Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, 61, rode shotgun to the helm of a ministry then perceived to be facing its biggest public health challenge: controlling H1N1, a new influenza pandemic that had infected and killed thousands across the world.
Over the next few months, the flu caused more panic than infections, even as the Centre swung into action, setting up screening centres at airports and gave its nod to public and private testing and treatment centres.
But most people thought the health ministry did not move fast enough on H1N1 and other issues that matter, which led to it being voted the worst performing ministry, bagging 15.3 per cent of the total votes. It was voted sixth of nine best-performing ministries.
As many as 36.3 per cent people polled thought the ministry was “unimaginative and slow” in tackling H1N1, 19.7 per cent thought it was inconsistent in its response, while another 22.3 per cent said a bolder approach had been needed.
Only 21.7 per cent people polled — roughly one in five — thought its efforts had been effective and speedy.
If the Union health ministry failed its first big public heath challenge in public perception, it fared as badly on the roll-out of the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), the UPA’s flagship programme to revitalise primary and secondary healthcare in rural India.
More than one in three people — 37.6 per cent — said that it had failed to improve the crumbling health infrastructure.
As many as 12.1 per cent wanted setting up of “AIIMS-like” hospitals speeded up, on which work finally started after Azad took over in 2009-10, which had been the deadline for the completion of the work. While 26.3 said people said Azad appears firmly incharge and another 21.8 per cent said he is in the loop on issues, the majority — 30.1 per cent — though he needed to be more imaginative.
“There are no two opinions about UPA-II performance on health being better than UPA-I. Anbumani Ramadoss’s performance was dismal compared to Azad. The all-party Parliamentary committee was always at loggerheads with Ramadoss,” said Amar Singh, former chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare.
“Azad is hardworking and well-meaning, but his hands are tied because the health budget is very low. Though Central and state expenditure on health has increased, it has still not reached 2-3 per cent of the GDP as promised,” said Singh.
According to the Economic Survey 2010, the public spending on health was 1.45 per cent in 2009-10, as compared to 1.19 per cent in 2004-05. Manpower shortage remains the biggest hurdle, said Azad.
“There are no easy solutions. In some parts of the country, vacancies continue to be as high as 75 per cent, with states not being able to appoint a second nurse in the sub-centres ... In fact, some states are still struggling to appoint the first,” admitted Azad.