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In the events leading to the cancellation of its FCRA licence, the think tank Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) had been saying essentially the same thing to MPs that a government ministry has done during successive dispensations, and furthering discouragement of tobacco use — often in partnership with the government — a cause that the government itself is committed to by an international treaty.
On Wednesday, the PHFI was served a home ministry notice for violation of FCRA norms in carrying out its advocacy work against tobacco, including holding meetings for MPs. The alleged violations included lobbying with MPs and the media against tobacco. The ministry also alleged that PHFI had opened accounts it didn’t disclose, misreported foreign donations and transferred money abroad without alerting the government.
In the drive against tobacco, the Lok Sabha committee for subordinate legislation had emerged the biggest roadblock in implementation of 85 per cent pictorial warnings on packs, delaying it from April 2015 to April 2016. A committee report tabled in March last year says: “They highlighted before the committee the serious repercussions of the tobacco use on the health of humans, the effect & impact of printing of big and visible pictorial warning on different tobacco products viz. cigarette, bidi & pan masala packs on the illiterate and the youth of the country, the position of India vis-a-vis other countries in printing size of pictorial warning on tobacco products etc.”
The witnesses named include PHFI director Monica Arora under the head Advocacy Forum for Tobacco Control.
Most of PHFI’s anti-tobacco work is in partnership with the government — specifically the health ministry. It has since 2008 been conducting training and advocacy workshops for both the ministry and WHO for law enforcers, media etc and also meetings to sensitise stakeholders from inter-ministerial departments on effective enforcement of the National Tobacco Control Programme (NTCP) and Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA) 2003.
Under the agreement to provide technical support to NTCP signed in 2010, PHFI has developed mass media resources, and drafted several newspaper advertisements and public notices on various aspects of tobacco control. It has also supported the recruitment of consultants at the ministry to support implementation of NTCP and provided legal support in tracking cases against the health ministry on tobacco control and in drafting rules and notifications.
With the Union health secretary as the ex-officio member of the executive committee, PHFI is designed as a public private initiative registered as a society under the Societies Registration Act 1860. It is governed by a fully empowered, independent, general body with representation from multiple constituencies — government, Indian and international academia and scientific community, civil society and private sector. It is also covered by RTI and includes among partners not just global behemoths such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation but also Reliance Industries, Ranbaxy Promoter Group, Infosys Foundation and also several state governments including the governments of Gujarat, Telangana, Delhi and Karnataka.
The health ministry on its own too — notwithstanding the yearlong delay in implementation of 85% pictorial warnings — has for long batted for tobacco curbs in front of parliamentary panels. It is supposed to do so under Article 11 of the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control, which India ratified in 2004.
PHFI is also pivotal in producing evidence for tobacco control. PHFI’s team members are on various expert and technical committees set up by the health ministry on tobacco control policy, including pictorial health warnings, e- cigarettes, m-health initiatives of government on tobacco cessation. PHFI chairman Dr K S Reddy was part of the expert committee constituted by the National Institute of Health and Family Welfare, on the directions of the Supreme Court in the Ankur Gutkha vs Indian Asthma Care Society & Others, to “undertake a comprehensive analysis and study of the contents of gutkha, tobacco, pan masala and similar articles manufactured in the country, and harmful effects…” This is over and above a host of other academic and advocacy exercises PHFI undertook for the government.
Many might say the PHFI wheel has come full circle, from wielding enormous influence as a public health think tank in the UPA era —it was launched by former prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2006 — to the current notice for cancellation of the licence.
PHFI head Dr Reddy has been one of the most prominent public health exponents; his detractors say his rise is both due to his medical acumen and the fact that he has been personal physician to former prime ministers including Manmohan Singh and P V Narsimha Rao A cardiac surgeon at AIIMS, he made a drastic switch to public health and is among the best known Indian personalities in the field —including tobacco control. Dr Reddy chaired a high-level expert group set up by the erstwhile Planning Commission on universal health coverage.
He is the face of PHFI and its main force.