Caught in the controversy surrounding the purchase of spurious drugs supplied to various government hospitals in the state and blamed by his Congress colleague for his role in the scam, former health minister Sham Lal Sharma tells Saima Bhat that he will come out clean in the probe.
KL: What have been your achievements as a former health minister?
SL: Our national ranking in health was sixteen but when I assumed charge, with the help of my staff and civil society, we achieved No. 1 position twice. In primary health sector, the challenge was to tackle the issue of female foeticide, neonatal deaths, malnutrition and mother-child care. Asha and GSY schemes were stopped in 2007 but I revived them in 2009. If we set aside deaths at GB Panth hospital, we have better position in neonatal mortality rate at national level. The sex ratio in 2011-2012 census has improved. My services even got nationally as well as internationally acclaimed.
KL: If the health department was revived under your tenure and J&K moved from No 16 to No 1, where is the change on ground?
SL: If more than 70% institutions operate from rented buildings, how much can they improve? Even today, our primary health centers and sub-centers operate from rented building. Then there are other topographical, climatic conditions and road connectivity problems which add to the difficulties. If you see in last four years the development in infrastructure and if you check the work done, you will get to know about the improvements. I started the social auditing in the departments; the figure of that auditing is transparent, it is available online. There is no other state where the condition of health services is as good as we have, even if you compare with states like Kerala, Tamil Naidu or Rajasthan where best healthcare is provided to people. Most importantly, this is the only state where more than 92% patient care in health services is provided by public sector.
KL: Various organizations have alleged that you are the main person behind spurious drug scam. How do you react?
SL: The matter is sub-judice and I feel those organizations are aware that some people with vested interest blamed me for the matter to settle political scores. But as far as I am concerned, I have hope in all accountability institutions that they will come out with truth. When I am not involved anywhere, then why should I be afraid.
I was the person who introduced drug policy in the state. As a health minister, different people and civil society groups appreciated me and gave their support for the policy; they asked me to incorporate some more points for better healthcare. I did that but there were some people with vested interests, people involved in the nexus that I tried to break in four years. Those were people who were protesting against the policy. I was trying to set up the Drug Corporation so that the system of drug procurement gets transparent. But some changes were made in the department. We also started e-tendering.
The government of India has to take steps under Drug and Cosmetic Act. The Drug Controller General of India should curb such drugs right from the start, from the manufacturers. It would become an eye-opener for the manufacturers and for the companies making spurious and substandard drugs. Their licenses should be cancelled or their new products should be put on trial.
When I became the health minister, there were only 14 drug inspectors which were increased to 64. We started equipping our drug labs in Jammu and Srinagar and analyzing drugs. At that time, medicines used to get checked in Karnataka, Chandigarh, Bangalore and other states, and till the time results came out, the medicines were already consumed. It has now come under media glare; people hyped it and the issue got politicized. I wished to curb the issue from the roots.
People were alleging that spurious amoxyllin-based drugs were used on infants at GB Panth hospital. This drug is not even prescribed to the people below age of 12 years. It was purchased in November 2012 while the infants died during the summer of 2012 and before that. I had tightened the noose around some people in the health department who are now trying to settle their scores. The crime branch has done its investigation and they have come up with their findings about who is involved. I want those people should be punished.
KL: You have mentioned nexus in your remarks. How big is this nexus?
SL: I think the moral and ethical values are lacking in our society. The subject of moral science has gone missing somewhere. Our approach has become commercial. You don’t know where people reach in propaganda. This was the reason my drug policy was stalled. People say that pharmaceutical company which was involved is owned by me. I really don’t know those people. Yes I have my factories; I have a flour mill, rice, poultry feed, vitamin plant, stone crusher, but I don’t have any link with the pharmaceutical business. I am here to serve my people.
Nexus can be blamed on doctors and medical representatives. That is why I was against the private practice of doctors so that our government hospitals should not get commercialized. We are not helpless. I wish if my successor walks on the same roadmap, there will be transparency in the system which I had revived to some extent.
KL: Your polling agent Ashok Kumar is the owner of Life Line pharmacy and his office is in your old house. What do you have to say about that?
SL: It is simply impossible. Ashok Kumar Raina is the person who was arrested and I don’t know him. The matter is sub-judice. Let the facts prove what I am saying. Crime branch has submitted its status report and that will clear it from where the involved person is running his office from.
KL: You have said that it is the job of purchase committee to purchase drugs but don’t you think it was your responsibility to check what was happening under your nose, even when a number of spurious drug samples were seized at Lakhanpur check post? Many drugs lifted from market were found to be of substandard quality. This menace was before you and it was still ignored?
SL: Purchase committee was formed in 2008. The state was then run by the Governor. There are four purchase committees and why am I blamed only and not the committees. As per the figures of ministry of health and family welfare for 2009-10, 1245 drug samples were sent for testing out of which 36 were declared substandard. Among them one was declared spurious for which 5 prosecutions were launched.
In 2010-11, 1480 drug samples were sent for testing out of which 27 were declared substandard and 4 were declared to be spurious. For this year, 3 prosecutions were launched. In 2011-2012, 1940 drugs were sent for testing out of which 133 were declared substandard and 5 were declared spurious while one prosecution was launched. In April 2012-July 2012, 806 drugs were sent for testing out of which 41 were declared substandard and two were declared spurious.
If we compare all these results with other states, we are the only state that had tightened the noose around the wrongdoers. I will still say that I had no administrative controls but whatever was in my hands, I used to do that to serve the people of my state.
KL: You have blamed Taj Mohi-ud-Din for PHE scam and in return he held you responsible for drug scam. Being the members of same party, why this blame game?
SL: Show me evidence where I have said that Taj Mohi-ud-Din was responsible for the PHE irregularities. On the floor of state assembly, I said that if you want to check the system, then check it from 1996. I never said Taj was responsible for it. But Taj Mohi-ud-Din said it and said it openly against me. I said the people who are responsible should be dealt as per law. Three committees have filed their reports which proved that gross irregularities happened in the department.
About the blame game you can ask those who are accusing me. About the functioning of department, I said there is a problem in system. I never accused any individual. Preliminary findings are before the House. Now it is their job to take the matter further. I can’t be the judge.
KL: Mir Najeeb, Executive Director CCDU, has alleged that since he is the relative of Taj, you are trying to settle your political scores at the cost of his image. How far is that true?
SL: Why should I do that? I don’t have any political score to settle. In CCDU, fraudulent draws have happened and it has been proven that gross irregularities are there. I have never seen more than 60% shown as advance draws. That is in committee’s and chief engineer’s report. I never blamed Najeeb for that but what is in enquiry report is self-explanatory.
KL: Why are there many factions in state Congress unit if all of you believe that you work for party high command?
SL: I don’t think there are factions in our party. I am a disciplined solider of the party. Saif-ud-Din Soz is our state president and Ghulam Nabi Azad is the central minister. I respect them both.
KL: Why did you oppose Chief Minister Omar Abdullah when he hinted for a pre-poll alliance with Congress which your colleague Taj supported?
SL: It is a wrong perception in media. Omar Abdullah is our team leader and we are following him. It is not my domain to say anything. Pre and post poll alliance related decisions are always taken by the party high command; Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. It is their decision. Where does Sham Lal come in?.
KL: You have always said that your party’s decision of incorporation of 73rd amendment is equal to Autonomy and Self-Rule. You even asked them to define their agendas. Can you explain your stand?
SL: I think it is not only us who are saying so but our coalition partners as well. We want to strengthen our PRI’s, our grassroot institutions. Be it NC, other opposition parties or Congress, we all think 73rd amendment should be brought at par with the 1989 Panchayati Raj Act. And if we need some changes in that act, we discuss them; we even had a committee which discussed the provisions which needed changes. The present coalition wants that PRIs should be made more effective. I don’t think there are any differences.
KL: During 2008 Amarnath land row, you were one of the several Congress leaders who not only took active part in communal agitation but also regularly attended meetings of RSS and VHP backed Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti at Geeta Bhawan, the Jammu headquarters of rightwing Hindu outfits?
SL: I think media should look at it with a broader vision. When J&K was burning and I attended the meeting of RSS in Geeta Bhawan, it was a courageous step. I told them that India is not a country of one religion, caste and creed but it belongs equally to all people. I told them that they are dividing the state on religious lines. I even dared to tell RSS that they are not the political thekedaar of Jammu, that I was the elected representative of my people and not them.
Let me tell you that my constituency is the lone constituency where Muslims are living in minority. You won’t find more than 2% Muslims there and 98% of them votes for me. They know me and my secular approach. Not even one incident was reported from my constituency because I had already told the majority community that even if one incident happens, I won’t help them.