the government’s policy really is regarding tobacco.