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Speaking on Bharat24’s platform during the ‘Swasthya Bharat Samman’ held on September 25, Union Health Secretary and Rajasthan cadre IAS Sudhansh Pant, in conversation with Poornima Mishra, reveals how the Union Government is bringing about a monumental shift in the health sector, how it aids State Governments in providing health services in remote areas, the ways PMJAY is working as harbinger of better health for poor families and PM Modi has provided Rs 65,000 cr for creation of health infrastructure and the manner in which preventive healthcare will be the norm, moving away from curative healthcare in times ahead. Excerpts....
- When you were given this current responsibility in the Centre, a news was carried in regional media that stressed on dominance of Rajasthan cadre IAS in Centre. What is this impact and how have you carried forward the health-related schemes of the Union Government?
Sudhansh Pant: I would not say there is a dominance aspect per say, rather it is an opportunity for us. The area of operation or the canvas of Health Ministry is vast, so the government gave an opportunity to work here which is a huge opportunity. Although I have not completed two months in the Ministry, but from September 17, we have initiated a major campaign of Ayushman Bharat, which has four or five different pillars because the real health requirements are in rural areas, at primary and secondary levels. Now, our focus is how to have saturation of health services. There are more than one and a half lakh health and wellness centres which are our primary units, so there we are organising ‘Ayushman Mela’ and at Community Health Centres (CHCs) too. Apart from that, world’s biggest health assurance scheme - Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY) under which poor families are provided free treatment up to Rs 5 lakh in empanelled hospitals. That scheme is provided through Ayushman cards which are being made through the Ayushman Bhava Scheme. In panchayats or wards where all Ayushman cards have been made, are being christened with the name of Ayushman Panchayat or Ayushman Ward. The Ayushman Bhava campaign will continue till December 31. The scope of improvement of health services is unlimited and our efforts have always been that all services from top to bottom, every medical institution should be strengthened further so that the best of services are made available to the citizens of the nation.
- Do you think there is still a vast need of awareness in the health sector. There are several schemes about which not many people know. What is being done regarding awareness? Secondly, the remote areas like in the mountains, several difficulties are seen in providing medical aid etc.
It is a major challenge to provide health services in remote areas. But the government has taken several steps to fulfil that lack. We say that 108 ambulance should reach any place within 30 minutes, but in remote areas like hills, deserts that service faces problems. Since health is a state subject and we do not directly handle health rather support the State Governments, so in far-flung areas, states are provided two or three time more ambulances and other equipment as compared to normal areas. In addition, we have observed that in remote areas, doctors and medical professionals do not stay for long. Our flagship scheme, ‘National Health Mission,’ gives such flexibility that in remote areas, government doctors are appointed on Rs 3-4 lakh salary per month, if need be. For example, a remote area of Uttarakhand, known as Dharchula, is right on Nepal border, you just cross a bridge and enter Nepal, there the Uttarakhand government has appointed four specialists and for several months now they are serving because they are getting Rs 4 lakh per month as salary. Similarly, the number of Asha voluntary workers, along with their incentives have been increased there. There are so many schemes for almost every disease and ailment, so work to create awareness is being done and we are currently working on a consolidated, comprehensive media strategy and soon the impact will be seen.
- Have you ever seen a difference in approach of State and Central Governments, since you have worked with both. Does the approach of Central Government appear to be visionary?
See, I have felt that health has always been a priority sector for the government. Central Government has always given immense priority to health and its budget for health have always been huge. The budget of only one scheme, the National Health Mission, is about Rs 30,000 crore for a year. Post covid, I can say that State Governments have kept health on priority and at their own level, they are doing what can be done. The Government of India, post Covid, launched a major scheme for infrastructure creation and kept aside Rs 65,000 crore only for infra creation under Pradhan Mantri Ayushman Bharat Health Infrastructure Mission, which will create infra like laboratories, critical car units, public-health units, right from block level right till district level and medical college level. So, health sector is a major priority for Central as well as most of the State Governments.
- During Covid, India established a benchmark, be it in its treatment, awareness or work related to vaccine. As Union Health Secretary, how far do you want to take this benchmark?
You termed it right that the leadership which our nation received that of PM Narendra Modi, during Covid, was unparalleled across the world. The world has acknowledged how we as a nation, under PM’s leadership, fought Covid whereas the situation was extremely challenging for us. There were several gaps in health infrastructure, and health professionals as well, but the manner in which the nation came together and the strong leadership that the nation saw, now in every forum or platform be it UN or G20, India’s Covid management is immensely lauded. So, the manner in which Covid management was done, entire government machinery was working on it and everyone considered it their own responsibility be it Health Ministry or Home Ministry. The leadership was so strong and effective that decisions were easily taken even on the most difficult issues. During Covid times, exported medicines, PPE kits, masks, ventilator kits and other items to 150 nations. The vaccine that was made in India was exported to almost all nations. So, India not only ensured top class management of its own nation, but also supported the world during pandemic. Earlier, India was not considered in top nations for health services on global scale, but now, we stand in the top tier globally. We observe on forums like WHO that India’s concerns and voice, is now being given much importance as compared to earlier.
- Moving ahead, if we look at 2047 or 2050, do you think India will have to focus on particular sectors, owing to changing lifestyle? For that matter, if we talk about budget in health sector as compared to GDP, do you think we will have to increase that?
The ‘Amrit Kaal’ that is going on currently, will go on for the next 25 years. The guidance that we receive from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to that our emphasis, has to be preventive health care since for years, we have been focused on curative health care. It is time to pay attention to life style changes, diet and fitness primarily. So, the biggest shift that is being seen is that we are moving from curative to preventive and to support this, the government has not kept any shortfall in budget. Health and Wellness Centres, which are established in every village, there too Yoga is carried out twice a week. Thus, preventive health care activities have started. As far as budget is concerned, the world believes that two and a half percent of GDP, of developed countries, goes in healthcare. India is a little behind on that aspect and it is approximately around two percent, but the manner in which budget is being given for such activities, very soon we will cross that two and a half percent mark.