In a recent report, the Times of India examined 24 recurring topics from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches in March. Out of 24 topics, defence was the most mentioned. Health was down at the 21st place.
But a large survey of what voters want, carried out by the Association for Democratic Reforms, showed that health centres and hospitals were the second most important issue, after jobs. Access to drinking water, which directly impacts sanitation and health, was the third most important issue for voters.
There seems to be a surprising disconnect between what voters may want and what the BJP is keen to promise.
It has not always been this way. Over the last five years, healthcare has featured prominently in the BJP’s policy and legislation. In fact, it has said and done much less about the other social sector heavyweight, education.
However, some of the party’s most widely-marketed schemes were not cast as healthcare programmes, when they in fact were. The Swachh Bharat Mission, the Ujjwala scheme and the Jan Aushadhi scheme, for example, all attend to healthcare needs but were not funded by or run by the health ministry.
All these schemes were started by the previous Congress government, but boosted by the BJP.
“While health was largely neglected in the current government’s initial years, it has since been able to consolidate gains from the previous government’s work and make a creditable future plan,” says Oommen Kurian, head of the health initiative at Observer Research Foundation.
He called the NDA’s performance on healthcare over the past five years a “UPA-3 Act”. He added that their promises in the 2019 manifesto sound a lot like “UPA-4”.
He’s not wrong. The budget speeches in 2014, 2015 and 2016 reveal that the Modi government was largely silent on any substantial new measures on healthcare.
In the 2017 budget, the Centre announced that India would eliminate kala-azar and filariasis in the same year and leprosy by 2018. (These targets were not met.) The government also announced that measles would be eliminated by 2020 and TB by 2025. It introduced a health insurance cover of Rs 1 lakh for families. (This never took off.)
The 2018 budget then announced Ayushman Bharat, the two-pronged government scheme to extend health insurance and uplift sub-centres and primary health centres. The 2019 budget flushed Ayushman Bharat with Rs 6,400 crore.
But India’s healthcare story is not just about budgets and schemes. It is also about persistent injustice to people who are unable to access their right to healthcare. – The Wire