India skirts Kenya call to doctors

India has sidestepped a proposal from Kenya, where over 4,500 government doctors are on strike over a wage dispute, to fly out doctors from this country to fill the gap.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 12.01.17

New Delhi, Jan. 11: India has sidestepped a proposal from Kenya, where over 4,500 government doctors are on strike over a wage dispute, to fly out doctors from this country to fill the gap.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi today said his government would "encourage" the country's healthcare chains to invest in Kenya, but India avoided pitchforking its doctors into the gravest medical crisis the East African country has faced in decades.

The striking Kenyan doctors have accused President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is visiting India now, of reneging on a deal struck in 2013 to double their wages.

Kenya has threatened to sack these doctors, on strike for over a month, and fly in doctors from other countries - like Cuba and India - to meet immediate needs while a fresh set of local doctors are hired. It had indicated a desire to discuss the proposal during Kenyatta's visit, officials said.

But India has steered clear of the proposal, at least for now, senior officials said, amid criticism from Kenyan doctors that makes it clear they will not welcome foreigners taking their jobs.

Instead, Modi told Kenyatta that his government would "encourage" Indian hospitals and healthcare firms to invest in Kenya - which sends over 10,000 patients to India each year, and depends on Indian-made generic anti-retroviral drugs.

The decision to skirt any talks on sending Indian doctors to stave off the growing medical crisis in Kenya reflects a delicate balancing act New Delhi is attempting: deepening its footprint in Africa and strengthening ties with governments without antagonising local populations.

"We want, and will encourage, industry and business in both countries to take the lead in exploiting opportunities in healthcare," Modi said in comments after talks and lunch with Kenyatta, who had hosted the Indian Prime Minister in Nairobi last July.

East Africa's largest economy, Kenya was a rare country in its region that counted India as its biggest trade partner - but Beijing has passed New Delhi over the past year. To catch up, India has pitched greater cooperation in agriculture - Modi today promised a US$ 100 mn soft loan for agricultural mechanisation, and the two nations are discussing a "long term arrangement for Kenya to produce and export pulses to India," the PM said.

Modi and Kenyatta also agreed to deepen defence and maritime security ties - to counter terrorism, piracy, drugs and human trafficking.

But Kenyatta's central pitch to Modi was on healthcare - as it was six months back when they met in Nairobi.

Kenyan government doctors start with salaries of 40,000 Kenyan shillings (Rs 26,000) a month, but can earn up to 200,000 Kenyan shillings (Rs 130,000) a month, a Kenyan official said. Doctors in super speciality fields can earn up to 300,000 Kenyan shillings (Rs 200,000) a month.

Had a deal been struck, Kenya may have offered up to 200,000 Kenyan shillings to senior Indian doctors for the duration for which their services would have been sought, an Indian official here indicated.

The amount, the Indian official said, may prove lucrative enough to draw some Indian doctors, but Kenya wanted to hire through the Indian government to prevent quacks from using the facility. But the money wouldn't be enough, the Kenyan official said, for the country to hire known top doctors from private Indian hospitals.

"Many of our countrymen and women travel to India every year," the Kenyan President said. "Advanced technology coupled with price competitiveness makes your country a preferred destination for thousands of Kenyans seeking quality healthcare."

India had gifted Kenya the latest version of its Bhabhatron - a telecobalt machine that sends out controlled gamma rays for cancer treatment - designed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, during Modi's July visit.

Kenya is also wooing Indian hospitals and research facilities "to ensure that quality affordable treatment is also available for Kenyans who cannot afford to travel to India", Kenyatta said.

But while he won a commitment from Modi that the government will prod the Indian healthcare sector to invest in Kenya, New Delhi indicated that it was not comfortable sending doctors at a time they may not be universally welcome in Kenya, officials said.

The safety of Indian doctors was a major factor, the officials said, but larger strategic goals were also taken into consideration before arriving at the decision.

India is keen to project its growing presence in Africa as distinct from that of China - which finds many of its projects on the continent mired in protests by locals, and faces accusations of ravaging African resources without transferring any skills or technology to locals.

After multiple Indian entrepreneurs with investments in Africa's agriculture faced allegations of land grab, New Delhi last year unveiled a new model for agricultural cooperation. With Mozambique and now with Kenya, India is stitching together government-to-government agreements under which farmers in these countries can sell pulses through their governments to India, at a guaranteed price.

In Kenya, India's medical influence - while broadly welcomed - has also at times resulted in controversy. The Kenyatta government last year launched a probe into allegations that Indian hospitals had bribed Kenyan doctors to refer patients to them for treatment they could have received in Kenya.