By Neer Varshney

Edited by Nandini Bhatia

Surfing through the pages of the leading newspapers of the country, one may find a plethora of news about Deepika’s cleavage show, SRK’s six-pack abs, the whopping packages IITians are securing, politics, and religious conversions but one topic that does not seem to be getting enough attention is healthcare.

While searching through various newspapers for articles relating to healthcare on a particular day, I found that only two newspapers out of the eight I checked had one each on their front page. This left me a little bewildered, especially when I saw what other news they had chosen for their front page.

‘Education and healthcare’ is the answer to what is the backbone of any economy; but it is also an answer to what apparently least interests the Indian government.

As per the World Bank’s data, India spent 4% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on healthcare in 2012, which is embarrassingly low, not only when you compare it to developed countries like US which spent 17.9% of its GDP on healthcare, but also other developing countries like Afghanistan (8.6%), Nepal (5.5%) and Maldives (8.5%).

As per current estimates, India is spending about 6% of its GDP on healthcare, which is still very low, given that India’s massive healthcare problems account for 21% of the world’s disease burden.

At present, the Central and state governments together spend about 0.1% of the GDP on health medicines. That is overwhelmingly low! Not just that, we also lack on the health infrastructure front. The situation in the government health facilities is pathetic, and private facilities are too expensive for the large economically weak population of India.

We are also terribly understaffed considering India has only 1 doctor per 1800 people, which is again too low compared to the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 1 doctor per 600 people.

In the 1960s, countries like Brazil, South Korea, and Thailand, were all doing worse than India when it came to healthcare. By now, they have all moved far ahead of us in providing better healthcare to their citizen. The IMR (Infant Mortality Rate) has significantly reduced in these nations, and the doctor to population ratio has increased as well, among other achievements.

India has still managed to improve its healthcare standards quite substantially since independence, but the private sector and NGOs have played a very important role in this improvement, with the elected governments being the underachievers. The really troubling thought about this is that despite the poor performance of India in healthcare, it is still not a priority for the government. Although the Bharatiya Janta Party’s (BJP) manifesto promised universal healthcare, it is still unclear what they are doing to achieve significant results, if anything at all.

 Healthcare is no more a regional issue either; with the rapid globalization even the healthcare sector has been liberalized and international agencies are playing a vital role in combating diseases worldwide. In the 1990s, it was mainly the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organization (WHO) which were playing the major role in improving healthcare, but today there is plurality in the sector, as along with them governments, NGOs, private sector, academicians, and even students are all participating.

As a result, on an average global health may have improved, but this growth has not been uniform and differences in healthcare standards can easily be observed not only between different nations, but within a country as well.

South Asia has become a focus for the world, because of the promise of development the countries of the region show. It also shows greater risks for diseases, due to the rapid migration that is happening, not just urbanization, but people are migrating across the borders to developed countries too, in search of better life. Such migration also piques the risk of migration of diseases.

As a country, while we have been successful in eradicating small pox, polio, etc. but our agenda is still unfinished as other infectious diseases like AIDS, TB, malaria, malnutrition etc. along with many chronic diseases still survive.

The problems that the Indian healthcare system faces are too many, and no major improvement in the healthcare sector seems possible without proper steps taken by the government.  It is important that our policy makers learn from the examples of countries like Brazil who have taken perfect care of the health of their citizen, even if not so while ago they were no better than us at this front.

It is also important that healthcare along with education for all becomes the most important issue for all Indians so that an overall human development can take place in India with participation from all sections of the society, and not a crooked model of development, where only rich get richer and poor get poorer.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind