Will PHFI become transparent and accountable under Narayana Murthy?

The Infosys founder’s entry to PHFI only strengthens the dominance of Big Business on the board of the organisation. This organisation which decides on public health policy, remains non-transparent and unaccountable, despite enlargement of government representation on the board

Big Business dominates the governing board of the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI). As many as 10 of the 31 members of the PHFI governing board represent business groups. They include powerful names such as Mukesh Ambani, Shiv Nadar, Purnendu Chatterjee, Uday Khemka, Harpal Singh and now NR Narayana Murthy. In addition, there are board members who represent entities that have roots in business organisations, such as Ashok Alexander of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Their fabulous wealth must have given them some special understanding of public health policy issues and qualified them to be on the board of an institution that will deal with such issues. But what does one say when the government ignores even obvious conflicts of interest, such as the presence on the PHFI board of Harpal Singh, whose Fortis Group is a private healthcare and medical education provider and has a direct interest in the shaping of the government's health policy.

Babus don't stand for transparency

After a recent recast of PHFI, there are as many as seven central government bureaucrats-serving or retired-on its governing board. They include some of the most powerful babus, including TKA Nair, principal secretary to the prime minister, and Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.

These 'public servants', however, have shown no interest in making this publicly-funded, public-policy-influencing organisation RTI-compliant and open to scrutiny of the Comptroller and Auditor General, statutory regulators or parliament and legislators. On the contrary, in March this year, Dr Ahluwalia, in his capacity as the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, reinforced the culture of secrecy and unaccountability by declining a request by Satyanand Mishra, the chief central information commissioner, to bring all public-private partnerships (PPPs) under the RTI Act 2005.

Thus, the organisation that NR Narayana Murthy, chairman emeritus of Infosys Ltd, now chairs, can function like a private club with none of the hassles of transparency and accountability, but large chunks of public-funding available to it.

Figuring out Mr Murthy's motivation

Will Mr Murthy end up lending his 'driven-by-values' reputation to a shadowy and non-transparent organisation?

That question occurred to me partly because I have personal knowledge of Mr Murthy's financial support to the cause of greater transparency in public life through annual RTI Awards organised by Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF), an NGO that is managed by Arvind Kejriwal, who is currently the main coordinator of the Jan Lokpal movement. (I have worked with PCRF for a year.)

On 12th July, I sent an email to Mr Murthy, explaining the issues surrounding PHFI and underlining the contradiction between his public profile and his new job. I also urged him to use his good offices to do something to unravel the network of unaccountable, private interests behind PHFI, rather than lend his reputation to this deception.

Murthy's reply was prompt, but intriguing. "I have just accepted the position and have not yet met the president of PHFI. Therefore, I cannot comment on the issues you have raised. Please raise specific questions and I will take them up with the authorities and request them to provide answers," he wrote back.

That is curious, because many of the issues I had raised relate to PHFI's non-compliance with the RTI Act and non-disclosure of important information which is apparent from its website.

Here are some key questions about PHFI.
1. What statutory authority and public accountability does PHFI have to arrogate for itself the power to influence public health policy in India, either on its own or through membership of government committees?

2. Why are details of PHFI's constitution and registration not in the public domain?

3. How does PHFI propose to resolve conflict of interest situations arising out of the fact that Fortis Group, a private healthcare and medical education provider with direct interest in shaping public health policy, is represented on its board through Harpal Singh?

4. Since judicial determination of corporate liability in the Bhopal gas tragedy has left a deep sense of injustice, what in PHFI's view should be done in terms of holding polluting industries responsible for the consequences of their action and inaction, and for protecting public health? Does it recommend a new and stricter law?

5. What is PHFI's stand on the public health risks involved in expanding nuclear power generation? What would PHFI suggest in terms of policy?

(This is the second part of a series that began on Monday. To read the first part click, "Will PHFI be any different under Narayana Murthy?" In the third part tomorrow, Kapil Bajaj writes about the answers he received from Mr Murthy in response to the questions raised above. Kapil Bajaj is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and blogger. He has worked for the Press Trust of India, Business Today, and other organizations. His current interests are democracy and public policy.) 

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    There’s a new twist in the story in the Nigerian scam emails; but don’t get sucked in

    It seems that a female diplomat has been caught by the FBI with a large sum of money that might actually belong to you!

    Nigerian scam messages have been doing the rounds since the time there have been spam emails. The standard email declares that the receiver will get a large sum of ill-gotten money and that he would have to part with some money to claim the full amount. Further, the receiver must give details of his bank account to the sender. It's a wholesale fraud with no chance of recovering the money one may spend, let alone gaining any money.

    In a new twist in these emails, the sender describes the case of a female diplomat caught by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with a large sum of money. The sender informs that the receiver is the rightful owner of the money and that the money originates from Nigeria. All that you need to do in order to gain ownership of the money, is to produce some Nigerian documentation that says the money is legal and that you are the owner; that is, an Award Ownership Certificate must be secured from the office of the senate president in Nigeria. But if one doesn't know how to go about it, he should contact Dr Ernest Ebi (on email: [email protected] ) in Nigeria. Again, this is another scam to get people to spend money, in the chase for a large amount of money that does not exist at all.

    Time and again, these scams surface through email, trying to trap the gullible and greedy, who are ever-willing to chase the money that is promised, even if it does not belong to them in the first place.

    The email concludes with the warning that if the money is not claimed within three days, it would be confiscated into a World Bank account and you could be prosecuted for money-laundering. This pushes the greedy person to act immediately, make contact, and lose money in the process.

    It is important that people do not reply to such messages, or give banking particulars in reply to these spam messages. Most certainly, people should not spend money to chase such ever-elusive fortune. Until Internet technology improves and can completely block communications from such scamsters, we must stay cautious and not try to contact them.

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    9 years ago

    Supdt. of Police, Cyber Crime Investigation Cell Central Bureau of Investigation, 5th Floor, Block No.3, CGO Complex, Lodhi Road, New Delhi - 3, Phone: 4362203, 4392424 : EMail: [email protected] : Web: http://cbi.nic.in/
    Those who do not want money could forward their messages to the above address to prevent unscruplous victimisation

    New WHO guidelines for safer drinking water supply systems

    Guidelines recommend strengthening water management and improving service to consumers to prevent fatal water-borne diseases

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued revised drinking water guidelines, urging governments to strengthen water quality management and asking water suppliers to improve their faulty service to consumers, in order to prevent often fatal water-borne diseases.

    In a statement issued recently, the organisation says that despite significant progress made in recent years and the availability of many technically feasible and low-cost solutions, almost one in five people in South Asia still lack improved water resources.

    Over two million people die due to water-borne diseases like typhoid and cholera annually.

    In 2002, the World Bank estimated that in India 21% of communicable diseases were water-related. But the outbreak of water-borne diseases in both developing and the developed countries could be prevented by the implementation of 'Water Safety Planning'.

    WHO's guidelines on water quality recommend:
    > Drink only bottled water or other beverages (carbonated beverages, pasteurised juices and milk) provided in sealed tamper-proof containers and bottled/canned by known manufacturers (preferably certified by responsible authorities). Hotel personnel or local hosts are often good sources of information about which local brands are safe.
    > Drink water that has been treated effectively at point of use (that is, through boiling, filtration or chemical disinfection) and stored in clean containers.
    > Drink hot beverages such as coffee and tea that are made with boiled water and are kept hot.
    > Avoid brushing teeth with unsafe water.
    > Do not use ice unless it has been made from safe water.
    > Avoid salads or other uncooked foods that may have been washed or prepared with unsafe water.

    WHO believes that water can be a source of not only microbial, but also chemical or radiological hazards and consideration needs to given to other sources like food, air, person-to-person contact, consumer products, poor sanitation and personal hygiene.

    It considers that in spite of difference in government structures and responsibilities, it is important that health authorities liaise and collaborate with sectors managing the water resource and regulating land use in the catchments.

    The guidelines for water suppliers and regulators describe the need to check the points of contamination and act on the findings. These include,
    > Instituting minimum procedures, specific guideline values and how these should be used.
    > Modes of transport used by water vendors.
    > Microbial hazards, which continue to be the primary concern in both developing and developed countries.
    > Comprehensive risk management, water safety plans, sanitary surveys that include the water supply system and its operation.

    People in Mumbai regularly suffer serious illnesses due to contaminated water, and this gets worse in the monsoon. Dr Nilesh Baxi, a senior physician says, "I was in the US for about 35 days and I drank water directly from the kitchen sink tap. The water was clean and required no filtering. But in India in spite of best efforts, after so many years, the only sure-shot way of getting clean water is to let it boil for at least ten minutes after it begins boiling."

    In February, the Bombay High Court stated that providing clean water in Mumbai is the duty of the city civic authorities. In April, the Court directed the Brihanmumbai Mahanagarpalika to state the steps it would take to provide clean drinking water.

    The initiative of the WHO is in line with the World Bank's its Millenium Development Goals to halve the fraction of the world's population that does not have access to water and sanitation by 2015.

    The World Bank's website mentions that it has provided over $700 million in funds to India to provide more than 18 million rural households with sustainable access to drinking water and sanitation facilities.

    The new guidelines were presented at the Singapore International Water Week, which brought together representatives working in this area from across the world, earlier this month.

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