Ineffectual grandstanding

Ineffectual grandstanding

The Economic Times, Jan 19, 2004

Our government wants to hang rapists and manufacturers and dealers of fake allopathic medicine. Women's organisations prevented it for rape as hanging might encourage rapists to kill their victims to make sure they don't identify the rapist. Policemen have been proven in some cases to be rapists. Any woman especially is fair target. A Swiss diplomat was raped in one of the best-guarded locations in Delhi but the perpetrators have escaped. Even members of the elite President's guards were involved in similar episodes.

When the criminals might be the 'protectors' how much justice can we expect? The unravelling stamps scandal shows how criminals function for long with police collusion. Hanging fake drug makers and sellers requires an efficient, fast and truthful investigation system. We do not have one.

India is said to be the largest manufacturer of fake allopathic medicines in the world. There is also considerable manufacture of sub-standard drugs. Even less regulated is the manufacture of Ayurvedic and other indigenous medicines some of which add powerful allopathic drugs to beef up effectiveness. Fake or sub-standard drugs do not cure patients and could even make them worse or kill them. If we are to become a key global player in pharmaceuticals, we must stop the manufacture of such drugs. Hanging makers and dealers will not do it.

Most of the over 20,000 drug makers in India are small, with little capital, poor technology and skills. Some are contract manufacturers for large firms who hopefully inspect and monitor them to ensure quality. Many are violators of trademarks who copy a drug and use the name of a well-known manufacturer. Others produce medicines that look externally okay but are ineffective for the illness they are to treat.

There is no certain data on how many retailers stock and sell medicines. But we know that they are concentrated in urban areas. According to surveys the rural consumer prefers unqualified local practitioners to government primary health centres. These quacks usually supply the medicines. He saves money by buying the cheap drugs, usually fake or sub-standard.

Drug control authorities in the states are expected to regulate medicinal drug manufacturers and retailers. Even Delhi (according to the Centre for Civil Society) has only 29 drug inspectors to monitor over 5,000 licensed retailers plus many manufacturers and sellers of fake drugs. This dearth of qualified drug inspectors is making drugs regulation in India practically non-existent. Factories are rarely inspected; many escape by paying bribes; their quality standards, production practices, hygiene, etc., are not subject to regular outside monitoring. Retailers stock and sell drugs without real (versus false) regulation. Sales registers are often manipulated. If quality medicines are made and supplied it is less due to regulation and more to conscience and desire for market reputation of manufacturers and trade.

Even if drug inspectors were capable, there are too few for the size of the task. They are underpaid. Most factories and retailers are rarely inspected. Many have good political and administrative connections and buy their way out. Deliberately faulty FIRs filed by the police often have led ultimately to acquittal of criminals.

It requires long periods of close and confidential co-operation between the company investigator, police, prosecutors and good laboratories to catch a fake drug manufacturer. These have seldom been possible. Government prosecutors help drag cases for years and so 'cooperate' with the defence. Sometimes they are bribed to do so. The judicial process itself is many times neither fast nor objective.

Our drug regulatory system is good only on paper. It is grossly understaffed, underpaid, under-equipped and under-skilled. The lawbreakers are extremely well financed and use their tax-free criminal earnings to buy co-operation. Our governance system is easily manipulated. Trials are slow, laboratories are slow and sloppy, evidence is lost, police officials change, witnesses are easily 'persuaded' to change their stories and prosecutors help the prosecuted.

Without reforming this weak and compromised system, how will we prosecute the criminals? The law must have strong penalties, criminals must be denied the use of illegally obtained wealth to engage the best lawyers and special courts must speed the process. Today the system helps the criminal.

A death penalty is only ineffectual grandstanding. The courts will use it "in the rarest of rare cases". The death penalty is a gimmick to cover the incompetence of an administration that is unwilling to reform the system.