PHFI’s reply gives hope, not confidence

The Public Health Foundation of India has responded to some probing questions, but many of the answers only reconfirm the lack of public scrutiny and accountability with regard to professionally-managed ‘public-private partnership’ entities. It's about time the government made all PPPs transparent and accountable

Over the past few days, Moneylife has challenged the functioning of the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), a little-know organisation that will play a powerful role in shaping India's healthcare policies and also framing the structure for training and education of healthcare professionals.

We showed how PHFI, with a powerful board (earlier headed by McKinsey's controversial Rajat Gupta and now by Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy) comprising the biggest names in business (Mukesh Ambani is one of the members of the board) and government, is a low-profile and shadowy organisation that is not subject to statutory or public scrunity.

We carried at length the responses from Mr Murthy and the PHFI to our queries. Both only confirm that the potential of conflict of interest exist and there is a lack of clarity about who PHFI is accountable to. It is also very unclear why it should not be subject to the Right to Information Act, when it is clearly substantially funded by the government (in the form of land in various parts of the country and a few hundred crore rupees of direct investment).

Big questions remain about PHFI's defence of its legitimacy and authority. The reply to our query cites the "objectives" contained in the Memorandum of Association (MoA) filed under the Societies Registration Act, 1860. This MoA is not posted on the PHFI website, but it has a sweeping set of "objectives" posted under its "charter". They include:
* Assisting the growth of public health training departments.
* Establishing a strong national research network of public health and allied institutions.
* Establishing an independent accreditation body for degrees in public health which are awarded by training institutions across India.

PHFI's sweeping objectives read like the obligations of government and they are backed by government funds and empowered by the presence of India's senior-most bureaucrats on its board. Surely, an entity this powerful cannot function by merely filing an MoA with the Registrar of Societies without specific statutory backing? Remember, PHFI receives hundreds of crores of taxpayer money, free land and other support from central and state governments, not to mention membership/ invitation to vital government committees and public authorities?

PHFI has provided no answer.

About its claim that it is a "public-private partnership" (PPP), PHFI says "the Government of India decided on establishing the Foundation on a PPP mode" without answering the question as to why the PPP agreement, if any, is not in the public domain.

PHFI has nothing to say as to whether selection of the private partners was made on the basis of competitive bidding (or Swiss challenge or competitive negotiation, etc.) and in compliance with PPP rules. In fact it is clear that it is not.

PHFI has also nothing to say as to whether the "private partners" were acting as individuals or an organisation in entering the PPP agreement, who signed the PPP agreement, and what it contains.

In citing its "authority" to establish educational institutions as flowing from its MoA, PHFI is silent on the basis of its selection as a partner by state governments for setting up such institutions on a "PPP mode", as it claims, and whether competitive bidding was conducted in such selections and other PPP rules complied with?

(That gives rise to an interesting question. Since PHFI calls itself a 'public-private partnership', shouldn't its educational institutions in states be called 'public-private-public partnerships' or PPPPs?)

Courses and their approval

PHFI also fails to explain the basis of its selection by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) for imparting "public health training" when it is merely two years old, and the selection as trainer is akin to grant of a concession, and it also enjoys the privilege of receiving government-funded students. (The first public health school started conducting its programmes in July 2008, according to the PHFI website.)

There is also no explanation about whether the government follows any competitive process in granting privileges to PHFI, such as consultancy assignments and administering short-term training programmes to government employees.

PHFI strangely says its diploma programmes do not require a university affiliation, but has nothing to say on approval of such programmes by statutory regulators such as the Medical Council of India (MCI) and the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).

PHFI's reply confirms that it conducts no tests for admitting students or hiring faculty, but relies on what it calls "professional references" and "reference letters". {break}
Accountability and RTI compliance

PHFI says that its "governing council is accountable to its members". In other words, its governing body is not directly accountable to the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), statutory regulators, parliament and state legislatures, despite receiving public aid worth hundreds of crores of rupees.

PHFI's reply confirms that since its inception it has published no report on its finances and functioning for the scrutiny of the public and public bodies, and that it does not submit itself to a public audit.

While PHFI's performance reports and financial audits are "ratified" by the governing council, the Government of India is kept "informed", according to the reply. This is the basis on which a few hundred crore rupees and land is gifted to PHFI by the centre and state governments.

The claim made by PHFI in its reply that "the details of the constitution are available on PHFI website" flies in the face of facts; neither its memorandum of association nor the PPP agreement, if any, is posted on its website.

As for its RTI compliance, PHFI's reply leaves one puzzled.

It says, "PHFI abides by the legal framework of the (RTI) Act. It is not a public authority in terms of Section 3(h) of the Right to Information Act, 2005."

How can an organisation "abide by the legal framework of the RTI Act" without submitting itself to the Act as a public authority?

PHFI has no public information officer (PIO), does not respond to RTI applications, and its website gives nothing in terms of information required by Section 4(1)(b).

Section 3(h) cited in PHFI's reply is actually Section 2(h), which defines "public authority" and sounds tailor-made for PHFI.

Section 2(h) says: "Public authority" means any authority, or body, or institution of self-government established, or constituted by notification issued, or order made by the appropriate government, and includes any (i) body owned, controlled or substantially financed; (ii) non-government organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government.

About conflicts of interests in its governing board, the PHFI reply merely cites its "principled stand" without saying why such conflicts should continue.

Where is 'public' in public policy?

The PHFI story has an echo in the ongoing debate triggered by Anna Hazare's Jan Lokpal movement over whether the unelected should get to influence public policy.

The question is who should get to influence public policy? Those who get a place in government committees by working hard to win wide public support for decidedly public causes, such as fighting corruption? Or those who just sneak into government committees on the strength of their wealth and connections, want their money to be counted as their competence, avoid public scrutiny and accountability, and straitjacket public policy into serving their class interests?

Why should 'public-private partnership' be defined only as giving corporate interests a say in formulating public policy and not creating platforms for the larger cross-section of society to contribute to laying down public policy?

The PHFI case holds a lesson for the citizens: PPPs in their present form are a fraud on India's democracy.

Any organisation that refuses to submit itself to the RTI Act and other institutions of public accountability does not deserve a rupee of taxpayers' money, let alone thousands of crores of public funds that are currently being placed under private control in the name of PPPs. The government's stubborn refusal to bring all PPPs under the RTI Act needs to be challenged and opposed in the law courts and on the streets.

Until that happens, the Montek Singh Ahluwalias do not deserve a sound sleep.

This is the fourth and concluding part of a series on the functioning of PHFI. You may want to read the previous three parts:

Will PHFI be any different under Narayana Murthy

Will PHFI become transparent and accountable under Narayana Murthy?

Mr Narayana Murthy, PHFI reply to questions about the authority and functioning of the organization

(Kapil Bajaj is a freelance journalist and blogger based in Delhi. He has worked for Press Trust of India, Business Today, and other organisations. His interests are democracy and public policy.)

Atul Patankar
1 decade ago
As usual, you have taken a subject still neglected by every one else. And cover it in detail, after a lot of research and home work.
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