In recent years, India has watched with alarm as countries such as China, Egypt, Mexico and Brazil raced ahead, and as its performance on child health and infant mortality was overtaken even by much of sub-Saharan Africa.
The planned budget increase would lift annual spending on health to 2.5 percent of the country’s economic output, from 1.4 percent. The increase is aimed at giving free medicine to all Indians at government facilities, setting up free ambulances in rural areas, doubling the number of trained health workers, and lifting millions of young children and women out of chronic malnutrition and preventable deaths.
“In the past five years, other emerging economies like Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia have marched ahead on basic public health indicators,” said Amarjeet Sinha, a senior health official in the northern state of Bihar who helped design India’s rural health program. “Just two decades ago, we were all in the same place. It’s a shame that we got left behind in our health performance despite our economic progress.”
With a rapidly growing young population, India urgently needs to harness the energy of its youth by creating jobs and improving their health care, or it will squander the gains of its recent economic boom, analysts say.
A newborn baby dies every 20 seconds in India and four out of 10 children are malnourished. Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called the state of the health-care system a “national shame.”
“In the years to come, these children will join our workforce as scientists, farmers, teachers, data operators, artisans and service providers,” Singh said, releasing a report by an anti-hunger and anti-malnutrition advocacy group Hungama. “We cannot hope for a healthy future for our country with a large number of malnourished children.”
The proposed hike in New Delhi’s health budget, from a current national allocation of a little more than $20 billion annually, was first discussed almost a decade ago, but bureaucratic delays and a lack of political will delayed the decision to go ahead.
Critics say Singh’s government has a habit of throwing money at problems without reforming basic delivery systems to ensure that the money reaches those it is meant for. India spends $7.8 billion every year on one of the largest rural job guarantee programs in the world. It is also planning a $20 billion program to make food accessible to millions of poor. Much of the money ends up in the pockets of local officials or is lost in poor implementation.