Will PHFI be any different under Narayana Murthy?

After Rajat Gupta’s exit, the Public Health Foundation of India has a new chairman. This ‘public-private partnership,’ however, has been a sneaky and unaccountable organisation that has a lot to answer. This, the first part of a four-part series, discusses questions on the formation, functioning and accountability of PHFI

On 11th July, NR Narayana Murthy of Infosys, an ardent advocate of transparency, accountability and ethics, agreed to become the new chairman of the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), a 'public-private partnership' (PPP) that does not submit itself to the RTI Act 2005 and the audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in spite of having received hundreds of crores of rupees from the central and state governments.

If you have never heard of PHFI, that is how it is meant to be.
PHFI has no public character even though it has been silently influencing public health policy, such as advising the Centre on how the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) should be run and how the proposed 'universal health coverage' should be funded. PHFI also runs four public health schools-Indian Institutes of Public Health (IIPHs)-in Hyderabad, Delhi, Gandhinagar, and Bhubaneswar.

Privileged and unregulated

Each of the IIPHs was built through the 'PPP model', which required the state government to provide land (at least 40 acres) free of charge and incur 20%-50% of the 'project cost' of about Rs140 crore per institute, excluding the cost of land.

The IIPHs run on public money. They primarily admit "in-service candidates nominated by the government" for flagship one-year, post-graduate diploma courses and charge the government a cool Rs2.5 lakh per candidate.

That there is no merit-based system for admitting students or hiring teachers and IIPH courses are not approved by the Medical Council of India, or AICTE, or any other statutory regulator, are mere matters of small print.

They would probably constitute a big educational scam in the case of an organisation not as privileged as the one that Narayana Murthy now heads.
The PPP autarchy

Since being "launched" by prime minister Manmohan Singh on 28 March 2006, PHFI has received over Rs100 crore in financial support from the central government. Taxpayers are not supposed to know how this "autonomously governed PPP" has spent their money. In over five years of its existence PHFI has never published a report on its finances and functioning.

But then the PPP agreement, presumably signed between the public and private partners, and PHFI's memorandum of association and registration details have never been made public. The citizens are not supposed to know whether the selection of the private partners was made in compliance with the PPP guidelines, such as competitive bidding-not to mention whether granting of subsequent privileges to PHFI was in line with the rules.

They must also accept PHFI's sweeping "charter" (posted on its website: http://www.phfi.org/) which seeks to develop a "vigorous advocacy platform to effectively communicate recommendations to policymakers." That is in addition to setting up "5-7 public health institutes, a national research network of public health and allied institutions, and an independent accreditation body for degrees in public health which are awarded by training institutions across India".

(As mentioned before, it is a matter of small print that PHFI's own courses are not recognised and accredited by any regulator.)

Questions chasing PHFI

1. Since PHFI has been described as a PPP, did the government conduct any competitive bidding to select the 'private partner'? Why are the details of the PPP agreement not in the public domain?

2. Under which legislation is PHFI being run, conducting its courses, and collecting money from students?

3. Where does PHFI draw the authority to conduct consultancy with government agencies? Are consultancy assignments given through competitive bidding?

4. Is PHFI directly accountable to any statutory regulator, CAG, the Parliament, or any state legislature?

5. How was PHFI granted the privilege of receiving a steady stream of government-funded students for its courses? Was any competitive bidding conducted in granting this privilege?

6. Does PHFI conduct any merit-based tests for the admission of students to its courses? What is the role of "recommendation letters" and "bonds" in admitting students and hiring faculty?

7. Since PHFI is itself unrecognised and unaccredited, who gave it the mandate-mentioned on its website-to "establish an independent accreditation body for degrees in public health which are awarded by training institutions across India"?

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

aditya chopra
1 decade ago
my dream company
nagesh kini
1 decade ago
Narayan Murthy ought to address each of the concerns raised by Mr. Bajal.
1 decade ago
PHFI sounds like all Sonia owned foundations named after Rajiv, Indira, Nehru which are funded by govt, has bureaucrats deputed to the orgs but run as a private organisation with no accountability.
1 decade ago
Thank you for this article. The issue of entities like PHFI not subscribing to the RTI Act of India is akin to the way the IOA/CWG behaved in 2005/2006 on the same subject. For what it was worth, the issue went the full route, from CIC to Delhi High Court and eventually resulted in a decision which is still extensively quoted - the definition of a "public authority" basis nothing else but the "substantially financed" clause in the RTI Act.

Certainly this decision is up on the internet, and in Due course can be quoted as well as cited (it is called Indian Olympics Association vs Veeresh Malik and others), but for now somebody needs to inform the good Mr. Narayan Murthy that as the head of this organisation, and as the successor of the colourful Rajat Gupta, that hiding behind the "RTI not applicable to PPP" argument will not detract from the eventual.

Good luck.
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