Earlier this month, a very forgotten-type of policy was announced. After 15 years, India got a new National Health Policy 2017. Since in a democracy the government often delivers what the people demand, such a lapsed policy revision, after 2002, could be blamed on the people. On what they demand from their elected representatives. But there’s another plausible explanation for this apathy. It’s the mirror opposite. Like Alice peeping Through the Looking Glass in Lewis Carroll’s sequel. The policy did not move at all in 15 years, but the topmost bureaucrat in this ministry moved the fastest. The ministry of health bade farewell to 12 secretaries.
Until February 2014, when Keshav Desiraju was suddenly transferred to the consumer affairs ministry, nearly all secretaries in the preceding 20 years had vacated their posts on retirement. But an unhealthy turn of events—can’t be called a trend yet—began after Desiraju. Two other secretaries to touch and go between 2014 and 2016 did not superannuate.
But what’s in a tenure? A civil servant from the Indian Administrative Service is trained for ‘quick learning’ on the job, is a cogent argument.
Not in the social sector, and not in India, which has abysmal social indicators. It slipped down one rank to 131 in the new Human Development Index of 188 nations released on 22 March.
For bringing about any change and taking the agenda forward, you need a cycle of three years, even if you have worked in the sector or the ministry before, says K Sujatha Rao, who retired as health secretary after a 14-month-stint in 2010. “The first year goes in understanding the issues, the second in bringing the changes and facing the resistance and it is in the third that the graph begins to go upward, and results fall in. Because of the short tenures, India’s health policy never went beyond the first year,” says Rao.
When Desiraju was shunted out in February 2014, in the full glare of public curiosity and outrage, speculations hung heavy that it was the tobacco lobby and a multinational stent manufacturer, which wanted him out of the ministry. Desiraju wouldn’t comment on his sudden exit from the health department except confirm having taken a stent-related decision, on the recommendation of an additional secretary in the finance ministry.