There's no Bhagirath Place
Written by Business Standard   
Friday, 25 February 2005



There's no Bhagirath Place


Rational Expectations

Sunil Jain / New Delhi August 4, 2003

On the fifteenth of July, after Nicholas Piramal’s senior president Harinder Sikka made his presentation to the Mashelkar Committee on the extent of the problem of spurious drugs (60 per cent of the Rs 4,000 crore trade is conducted out of Delhi’s Bhagirath Place in the walled city), a senior official from the drug controllers office rose to object. 


The issue of counterfeit drugs in Bhagirath Place he said, was vastly overblown. Just 11 days later, my former colleague Toufiq Rashid published details, in The Indian Express, of her visit to Bhagirath Palace, giving details of how the flourishing trade in fake drugs is carried out! A 15-tablet strip of fake Crocin, Toufiq found, was available at Rs 1.3 against the market price of Rs 12.5 for a genuine one, 10-tablet strips of Ranitidine for Rs 2 against Rs 7.5 for the genuine article, and so on.

It’s ironic, but when the US wanted India to crack down on the massive market in pirated software, few Indians took it seriously. Today, similar piracy threatens the very existence of India’s own pharmaceutical industry, and alarm bells are ringing across the country. 

At Rs 4,000 crore or so, the size of the spurious drugs market is around a fifth that of the genuine industry, and certainly much higher than its total profits at the moment. But since prices of spurious drugs are generally a fourth or a fifth those of genuine drugs, the problem goes beyond just affecting the financials of the pharmaceuticals industry — it means every second or third drug you’re buying is likely to be a fake. 

A fact that Sikka found out when he was summoned by the customs commissioner of Shillong some months ago to talk of the increased problem of people getting drunk on Nicholas’ cough syrup Phensidal — in several seized bottles, the content of the intoxicant codeine was found to be several times the permissible level of 8 per cent. 

Every third bottle of Phensidal in the state, a subsequent survey showed, was fake — which is why, according to Sikka, when Nicholas stopped sale of Phensidal in the area for a fortnight, availability of what was sold as Phensidal never dropped. 

By the way, you can buy ‘Phensidal Plus Plus’ (with extra codeine) in most parts of the North-East, and even in Rs 5 pouches in Punjab, even though the company doesn’t do such packaging! Since all codeine is bought from the government, it means the producers of the spurious Phensidal Plus Plus (with a 16 per cent codeine content) are clearly hand in glove with officials. 

The menace of spurious drugs doesn’t stop at drugs bought by just you and I at the neighbourhood chemist, it has spread to not just government hospitals, but even those run by the armed forces. Vice Admiral S. Jain, retired flag officer commanding in chief of the Western Naval Command, cites the example of a former naval chief, Admiral J.A.L. Cursetjee, being admitted to the naval hospital in Mumbai to cure his bronchial asthma. 

Despite several days of treatment, when there was no improvement in Cursetjee’s condition, Jain advised him to buy medicines from outside the hospital! “I sent our hospital’s medicines”, Jain told this writer, “for testing at our lab, but got a clean chit ... I was told later that there was a nexus.” Now Jain has no real proof, but a man in his position doesn’t make such statements lightly. 

So far, however, very little action has been taken to arrest the problem — indeed, even the few spurious drug manufacturers that manage to get themselves arrested are out on bail within 24 hours. Television channel CNBC reported the case of a patient who suffered brain damage from a drug manufactured by a reputed firm, which failed quality tests later — nothing happened to the company, and the case lingers on in the country’s courts. 

The Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance, a combination of 11 top firms like Ranbaxy and Dr Reddy’s that accounts for 40 per cent of the entire industry’s turnover, hired ex-CBI chief Vijay Karan and ex-Mumbai police chief Julius Ribeiro to help tackle the menace — in just the last 20 months, through this task force’s efforts, the police have arrested 51 people and more than Rs 12 crore of fake drugs have been seized in Delhi alone. 


Though small in comparison to the size of the fake industry, this is more than what all drug controllers in different parts of the country have achieved in several decades. Two of Vijay Karan’s informers, sadly, have also been shot dead for their efforts.


While health minister Sushma Swaraj made headlines when she said she’d bring in the death penalty for the ‘merchants of death’ (her exact words), few think this is going to be a deterrent. For one, with 97 countries already having abolished the death penalty, few in the government are in favour of introducing the death penalty for manufacturing of spurious drugs.

Any other stringent punishment that can be thought of is likely to be equally ineffective as long as many of those in charge of regulating the sector — the 300-400 inspectors across the country — are in cahoots with the spurious drug manufacturers. It may be a good idea to begin quizzing these inspectors, and their bosses, on their wealthy lifestyles. 



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