Creating Healthy Communities

Ajit Singh, Chairman, ACG, talks about the changes in the pharmaceutical industry over the decades and long-term solutions to tackle malnutrition, COVID-19

Creating Healthy Communities

You have witnessed many changes over the decades. Please share with us the journey of the healthcare sector in India.

We started ACG in 1964. The first five-year plan had come out a few years before, largely written by industrialists with the help of the government, which never happened again. All the well-known companies in pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals were born in the 1960s. Even multinationals had come into India, but they were mostly trading.

There were many issues related to infrastructure with bad roads and only railways for services, less trained people, and not much know-how on how to train people.

As infrastructure was not sound, how did the health and nutrition delivery services reach the remote regions?  

The distribution has been an issue since the last 20 years, getting the medicines to the right places is still a challenge. In the early days, we had a small number of doctors and the cities were fairly looked after. But in the countryside, there was really very little to count on except some herbal products and some painkillers. The government set up taluka level health centers, which have helped.   

How can food security be assured in the remote areas?

I'm told by many people within the government that there is enough food in the country. In fact, it is rotting and being eaten by rats in our huge government warehouses. Therefore, it's a matter of distribution and affordability. And in both cases, our government has taken action. Rations are reaching people. My own people who've gone back to their villages are getting this ration. People are also sharing food among themselves.

Actually, in a country of 1.34 billion people, the root of the problem lies in the numbers. Even if you look at the vaccination program, millions over the age of 18 need vaccination every year. We need to think on a long-term basis—can we ask people to be satisfied with smaller families? The media is probably the best way to support the government in spreading this message. A few famous actors can build this theme into their films.

You have been a member of various institutions and bodies such as IITs, CII, FICCI, PHARMEXCIL. As an experienced policymaker, what steps can be taken to tackle COVID-19 and malnutrition?

A pandemic like COVID-19 doesn't set new trends or a new normal. It suddenly accelerates the old normal. We saw all sorts of new ways of communicating and working, making it a more efficient world.

For the first time during a pandemic, we had an incredible amount of communication. But the amount of news, inadvertently created fear, as we saw pictures of people falling sick or dying. The government tried to do its best, but there are many problems, mostly related to the vast numbers that we are grappling with. In the pandemic, more people probably died as they have not been able to get hospital beds for heart attacks and secure x-rays because all doctors are busy. 

We are calling this a pandemic as, unfortunately, lakhs of people died. But there are many other virus-based, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, SARS, AIDS, which also cause deaths in large numbers.

The government took the rational policy of not closing down the whole country, bearing in mind the loss of economic output. But in the long-term, we spend far too little money on healthcare. The government has to step in and provide more funding. Instead of buying one more fighter carrier, we can use those funds to probably build 100 hospitals. That fighter carrier drops bombs looking around for an enemy outside our border. But the virus is within our border and needs to be fought fiercely now.  

You are on the board of HADSA-Health Foods and Dietary Supplements Association. Are OTC supplements, especially plant-based supplements, safe?

HADSA is the only recognized association in India with international chapters. They are helping young entrepreneurs come into the industry, setting proper standards, and spread knowledge. There will always be outliers but we have a regulatory apparatus.

Nutraceuticals keep you healthy right through the year and your life, as you consume them on a daily basis. It’s a $400 billion industry across the world and India has only a 2% share right now. India has a huge opportunity, as it has one of the largest bio-diversity ecosystems in the world. The herbs from the Himalayas have been used for thousands of years for curative purposes.