The Weekly Dose: The doctors we elected to parliament
This Lok Sabha counts among its number numerous doctors – allopathic, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, Unani – who will hopefully bring their informed opinions to discussions about healthcare.
Like an anxious patient awaiting the results of a crucial diagnostic test, India was on tenterhooks about what counting day of the General Elections would reveal. We voted, and we’ve chosen who we have. But amid polarised reactions about who is forming the next government, and speculation about which Member of Parliament will be allotted which ministry, we may have forgotten that the responsibility of every MP – in the Treasury or the Opposition Benches, with or without a ministry – is to frame laws.
The laws these 545 men and women will draft, debate and pass will govern our lives for at least the next five years; most will outlast the present regime. Many laws will affect India’s healthcare and insurance model, and influence Big Pharma, private clinics, and the rights of a patient. This Lok Sabha counts among its number numerous doctors – allopathic, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, Unani – who will hopefully bring their informed opinions to discussions about healthcare. Many of them were elected not because of their qualifications, but because they belong to political dynasties; some have never practiced medicine at all. Nevertheless, I’ve trawled through the past acts (pun intended!) and statements of these incoming medical lawmakers, to try and predict what Indian healthcare has in store for itself.
Some lawmakers like Dr. Kirit Solanki (Ahmedabad West: BJP) – who has been elected for a third term – have been conscientious parliamentarians. He has the distinction of being the second most frequent attendee of Parliament among MPs from Gujarat and has participated in debates about the healthcare issues of tribals, and the need for research on thalassemia gene therapy. Dr. Solanki has also introduced a whopping 37 Private Member’s Bills, one of which advocated for compulsory mental healthcare counselling facilities in all government schools.
Others, like outgoing Minister of State for Culture Dr. Mahesh Sharma (Gautam Buddha Nagar - Uttar Pradesh: BJP), is better known for his motor-mouth comments on subjects other than healthcare. He owns and runs a chain of private hospitals, and is distinguished by nothing other than a case filed against him for allegedly assaulting a patient’s relative. That, and the little matter of a National Green Tribunal notice issued against one of the branches of his hospital for constructing on forested land without permission. Ironically, Dr. Sharma was also Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change.
Another high-profile MP who was returned to Parliament is Dr. Harsh Vardhan (Chandni Chowk - Delhi: BJP). As the Health Minister of Delhi, he oversaw the passage of one of the first anti-tobacco laws passed by any state, way back in 1997. An ENT surgeon by profession, he must have been aware of how small particulate matter from any source can wreak havoc even on the upper respiratory system – his area of competence. So it came as a surprise when he denounced a report that held air pollution responsible for millions of deaths: “I do not agree with that because pollution can cause premature illness and other things. Pollution does affect health, but to create such a panicky situation and say millions of people are dying, I do not agree with that.”
As awareness about the need for mental healthcare spread over the last few years, Dr Heena Gavit (Nandurbar - Maharashtra: BJP) delivered a rousing speech about the Mental Healthcare Bill (2016), peppered with facts and figures about the crying need for trained mental health professionals, including clinical psychologists and psychiatric social workers. She pointed out that while psychiatric institutions are legally prohibited from keeping a patient beyond 180 days, many patients are not accepted back by their families, or are cleared for discharge but not yet ready to re-integrate with society, and would benefit from halfway homes.
It is pertinent to point out that after qualifying as a doctor, Dr. Gavit did not serve out her compulsory rural service period – a rule introduced by her father when he was State Health Minister.
Commenting on the same bill – which was also discussed in depth by the Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare – Dr. Sanjay Jaiswal (West Champaran - Bihar: BJP) said: “Bills which go straight to parliament have only an administrative point of view. Any Bill which goes to the Standing Committee becomes comprehensive because MPs can even express differing views from the whip.” His commitment to thorough research and due parliamentary procedure is commendable.
Even more commendable is the progressiveness of Dr Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar (Barasat - West Bengal: Trinamool Congress), who while voicing her opinion about the Maternity Benefits Bill, urged the Health Minister to include a clause about the posting of women security personnel during their post-pregnancy periods, and argued for the extension of these benefits to non-commercial surrogate mothers, as well as single mothers.
A far more unparliamentary representative is Dr. Shrikant Shinde (Kalyan - Maharashtra: Shiv Sena), who was also a member of the same standing committee. Despite being a member of the ruling coalition, he showed admirable courage in pointing out that unless doctors are provided with adequate incentives, medical infrastructure, security, and homes, they won’t be willing to serve in rural areas. He is concerned about how health expenditure is impoverishing the middle class, but contradicts himself by encouraging dependence on more private hospitals. If you’re wondering why I called him unparliamentary, it’s because he was arrested for throwing ink and ashes on a Chief Conservator of Forests, for failing to prevent the burning of trees planted by him.
My favourite by far is Dr. Sujay Vikhe-Patil (Ahmednagar - Maharashtra: BJP), whose family runs a private medical college, who, when asked about the most important agenda in the then-upcoming elections, answered: national security.
“We welcome the fact that seven members of our fraternity have become elected representatives (from Maharashtra)”, said the Secretary of the Indian Medical Association’s state chapter. “However, our experience so far is that these MPs contribute little towards the health sector and focus only on their politics. I am not saying this about the current lot, but this has been our experience over the years.”
Perhaps he had Dr. KC Patel (Valsad - Gujarat: BJP) in mind, who in five years, did not find it necessary to ask even one question in Parliament, about healthcare or anything else.