Monday, 13 October 2008

The Minister prefers shadow boxing

WITH statements like “for us, everyday is no smoking day,” and his seemingly relentless pursuit of celebrities to knock away the cigarette, Union Minister Anbumani Ramadoss comes across, with best intentions though, as a desperate man.

In an era of coalition politics, it is the small parties that call the rook when it matters the most (as was seen during the last trust vote). So it boils down to not what is done while one is in power but the amount of visibility and media space one has managed to achieve then.

If Ramadoss was ‘really’ concerned about the health of the nation, his focus should have been on the thousands of PHCs that are crying for attention. With the medical supplies system plagued by an archaic approach, it is a miracle that vital health figures are intact. Moreover, to get a grasp of the problem, one does not need a WHO study or a mortality rate figure. A visit to a government-run facility would be a revealing experience.

Ramadoss’ anti-smoking drive, at its best, can be seen as an effort to occupy media space. There is no denying that smoking is a dreaded practice and the effects it has on the individual and society are perilous, but targeting an individual for his supposed influence upon society or by banning smoking is immature. The liberty of making an informed choice should be given to every individual. Moreover, with an election in the near future, one cannot but read between the lines.

The countless studies by his department and NGOs are proof enough that more than smoking, tobacco-chewing affects crores of Indians. Maybe, the Minister could turn to his high-profile colleagues and ask them to stop painting their mouth red. Politicians, thanks to the ever-growing media coverage, have more visibility than any professional in the country. Ramadoss would have got a glimpse of this lately because he readjusted his target from Bollywood to West Bengal Chief Minster Buddhadeb Bhattacharya.

If the Minister is sincere about his efforts of putting out the light, he should look at the world and learn from it. With an estimated budget of nothing short of $40 billion spent every year, AIDS research, prevention and treatment is the largest funded health project in the world. AIDS gets this royal treatment much to the dislike of health experts who often claim that with this focus, many other vital diseases are ignored. But this was not the case 10 years ago. Dr Peter Piot, executive director UNAIDS, has been in the field of AIDS research and programme management for three decades. Piot who was trying to bring world leaders to understand the enormity of the disease hit upon an idea as the millennium approached. “I asked myself what political leaders really cared about. The truth is, it’s not health. It’s economics and security. Health is what they talk about if there is money left at the end of the day,” Piot was quoted telling the Newsweek. Piot said that the disease would wipe away a young generation, destroy the health system and in turn reverse the economic progress achieved. Soon diplomats, policy-makers and world leaders were paying attention. The Unites States that was allocating $100 million a year in the 90’s for AIDS in 2003 allocated $15 billion.

Dr Ramadoss would be aware of this but he is part of a government that fills its coffers with the revenue earned from tobacco trade in the country. Probably the Minister prefers this kind of publicity. The one that is seen before a boxing match - A match between the Minister and the shadow of a heavyweight industry.
(Edited version of the post is published in The New Indian Express: )