Sunday Anchor

The strike that wasn't

Chemists staging a protest in Erode against the online sale of medicines. - Photo: M.Govarthan  

Last week, about 8.5 lakh chemists in India shut down their pharmacies, hoping to nudge the Ministry of Health into acting against online pharmacies. The pharmacists were making a fairly simple argument: as things stand, India did not have a law to regulate online sale of medicines and hence the start-ups need to shut shop.

However, as it now turned out later, the fountainhead of this nationwide strike was a rumour spread by a group of completely ill-informed chemists, frustrated by the Ministry of Health's silence on the subject. Added to this mix was a court case against e-commerce major Snapdeal.com and a possibility of a midweek holiday for chemists. In May this year, Harshdeep Kamble, commissioner of the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) Maharashtra, filed a first information report (FIR) against Snapdeal for selling prescription drugs online. The complainant alleged that the online retailer was in violation of the Drugs and Cosmetics (D and C) Act, 1940, and the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954.

This is accurate. The D and C Act does not permit online sale of medicine. However, it does not allow home delivery of prescription drugs either.

“Yes. Technically, delivering prescription drugs at home is illegal but our issue was not against delivery. Our concern was that when there is no law to regulate this aspect, how can the government allow it and let it thrive,” said Sandeep Nangia, President, Retailers and District Chemists Association.

The All India Organization of Chemists & Druggists (AIOCD), which called for the strike on October 14, had been trying to communicate its concerns to the Ministry of Health for the past six months. “The ministry did not engage with us. Two days before the strike, our members waited outside the Health Minister’s officer to speak with him. He refused to meet us,” Mr. Nangia added.



Decision on hold

Eventually, the night before the nationwide strike, the Health Minister, J.P. Nadda, reached out to AIOCD members. The ministry issued a release that stated that, “the Union Minister [has] clarified that no such decision [allowing sale of medicines through the Internet] has been taken by the Government. He informed them that the views of all the stakeholders will be taken into account as and when the matter is taken up for consideration by the government.”

However, by this time, the events, fanned by an poorly-informed media reporting on the subject, had snowballed into a bigger shape and the Ministry of Health's clarification made no dent. “We had been trying to communicate with them for six months but they did not speak to us. Most of us had made plans for a holiday. The ministry issued his statement too late and we could not call off the strike. So we went ahead with it,” said Mr Nangia over the phone, in a matter-of-fact way.

Meanwhile, G.N. Singh, the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI), had set up a committee, headed by Mr. Kamle — the complainant in the Snapdeal case — to examine the arguments in favour of and against online pharmacies. “So far, we have no intention of allowing online pharmacies. We have set up a committee after the Snapdeal case. All the stakeholders will be consulted before any decision is taken,” said Mr. Singh.

Following the threat by chemists, and the clarification by the Ministry of Health that went unheeded, the opposite camp — that of the e-pharmacies — realised that there is strength in their numbers. And so, the Indian Internet Pharmacy Association (IIPA), which has the mandate to promote the use of e-commerce in pharmacy, was born. On the same day as the strike, the IIPA issued a release stating that they were “bring[ing] together some of the most credible and successful companies from both the pharma and e-commerce industry.” They even linked it to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Digital India’ campaign, with Nishi Gandotra, the treasurer of the newly formed association going on record and saying, “Digital India is the theme that is being championed by the PM himself. E-Health is one of the initiatives within that vision.”

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 12:17:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/health-ministrys-response-to-strikes-on-epharmacies/article7800562.ece

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