The government’s decision to refer the National Medical Commission (NMC) Bill to a Standing Committee of Parliament is welcome. The Indian Medical Association had called a 12-hour long strike against the legislation that seeks to regulate medical education and practice in the country. The strike was called off after the government announced its decision to refer the Bill to the Standing Committee. The positives of going slow on the legislation, however, extend beyond assuaging the anxieties of the medical community. The NMC Bill seeks to dissolve the Medical Council of India (MCI), the regulator of the medical profession in India, which has been rocked by corruption scandals over the past seven years. But it does not adequately answer questions that have been asked since 2010 when the MCI’s secretary Ketan Desai was arrested on the charge of accepting a bribe in return for recognising a private college — he was later released and reinstated. The Bill stops short of addressing the need for a transparent medical regulatory agency and does not offer a viable roadmap for addressing the shortage of physicians in the country.
The Bill seeks to replace the MCI with a National Medical Commission, a move that virtually sounds the death knell for the medical community’s privilege of self-regulation. While the MCI members are elected from within the medical community, the 25 members of the proposed agency will be appointed by the government. Some of these members will be representatives of the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Directorate General of Health Services. But if past experience is anything to go by, the government arrogating to itself the task of constituting a body of professionals most often tantamounts to the party in office rewarding its loyalists. The Standing Committee must suggest ways to ensure that the new regulatory body stands up to the demands of professional integrity and probity.
Referring the Bill to the parliamentary committee is salutary in another respect. Many of its provisions — including that of dissolving the MCI — owe to a report which the committee had itself submitted in March 2016. That report was an indictment of the medical regulator’s failure to mend the country’s abysmal doctor to population ratio of 1:1,674. The Bill tries to address this shortfall by allowing practitioners of ayurvedic and homoeopathic systems of medicine the licence to prescribe allopathic drugs after they have passed a “bridge course”. Allopathy, ayurveda and homoeopathy operate on vastly different principles. The fear that mixing up these systems could imperil healthcare is not unfounded. The Standing Committee must address these concerns.