Guwahati, Oct. 3: The Centre has washed its hands of the botched Unicef-sponsored vitamin A campaign in Assam, which claimed the lives of 23 infants in November last year.
Union health minister Shatrughan Sinha, on his maiden official visit to the state, took his hosts by surprise when he announced at a news conference here this evening that the Centre had nothing to do with the vitamin A drive. “The Centre had no role in the programme. It was funded by the Unicef and implemented by the state government,” he said.
Sinha’s statement is the opposite of what his predecessor C.P. Thakur had said in Parliament on November 21, 2001. The former Union health minister had said that the Centre was seized of the issue and had constituted a high-level committee to investigate the lapses in the vitamin A campaign. “I will keep the House informed about the findings of the committee,” he added.
N.K. Ganguly, director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, is the chairman of committee.
Sinha, however, caught state health minister Bhumidhar Barman unawares when he asked what steps Dispur had taken to fix responsibility for the vitamin A fiasco. Director-general of health services S.P. Agarwal and drugs controller-general of India Ashwini Kumar were present at the news conference.
Though taken by surprise, Barman informed Sinha that an inquiry was being conducted by the inspector-general of police (CID) at the behest of the Gauhati High Court.
The Union health minister was in the capital for a function marking the takeover of the Regional Drug Testing Laboratory by the Centre. The laboratory is located at Sixth Mile. The state government had decided to hand over the laboratory to the Centre in 1995, but administrative bottlenecks caused the seven-year delay.
Apart from answering questions on the vitamin A fiasco, which the CBI refused to investigate despite Dispur’s repeated requests, Sinha spoke extensively on the hazards of consuming tobacco. He urged his colleagues in the film industry not to promote consumption of tobacco in any form.
Sinha disclosed that the Union health ministry would convene a meeting with representatives of the film industry to seek their cooperation in raising awareness about tobacco.
“A Bill on the issue is pending in Parliament. It will be taken up in the upcoming session. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2020, the maximum number of deaths in our country will be caused by tobacco-related diseases,” he said.
Highlighting the need to improve healthcare in Assam, Barman urged the Union health minister to sanction one small drug-testing laboratory for each district of the state. “We need better healthcare facilities. People are dying without treatment,” he said.
Barman said drug-testing facilities would enable the government to crack down on traders dealing in spurious drugs.
Caption (if required): Union health minister Shatrughan Sinha gets a traditional welcome by officials and students at the Gauhati Medical College on Thursday. Picture by Eastern Projections. Pix file: 4new06 (scanned) in region