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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