Opinion: Sad to see lawmakers’ total apathy towards the most marginalized section of the society

Thursday, December 22, 2016

by Dr Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

My disdain for the contemporary politics is no longer a secret. From my columns here and elsewhere, readers would also recognize that one of the major reasons I hold the current lot of politicians entrusted with the task of governance is their total apathy to the major health concerns that continue to bedevil our country.

Dr Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Dr Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

“There is nothing I fear more than waking up without a programme that will help me bring a little happiness to those with no resources to urgently address their health concerns!” — Nelson Mandela

I only wish our own legislators had similar pangs of conscience! My frustration and irritation is over the short shift that has been given to one of the most pressing and long standing health concerns viz mental health care.

The winter session of the Lok Sabha has been a total wash out barring one bill. Many other bills have been left pending but that most egregious lapse on part of our lawmakers in my view is the apathy that was shown to the Mental Health Care Bill. Effectively it was yet another example of the low priority that is being accorded to mental health.

The Mental Health Care Bill was examined by a Parliamentary Standing Committee, which made a number of recommendations. Rajya Sabha debated the Bill for approximately 4 hours, and 17 MPs participated in the debate. In a 136-clause Bill, the government moved 134 amendments, giving MPs almost no time to reconcile the amendments with the recommendations of the Standing Committee. The Bill was to be debated in Lok Sabha.

I had very carefully read the Bill in its present form and found it deficient in many regards. My colleagues who have followed my columns here and elsewhere would know that I am a strong advocate of instituting a mental health ombudsman in the country. That, of course, has not, as yet, been considered. Along with this, I had outlined other major problems in the draft, as it presently exists.

As this is definitely not a partisan issue, I had prepared a document outlining my major concerns and emailed them to all the Lok Sabha members. I had expressed a willingness to provide them with all the relevant material if they felt the need. Only six of them acknowledged my communication.

It would therefore be safe to infer that while our Hon’ble Members have all the time in the world to holler at each other wither within the precincts of the parliament or in the television studios, they just do not have any time to consider the urgent needs of the most disadvantaged section of our society, viz the mentally ill.

We are entitled to ask of our representatives whether they consider the task of representing the most marginalized section of the society as their priority. Not on the basis of the evidence available! And that makes me very sad indeed!

The result of legislative apathy in practical terms means that the mentally ill who have been languishing and suffering are condemned to suffer even longer with no light at the end of the tunnel. It is a matter of utmost shame for all of us that people who are designated to represent us are so insensitive to the plight of the most disadvantaged.

I have had the good fortune of having worked in several countries across the globe and most of them are flourishing democracies. I have observed that in matters such as this, the legislators close ranks abandoning partisan concerns .I have witnessed that in the UK, United States, Ireland and Sweden. The concerns of the mentally ill are not meant for political bickering. All the political formations generally put their heads together to work out a solution.

Unfortunately, Indian legislative chambers are generally busy debating which section is more disadvantaged as compared to the rest. I know that I am not alone in questioning the Indian politicians’ concern for the truly most disadvantaged. And that has been more than amply demonstrated by the recent developments!

There is yet another angle that worries me enormously. I would stand corrected but an informal count would lead me to believe that there are about 11 members in the current Lok Sabha who are medically qualified — and they cut across party lines. My main grouse is with the medically qualified legislators for not being able to impress upon their colleagues not to let the Bill go unattended.

Ruefully many of us would be inclined to infer that the mentally ill are being given the short shrift because they do not constitute a vote bank! And as medical professionals, it is our bounden duty to prevent any further perpetuation of this injustice. I am deeply disappointed that the Health Minister who had published an Op Ed in the Hindustan Times on his vision for the services to the mentally ill was unable to ensure its passage.

Perhaps it is futile to have any expectations from the political class and seek redressal of injustices only through the Court. But before we reach that position, I think it would be worthwhile writing to all our representatives as medical professionals that we are unprepared to put up with the status quo viz-a-viz the mentally ill any longer. Public pressure of this kind does bring about results in mature democracies.

I would exhort all the readers and the Indian Medical Association to register their serious concern over the way the subject has been overlooked.

by Dr Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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