India is a land of committees and, despite being one of the most widely ridiculed concepts in bureaucracy, various governments are simply in love with committees that they employ for virtually all purposes under the sun — to probe irregularities and mishaps, advise on strategy, construct a building or bridge, dig tanks, pull down structures — and even coursecorrection on earlier decisions.
Despite its all-embracing reach, the annals of committees in West Bengal did not quite have a parallel of what the West Bengal health department set up on Tuesday. It drafted a four-member committee to advise it on how to clear the Augean stables in state-run drug stores that have never been cleaned up.
“We want quick disposal of the huge stockpiles of expired medicines. Once they’re cleared, we can utilize the space for storing new ones. In many stores, expired drugs are pushing out new supplies,” state health secretary Moloy De said.
“Many drugs date back to the British era. The piles of expired drugs reach from the floor to the ceiling,” Subir Chatterjee, special secretary, Health, told HT.
“We’ve asked the committee to prepare the guidelines within a month. There’s no structured policy on how to dispose of old and expired medicines in Bengal,” Chatterjee added.
There are about 50 medical stores in government medical colleges and hospitals.
Disposal of waste is often a critical problem for many countries. For many western industrialized nations, disposing nuclear waste is a serious problem. On Wednesday, Bengal’s bureaucrats sounded almost equally sombre.
To begin with, the quantity of drugs that have piled up over the decades is enormous — health department officials guessed it at several hundred tons. Moreover, there may be toxic compounds in the piles since numerous chemicals have been lying around for decades. “If we dump it at some land site, it may poison the ground, or even ground water, in the area,” one bureaucrat said.
“These chemicals or drugs can’t be burnt since they may cause extensive air pollution, besides releasing toxic fumes. We have to explore all the possible hazardous effects before we dispose of them,” Chatterjee said.
The four officers who will be wielding the broom are the director, West Bengal directorate of drug control, deputy director, health services (Central Medical Stores), additional director, health services, and deputy director, health services (Administration).
“We have had expired drugs and chemicals piling up in our store since 1950. In the absence of any guidelines, we can’t burn them, nor dump them. We’ll wait for the committee’s recommendations,” said professor Pradip Kumar Mitra, director-cum-principal, SSKM Medical College and Hospital.
It is often jokingly said that, if you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it. Will this committee, too, meet the same end? “I shudder to think of that possibility,” chuckled a principal.