The last time the prime minister bent too far to keep the coalition going
WHEN the United Progressive Alliance (upa) was looking for partners after the 2004 general election, anyone was welcome. But has better judgment prevailed this time around? The coalition could ask itself this as it clears the mess left behind by the former Union minister for health and family welfare. It was a tradeoff--Anbumani Ramadoss' licence to run riot with India's public health for his party's (pmk) support. Of the many decisions he took as Union minister is one taken in January 2008 that stripped three public sector vaccine manufacturers of their production licences (see 'Get your own vaccine', Down To Earth, July 1-15, 2009).
That he had taken the decision without consulting upa supporters became evident from the questions asked in Parliament during 2008-2009. Supriya Sule of ncp, a upa partner, asked a basic question in the Rajya Sabha: did the government stop vaccine production in the three units because they did not meet who standards. cpi(m)'s Brinda Karat wanted to know whether meeting who's standards was essential for vaccines used in the country. She asked this in December 2008, after the party ceased to be a upa supporter. Samajwadi Party's Amar Singh, a upa supporter by then, asked in February 2009 whether the ministry had received a proposal to upgrade the facilities at Central Research Institute, Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh. No answers were forthcoming; even the prime minister could not make the ministry respond. The prime minister could have stepped up to his responsibility and stopped the closure of the units, but he did not. He chose to brush the issue under the carpet to save the marriage of convenience.
The present health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad has been left with a lot of cleaning up to do. There is a problem here too as his 100-day agenda focuses on revival. Revival alone would not help, as newer vaccines for hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenzae B have been included in the immunization programmes in many places. No public sector vaccine unit makes them. Similarly, multivalent vaccines are being included in the programme, but the public sector units do not have the expertise to make them. The answer is to strengthen the public sector.
It would be difficult to pin down the former health minister to the crime he has committed against 25 million children. But there is a lesson here for the government. The nation's interest cannot be traded off in the interest of the coalition.