The October 2nd ban was very well appreciated by smokers. They tell me they have either given up or reduced smoking. People cannot smoke in public places; they need to go to the road and smoke. We want voluntary enforcement of this ban, and don’t want to force people into it. It has to be through 90 percent public compliance.
Q There was talk that you would come up with a similar policy on drinking. What are your plans on that front?
I would love to bring a ban on alcohol, but unfortunately alcohol is a subject that comes under the state government. But I am trying to bring a national alcohol policy. Article 47 of our constitution says we should have voluntary prohibition of alcohol. But only 2 states in India follow this - Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir.
Secondly, what we get here is pure alcohol, which hits immediately. So, we need good policies to control all this. Also, it is appalling to note that in the last four years the revenue of TASMAC (Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation Ltd) stores has gone up from 4000 crores to 12000 crores, owing to sale of liquor. And the mean age of initiation of alcohol has come down from 20 years to 13½. So this in itself calls for a good policy on alcohol consumption.
Q Being a qualified medical doctor, you are best placed as the Union Health Minister to positively impact India in promoting good health and wellness. Can you list out some plans to do so?
Amongst my greatest achievements as Health Minister is the National Rural Health Mission (NHRM). Even the UN Secretary General remarked that this is the fastest expanding programme in the world.
The success is showing already in the 2 years since we implemented it. For instance, in Bihar we earlier had just 40 patients attending Primary Health Centers, but we now have 4000 patients attending. Tamil Nadu has seen a three-fold increase in the deliveries taking place at PHCs. We have also set up 6, 25000 ASHA centers. The budget allocated for the Health Ministry was 16,500 crores, out of which 12,500 crores have been allocated for the NHRM.
Apart from this, we have plans of coming up with National Urban Health programme, National School Health programme, National Emergency Health programme, Prevention of Diabetes, Cardio Vascular Diseases and Stroke Prevention programme, and a Health Research programme which has been in demand for over 40 years. Additionally, we are also setting up the National Food Authority and the National Drug Authority.
The four things that I am against are tobacco, alcohol, junk foods and drugs, and I am launching a crusade against them. And there are also four things which I am ashamed of - maternal mortality, infant mortality, under nourishment and declining sex ratio. I would like to work towards bringing down these indices, and we have a long way to go on that.
Q Your stance of legalizing homosexuality - obviously with the view that prohibitive laws contribute to the spread of HIV rather than help containing it - has been widely criticized. Please share your stance on this matter?
It is purely from the health point of view that I say “don’t criminalize homosexuals.” Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code talks about punishment for unnatural sex and pedophiles. But I say, don’t criminalize consented sex between adults over the age of 18. Today, people consider physical relations between people of the same sex as a crime. Such people do not have access to proper healthcare facilities. If my health workers approach them and give them condoms to prevent infection, they are put behind bars. If a doctor treats a homosexual, he is liable to be prosecuted. He has to first report the homosexual to the police.
But, as far as HIV is concerned, 86 percent of the infections spread due to sexual relations, 1.8 percent due to blood transfusions, 4 percent from parents and 3 percent due to IV drugs. And the largest percentage of the sexually caused HIV is from the homosexual route, with 2.6 million people being estimated to be homosexual - we call them MSM - men having sex with men.
I only say we shouldn’t criminalize these homosexuals, so they can seek proper medical care and the rate of spread of HIV and other infections can thus be contained.