Wednesday, the twenty-seventh of January, began like every other day at the National Health Authority (NHA) office in central Delhi. By 9AM, the 200-odd employees of the agency began filing into the premises, readying for another day of work. The NHA, which falls under the Indian health ministry, is tasked with running the world’s largest public health insurance scheme—the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PM-JAY).
Even as the office began to buzz with activity, a phone call from the Prime Minister’s Office would soon change the mood. The contract of Indu Bhushan, the founding chief executive officer (CEO) of the NHA, would not be renewed once his three-year term ended on 31 January. He would be replaced by Ram Sewak Sharma, a retired bureaucrat who most recently served an often-controversial stint as head of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai).
For the team he had built from the ground up, Bhushan’s imminent departure came as a shock. “Many believed that extending Bhushan’s term was a mere formality. The non-renewal of his contract was a bolt out of the blue,” said one NHA official, who has worked closely with Bhushan. They refused to be named as they are not authorised to speak with the media.
It wasn’t just the NHA staff who were caught off guard by Bhushan’s exit. Union health minister Harsh Vardhan admitted his own surprise at the suddenness of the decision while speaking at Bhushan’s farewell—an intimate event held on 29 January. In the same address, Vardhan termed Bhushan’s exit a “deep loss” to the NHA, and not without reason.
Bhushan was uniquely qualified to helm the government’s PM-JAY efforts. A former IAS officer, he was well-versed with navigating the corridors of India’s byzantine bureaucracy. He was also a health economist, and had served stints at the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the latter of which he eventually helmed. For a scheme as ambitious as PM-JAY, which aimed to provide in-patient and out-patient insurance coverage to 500 million of India’s poorest—around 40% of the Indian population—Bhushan was considered an able captain.
Bhushan repaid that faith. He was instrumental in bringing 32 states onboard the PM-JAY ship during his three-year stint, steering the NHA through the choppy waters of its early days as well as the Covid-19 storm that raged for most of 2020. Still, the two-member Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC), consisting of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, decided to change course.
Sources close to Bhushan told The Ken that he felt “disappointed” at the decision.