In what appears to be a personal vendetta against All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Director Dr P Venugopal, Union Health Minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss has once again thrown the health facility into turmoil. The bone of contention this time is the AIIMS Amendment Bill 2007, which the minister has pushed through in both Houses of Parliament. The Bill sets the age limit for the director at 65 or limits him to five years in office. When the President clears the bill, the eminent cardio-thoracic surgeon, who will be 66, will lose his post, something the minister has been agitating for. The bill also provides for the removal of future directors of AIIMS with three months notice. Dr Venugopal has already moved the Supreme Court challenging the Bill. The result of this standoff would have been the closure of OPD facilities at the institute and enormous hardship to thousands of patients had Dr Venugopal not appealed to the doctors to refrain from disrupting work.
The Delhi high court has taken a very serious view of the situation and warned doctors that it will not stand by if patients are harassed. The Health Minister, who should be occupied with far more pressing issues relating to the health system, has been obsessed with wresting control of AIIMS. No one can have a grouse with a government facility dictating the retirement age of its director. But after the unseemly wrangle between the director and minister, it is difficult to believe that the amendment was motivated by professional considerations. The fact that there has been little political opposition to the minister’s efforts could lie in the politics behind all this. The minister is the son of S. Ramadoss, the head of the politically powerful Patali Makkal Katchi party in Tamil Nadu, which is wooed by both the major parties in the state, the DMK and the AIADMK. In the era of coalitions, no one, not even at the Centre, can alienate regional satraps like Ramadoss senior.
The minister must realise that after these shenanigans, there will be less incentive for doctors to work in the public health system, even in urban areas. All talk of attracting doctors to work in the rural health system becomes meaningless. We are rightly proud of foreigners flocking to take advantage of Indian health facilities. But when it comes to the health of our own citizens, it would seem that the government’s medicine is just not working. A bitter pill that we are forced to swallow.