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Pills for Death: Orissa Health Administration in question

"Orissa – the poorest state on the eastern coasts of India may not have facilities for standard health care, but many pharmaceutical industries operating in the state are thriving by producing killer drugs...After Gurgaon, Orissa’s Kantabanji in the backward district of Bolangir is the next place where fake and spurious drug manufacturer was spotted."

Basudev Mahapatra & Lakshmi Narayan Mishra : August 10, 2007

Orissa – the poorest state on the eastern coasts of India may not have facilities for standard health care, but many pharmaceutical industries operating in the state are thriving by producing killer drugs. As revealed on July 20, a drugs manufacturing unit was in Orissa's Bolangir district was into large scale production of spurious medicines wherefrom fake drugs worth over Rs.20 million were seized by the police.

Six people are arrested by the police for their alleged involvement in fake drug manufacturing and supply. After Gurgaon near Delhi, Orissa’s Kantabanji in the backward district of Bolangir is the next place where fake and spurious drug manufacturer was spotted. Owner of the Drugs Manufacturing unit that was into fake drugs production Sankarlal Agarwal of Kantabanji town, 400 KM from Bhubaneswar, admitted before the investigating team that fake medicines are also supplied to the neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, apart from most places in Orissa. Spurious medicines manufactured by Agarwal included paracetamol, a common anti-fever and pain-killer drug, investigating sources said. But Brajesh, the son of Sankarlal, denied the charge and said drugs were not fake and the issue was only hyped by media with false information. Brajesh is also arrested by police as a member of the racket.

As a measure to get a quick escape from the controversy and save its face, Bolangir drugs inspector T.V. Rao was suspended for his alleged role in the circulation of fake medicines. Health Department put the responsibility of checking spurious drugs manufacturing completely put on T. V. Rao explaining that the region was under Rao's jurisdiction and he was supposed to check the illegal drugs activities.

Pressured with two major revelations like fake drugs and female foeticide that have raised many questions on the health care system in the state, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik immediately ordered a Crime Branch probe into the spurious drug manufacturing and retailing racket operating across the state. Meanwhile, police have conducted raids and sealed several medicine shops and arrested three medicine dealers for their involvement in fake drug distribution.

But was the CM unaware of such illegal operations in a backward district of Orissa? Naveen would have come up with a plea to keep him safe but the innocent statement of Cabinet Health Minister Duryodhan Majhi regarding his cautionary letter to CM much before the revelation closed all the doors to escape and Naveen admitted that he received two letters from Health Ministry.

With action initiated by the government, drug stockists and retailers in many places started dumping spurious stocks. Then only the wide network of the fake drug racket came to public and drug inspectors were instructed to investigate and report to the Government on the sale of spurious drugs and send samples of the fake medicines for lab test.

All these actions couldn’t satisfy people to abstain them from coming up with more serious allegations regarding the active involvement of government officials in this illegal operation that would have taken many lives. South Orissa Pharmacists’ Association (SOPA) found the connivance between fake drug manufacturers, drugs controller’s office and drugs retailers as the main reason behind trading of fake drugs in the State.

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As per the statements made by SOPA office bearers, ‘Members of the association came out with ample proof regarding sale of fake drugs at medical shops in south Orissa few months back which was dealt vindictively by the Utkal Chemists and Druggists Association (UCDA) as well as Ganjam - Phulbani Chemists and Druggists Association (GPCDA). UCDA and GPCDA termed these allegations false and three members of GPCDA were suspended as they were also members of SOPA.

Asked about the involvement of Government officials in the recently revealed spurious drug operations, the Health Secretary said in a tactical reply that officials are not free from suspicion on their connivance when fake medicines of such huge quantity are detected.

In order to check the fake medicine menace, the State government has announced that separate task forces would be created at the district level and a four-member monitoring committee headed by the Chief Secretary would be formed to oversee the functioning of the task forces. After all these actions, the major problems are still to be cited and addressed.

In Orissa, most of the medicine stores are run by people with no pharmacy education although it is mandatory to get a license for running medicine store. About 22,238 licenses to sell medicine in the state are issued by the department. Of the total licenses, 7,150 are for medicine wholesaling and 14,051 for retail medicine shops. Are all the stockists and retailers the same in whose name licenses are issued? Has the department ever tried to examine this and stop the medicine shops run by ineligible persons? Once an investigation is pursued in this regard, many pharmacists working in the government would be in trouble as most of them would have allowed the retailers or stockists to use their name for obtaining license.

In fact, it has become a business for the Pharmacists and there would be many pharmacists allowing their name cited for more than one license. Demand of such pharmacists is much more in the state as about 500 new medicine shops open in Orissa every year. It seems, everybody in the government know the fact but never act till it comes to the notice of media or public.

Office of the State Drugs Controller never takes it as callousness or deliberate negligence, but it shows insufficient manpower in the department as the reason behind its inactiveness in checking such malpractices. As per State Drugs Controller J. P. Mishra, "Orissa has 30 districts and nine of them do not have drugs inspectors. We have a requirement of at least 100 additional drugs inspectors for regular inspection of chemist shops”.

Again, the action by police and health department to curb the issue by arresting people who are involved in the racket started like a whirlwind and in only fifteen days of spotting the fake drugs manufacturing unit, it seems, the seriousness has faded to a great extent. Even new statements have started coming in to prove the previous findings insufficient and be rescanned.

Everybody comes up with their reasons and pleas to justify any kind of negligence that has come to light. But these pleas can’t bring down the gravity of the fact that manufacturing fake drugs is just to play with public life and the case is as serious as murder that too attempting to kill people in numbers. Even, many people would have faced such dire consequences by using the fake pills flooded across the state.

Unfortunately the government records do not corroborate the fact or have any clue about the impact of these fake medicines on general public. While putting the demand to charge and trial everyone involved in the fake drug racket with murder case, the revelation of the fact about fake drug production and supply in the state has made people afraid of consuming any kind of pill – be it common or life saving. Series of incidents linked with public life has put question marks on the efficiency of state health administration and social responsibility of its officials.



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