Digital India: A new game needs new rules

With the launch of the Digital India campaign in early July, it is time to relook India Pharma Inc’s engagement with technology

20150815ep02With the launch of the Digital India campaign in early July, it is time to relook India Pharma Inc’s engagement with technology. As the cover story in the IT@Pharma segment of Express Pharma August 1-15 issue points out, the use of technology within pharma companies in India has increased manifold, across all functions. (See story Teching up, pages 24-28). The industry is today seen as one of the growth drivers for IT companies, as tech spend in other sectors reaches a plateau. Similarly, pharma companies are gearing up to see how they could leverage the recently launched Digital India campaign to address their challenge areas. (See story Harnessing Digital India, pages 29-32). Most pharma companies would be keen to use the platform to extend their reach into rural markets but physical infrastructure and legal issues need to be first put in place.

There is no doubt that the Digital India initiative will create opportunities but will it also widen the divide between India and Bharat? Most of Bharat, i.e. rural India, has little or no access to medicines and doctors, with most pharma companies in India reluctant to invest too much in setting up sales teams for tier-III towns and beyond, or widening their distributor network to cover remote areas. The initiative needs to be modified to address these challenges  created by digital technology.

For instance, Health and Family Welfare Minister JP Nadda’s response to a starred question in the Lok Sabha on e-pharmacies and the online sale of drugs, in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament, left many aspects open to interpretation. Th question is significant as Maharashtra FDA recently took action against online retailer Snapdeal for selling drugs online.

The Minister was quite clear that online sale of drugs or e-pharmacy is presently not allowed, and there were currently no plans to issue fresh rules or guidelines to regulate this practice. However, other parts of his response point to the loopholes in India’s drug regulation infrastructure which have been exploited in the past and could  be used by online retailers as well.

For instance, while quoting the laws governing the sale of drugs in the country, the Drugs & Cosmetics Act, 1940, the Minister’s statement that ‘the sale of drugs in the country is regulated by State Licensing Authorities’ could in fact lead online retailers to try to target softer state governments, while avoiding those where the FDA bodies are known to be tougher and better equipped/ staffed to deal with such cases. True, some online pharmacies are at pains to explain that they are putting systems and processes in place to plug the holes but the simple fact is that for every ethical e-pharmacy, there will be many fly-by-night operators. Digital India will surely be a gamechanger, but a new game needs new rules.

Policy makers need to give existing laws more teeth and the regulatory arms more muscle (think jail terms instead of fines). Else, the vision will remain just that.

Viveka Roychowdhury

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