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Public Health

Post Covid19 will healthcare become a poll issue in India?

Recently, Dr Devi Shetty, the founder of Narayana Hrudayalaya, authored an article in the Times of India Sunday Edition where he said that healthcare will become a poll issue in the future. Given the historically low percentage of budget allocated to public health in India, can Covid19 realistically push the government to prioritise this area?

An analysis[1] of select 2014 election manifestos indicates that we may be woefully behind on the path to a more comprehensive health plan for citizens.

  • India spends about 1.2% of its GDP on health services and in 2018 this number went up to 1.4%. However, this is still significantly lower than the time and efforts allocated to areas like physical infrastructure development and jobs.
  • Women Led parties had more space dedicated to healthcare in their election manifestos (AIADMK – 6% and TMC – 5%). AAP follows closely with 4%, whereas national parties BJP and Indian National Congress (INC) dedicated around 2.3% and 2.1%, respectively. Interestingly, the AIADMK appears to have been implemented given that Tamilnadu leads on several health parameters, the TMC in West Bengal needs a stronger implementation policy to suitably action on its promise.
  • Most parties tend to pay little attention to preventive health. There is almost no mention of areas like nutrition in election manifestos and while the BJP manifesto does talk about Swachh Bharat, there is no mention of ways to tie that back to measuring health outcomes. The INC manifesto talks about malnutrition and mentions Anaemia and HIV but does not spell out anything concrete in terms of action plans to prevent or tackle the disease.
  • All election manifestos considered for analysis missed addressing non-communicable diseases and the measures to tackle them. Given the high incidence of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension in India, this is a glaring miss.
  • Most of the focus on health in manifestos is on building hospitals – more beds and more clinics and so on. But there is no focus on the quality of care provided at these centres or the variety of ailments they can treat. One cannot provide hospitalisation and expect improvement in the state of health without tackling the underlying social and sanitation causes for the ailments.
  • Strangely, while the focus remains on building new facilities, there is no mention of improving existing primary health centres and community health centres that have suffered from decades of neglect. Even in Ayushman Bharat these have not been addressed. While the insurance part of Ayushman Bharat is doing well, the wellness program can be significantly improved.
  • There is no mention of disease surveillance in any manifesto. This is surprising considering most developing countries in the world have some semblance of proactive disease surveillance to curb the spread of disease and manage its citizens’ health.

In summary, even if all that has been promised in the election manifesto is delivered, it would not even make a dent in the state of health in the country.

Why is this so?

Historically India missed the boat in prioritising healthcare reforms recommended by the Bhore committee in 1946 (See box in the next page), particularly the delivery of health at the grass root levels through primary health centres (PHCs).

Further, religious beliefs that tie poor health to karma and a generally fatalistic outlook have ensured hospitals and external care providers are seen as the last resort for patients. Preventive healthcare was largely provided at home. In line with this, the government has not undertaken research connecting the health of its citizens to their productivity. For instance, a study in the UK found that those who smoked were twice as likely to take time off work. Another study found that workers with obesity (BMI over 30) annually took an average of three sick days more than those with normal weight (BMI less than 25), and those with severe obesity (BMI over 35) took six days more. In India, a large population and limited availability of jobs means employment remains a bigger issue than health for the government.

The relatively affordable cost of healthcare so far has also meant citizens have remained negligent about lifestyle diseases. Until recently health insurance wasn’t understood and perhaps without the tax exemption many citizens may not opt for it.

Until the time healthcare is viewed as a discretionary spend, political parties may see no value in contesting elections on the plank of better healthcare for citizens. Citizens themselves need to demand for better health from its government for parties to take the issue seriously. A possible reason why some of the Southern states have overall better health indicators is the relatively high proportion of senior citizen population that resides alone, without support from younger people who tend to live outside the state/ country. This changing demographic of voters may have prompted political parties in the region to place greater emphasis on public health and deliver results.

In addition states like Karnataka and Kerala have prospered from the investments from the princely states. Tamilnadu alone benefitted by keeping public health distinct from Health Services, this is one of the few states that implemented this recommendation from the Bhore Committee recommendations.  

The article is based on the research report “Healthcare and Democracy: Can healthcare become a poll issue in India”.


[1] About the analysis –

  • The following part manifestos were considered for the analysis – Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), Indian National Congress (INC), All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The rationale was to consider national level parties and those led by women, as it is widely acknowledged that women tend to prioritise health. (We wanted to include the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) but we couldn’t find the manifesto in the public domain). AAP was considered in the analysis as it was a recently formed political party that emerged from a citizen movement demanding a corruption free India. All manifestos from 2014 were considered for the analysis.
  • The following parties have not been considered as their manifestos were unclear on the healthcare aspect – JDS Karnataka, Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akai Dal, and Biju Janata Dal. The communist parties are also missing from our analysis. We are planning a follow up report on the analysis of the 2019 manifestos and we plan to include more parties there.

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