In nearly four years of the Narendra Modi government, the Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, led by Ananth Kumar, claims to have contributed significantly to meet the three objectives closest to the PM’s heart — improving farm incomes, universal healthcare, and imparting skill development and creating jobs. Of the three, Kumar has worked assiduously to expand the interestingly-named Prime Minister Bhartiya Jan Aushadhi Yojana (PMBJP). It involves a painful memory from Kumar’s life, which he says motivates him, but also moves him to tears as he reminisces about it. The scheme was started by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2011, and involved opening drug stores to sell generic medicines below the market price. By 2014, 99 such stores were opened, and these sold nearly 400 generic drugs. “I took it up as a mission to expand the network,” the 58-year-old minister says. Kumar’s father was a second-division clerk in Indian Railways, and the minister grew up in the railway workers’ colony in Hubli, Karnataka. “My father was the sole breadwinner, and while I was still young, my mother was diagnosed with cancer,” the minister says. The doctor prescribed her two tablets daily of Nolvadex. Each tablet was priced at Rs 20 then, Kumar says. “My father earned Rs 1,200 a month. A month’s dose of the medicine also cost nearly that. The choice with my father was whether to give my mother two tablets a day, which would leave little money for the family to buy food, or one tablet,” the minister says. Kumar was on the verge of tears as he recalled the episode. Kumar’s father did what he thought was best for the family, which meant only one tablet a day for his wife. “The memory of how my mother suffered because the medicine was expensive motivated me to expand the PMBJP network,” Kumar says. The minister and his wife run Adamya Chetana, projects to provide mid-day meals to schoolchildren and the poor under the auspices of Girija Shastry Memorial Trust, set up in memory of his mother. The minister says he implemented the scheme, as he phrases it, “at the rate of Modi Speed”. Now, there are 3,177 Jan Aushadhi Kendras across the country, selling 600 generic medicines and 150 supplements at prices less than their market price. Kumar hopes the ministry will be able to open such a drug store in each block of the country by next year, which will by then sell over 1,000 drugs. The minister, who is a six-time Lok Sabha member from Bengaluru South constituency, undefeated since 1996, believes the Modi government’s health assurance scheme, NaMocare, will bring about a paradigm shift in the health sector, doubling the turnover of the pharmaceutical industry to Rs 4 trillion from Rs 2 trillion. India exports nearly Rs 1 trillion worth of medicines every year, and the rest is consumed domestically. The minister says a survey his ministry recently conducted revealed that 60 per cent of India’s population consumed less than 30 per cent of medicines. “NaMocare will make health care affordable for the poor, which will be a big growth opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry. Also, nursing staff and trained technicians will be needed.
Thus, job opportunities will be generated,” Kumar says. It was during Kumar’s stint that the Modi government capped prices of stents and knee implants.