Policy Watch: Does anyone even know how many deaths take place in India?

When it comes to doctors, the government has done precious little to increase the number of seats in medical colleges. More private medical colleges were permitted, and many of them appear to have been mor interested in making a quick buck. Government hospitals – which are overcrowded with patients would have been ideal places to have more medical education seats. But successive governments have slept over this crying need.

Two years ago, the government appeared more keen to upgrade ayurveds, homeopaths and unanis as qualified allopaths if they appeared for a short bridge course, than in increasing medical seats. Shocking, indeed! If a bridge course would suffice, why not have a bridge course to upgrade government clerks to IAS officers? Or courtroom boys to judges? It is highly dangerous to interfere with the sanctity of any professional certification programme. Fortunately, doctors challenged this move and the matter is still pending before the courts.

Now that a pandemic has started killing people, policy makers are bemoaning the shortage of doctors. Suddenly, it is becoming clear that India spends too little on health services. At the same time, there are fears that the right numbers of the dead are not being captured yet.

The government website provides no additional details. Public access to such national reports post-2014 is just not there (though reports on some states are available).

This raises an even more serious issue. Bureaucrats will always provide a hundred reasons why information of this type is not for public consumption. But if policymakers are to be informed, there is nothing better than crowdsourcing opinions and analyses. That was the reason why the Right to Information (RTI) Act was introduced.

By preventing public access to information, policymakers allow themselves to be misled by wily bureaucrats till situations become explosive or cancerous. The best disinfectant still remains sunshine. India’s policymakers should make such reports publicly accessible as was the case before, because only then they can get additional inputs beyond what bureaucrats will reveal.

Caveat: It is possible that the percentage of medically certified deaths has increased since 2014. But it is improbable — because the paucity of doctors is acute. Moreover, had the situation improved, the government would have advertised this. Good governance should find such apathy – even deception — deplorable.

For now, nobody knows what the correct situation is. And that adds to the already high anxiety levels.

The author is consulting editor with FPJ

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