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Fake drugs a real problem in city, India

delhi Updated: May 01, 2007 01:19 IST
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The First occupant of Bhagirath Palace, built in the 1820s in what was then central Delhi, was Begum Sombre, a mercenary queen. “Sumroo”, as her name got corrupted locally, lent her forces to the last feeble Mughal emperors to help drive away invaders and quell minor rebellions.

Nearly two centuries later, today’s crowded Bhagirath Palace in Chandni Chowk, a bustling locality in Old Delhi, still has its soldiers of fortune. Mercenaries who make and sell fake drugs, copies of the most complex medicines, for any distributor and retailer who wants to make a quick buck or exporters who sell them to unsuspecting health administrators in Sub-Saharan Africa, who receive some of the millions in aid money that is trying to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis.

Nobody is sure of the extent of India’s fake-drugs industry, but what is for sure is that the country neither has the enforcement resources nor, it increasingly appears, the political or corporate will to stop such practices.

India has only about 1,200 drug inspectors to monitor drug-manufacturing firms that, depending on who you ask, number anywhere between 6,000 and 15,000. Just miles from Bhagirath Palace, already watered-down federal legislation that seeks to impose fines and prison terms for those who make and sell counterfeit drugs is gathering dust in Parliament since May 2005.

India’s drug giants — often cited as global success story in making cheap drugs — as well as their foreign rivals do not want to talk openly about the fake-drugs problem for fear that their own brands get bad publicity. They point the finger at the government, which in turn, points the finger straight back at the drug industry.

Health Minister A. Ramadoss and other ministry officials did not respond to several attempts by Mint to discuss the fake-drugs situation or the reasons why legislation is not moving forward.

A 2004 survey by the Delhi Medical Association found just four of 53 drugs it sampled from Bhagirath Palace, perhaps the biggest medicines bazaar in the India, to be genuine. That is not to say everything at this market is fake. Bhagirath Palace is actually home to hundreds of wholesalers who sell medicines to retailers from most of north India and some states in the Northeast. But allegations of counterfeit medicines being supplied through this bazaar have been levelled by many a pharmaceuticals company for years, though action against suspected traders seems spotty.

It is not easy to get one’s arms around the extent of counterfeit drugs in the country. One government study suggested counterfeit drugs were just 0.5 per cent of the industry while a study by Assocham, the body that represents chambers of commerce in India, recently put it at a high 30 per cent of all drugs sold in India, or about Rs 10,200 crore out of an industry that sells Rs 34,000 crore each year. Harinder Sikka, whose public-interest petition against the government is partly about this issue and which was admitted by the Delhi High Court, puts the market for spurious drugs at Rs 4,000 crore.

With India’s growing reputation — much of it genuinely attained — of being a low-cost drug manufacturer, India’s fakes are also having global ripples. The Narcotics Control Bureau in Delhi is concerned that drugs sold online from India to the US customers, for instance, may be spurious. While there is no evidence that any of these world bodies are concerned about such drug supplies, there have been instances where fake drugs from India have made their way to as far as Africa.

The regulatory agency, the Office of Drug Controller General of India, admits it is ill-equipped to handle the extent of vigilance required to comb a vast country with just 35 drug inspectors at the central level and 1,100 in the states. The All India Drugs Control Officers’ Confederation, a representative body of drug inspectors, estimates that India needs at least 4,500 additional drug inspectors to monitor 15,000 drug-manufacturing units and over five lakh retail outlets.

Legislation on fake drugs, meanwhile, appears stuck in Parliament for nearly two years.

Sushma Swaraj, the former health minister who helped draft the counterfeit amendment to the Drugs & Cosmetics Act, is furious that the current government has watered down the death punishment to life imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10 lakh or three times of the value of goods confiscated, whichever is greater. “This is mass murder and done for the most guileful reason (of profit),” she says.

“I had wanted the extreme punishment of a death sentence for the offender. The new minister (Ramadoss) is still sitting on the bill.”

While Ramadoss did not respond, Gurdial Singh Sandhu, joint secretary (pharmaceuticals) in the department of chemicals and petrochemicals, said Parliament might take up the amendment bill in “the coming sessions”.