Poor Healthcare Could Stunt India's Growth

25/11/2015 8:56 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
Daniele Carotenuto Photography via Getty Images

I come from a place in India where many people prefer to visit a traditional healer or a god-man when they fall ill. You may argue that people are uneducated or ignorant, but that is only partially correct. The main reason behind is lack of access to affordable and quality healthcare in India. People tend to avoid medical facilities until things get critical, just to save bucks 'wasted' on unreliable treatments. For a major chunk in India, it is almost impossible to afford advanced diagnoses. The rising cost of living, unemployment, the expense of education and the increasing gap between rich and poor are only adding to the problem.

Prime Minister Modi waxes eloquent about a growing India, but with government spending on healthcare being slashed by nearly 20% in the 2015 Budget, the country's health is at risk. This is often explained away as a result of the shifting of the onus of healthcare spending from the Centre to states, but there is no dodging the stark fact that India's health spending in now among the lowest in the world, shrinking to 1.2% of the GDP. This is despite the fact that public spending has increased. Public health is in an appalling state and out-of-pocket spending even by the poor is among the highest in the world, contributing hugely to poverty risks. According to an article in the Lancet, around 15 of the health ministry's national programmes, including mental health, prevention of blindness and elderly care have yet to be allocated "even a single rupee" and have been merged with National Health Mission (NHM). Incidentally, the NHM has also had its funding from the Centre reduced from 75% to 50%.

In India, the infrastructure gap remains substantial, and is exacerbated by the underutilisation of existing resources. According to WHO recommendations there should be at least 3.5 beds for 1000 people, but there are only 1.3 beds in India for a population of that size. Similarly, we have a shortage of doctors too - there is just one doctor per 1700 people. By some estimates, India needs 7 lakh additional doctors by 2015, which is undoubtedly a tall order.

In a country which shoulders 21% of the world's disease burden and unacceptably high rates of maternal and infant mortality (the rates are declining but not enough), the government is just not stepping up to the plate. Merely bragging about growth will not bring actual change to the lives of the majority of Indians, many of whom are living below the poverty line. The government's efforts to encourage sanitation via the Swachh Bharat programme and healthful practices in its promotion of yoga are all appreciable but they fall woefully short of what an ailing India needs.

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