Anything that moves

Maggi ban: Just another instance of Indian nationalism blinding us to real problems

When it comes to allegations against local drug firms, we'd rather claim to be the victims of a conspiracy than investigate the charges.

Now that accredited Indian laboratories have cleared Nestlé of allegations that its popular instant noodles contain more lead than permitted, it’s worth underlining the unsavoury role nationalism plays in such matters. When the Maggi controversy first broke, I wrote a column arguing that the ban on instant noodles constituted bureaucratic and political over-reach based on suspect data.

A number of friends reacted negatively to the piece, irrespective of their ideology. Conservatives disliked my criticism of certain ayurvedic practices, while leftists reflexively ranged themselves against the multinational. It is commonplace these days for readers to accuse journalists of being shills for political parties or corporations, but I was disturbed that a couple of acquaintances asked if I was on Nestlé’s payroll. Others suggested that the firm could easily absorb the loss even if it had been wronged, ignoring not only middle-class traders who lost money when the company’s stock plummeted, but hundreds of contract workers who were left without a livelihood.

It’s instructive to compare the attitude of the government and public to the Maggi issue with their response to the succession of controversies that have hit our pharmaceutical industry in the past decade. If ensuring the health of citizens is among a government’s prime objectives, it ought to make no difference whether a firm accused of unsafe practices is Indian or not. After all, as I wrote in my Maggi column, our immune system has not evolved to distinguish between foods produced by Indian and foreign corporations. Yet, the government has repeatedly defended Indian companies that have faced censure from international regulators, and conducted no serious investigation of its own into possible fraud by Indian pharmaceutical firms.

Fabricated tests

It began almost a decade ago with a report by the World Health Organisation charging Vimta Laboratories with fabricating tests related to AIDS drugs supplied to African nations. Two newly recruited executives at Ranbaxy, which is among India’s largest drug manufacturers and had hired Vimta to test its formulations, decided to dig deeper into the processes employed by their own firm, and discovered chicanery on a gigantic scale. One of these men, Dinesh Thakur, turned whistleblower, and alerted the American Food and Drug Administration to Ranbaxy’s malpractices. These included using branded drugs in place of generics in bio-equivalence testing, and, in markets like Africa and Latin America where regulations were lax, making up data wholesale.

The American agency moved very slowly on the complaint, but beginning in 2008, Ranbaxy faced a series of restrictions in the United States. Ultimately, in 2013, the company admitted civil and criminal guilt in an American court, and paid a fine of $500 million. The best investigative article on the whole affair is Katherine Eban’s piece in Fortune magazine titled Dirty Medicine. It leaves little doubt not only about Ranbaxy’s culpability, but about the active role played by its top management in perpetrating fraud.

Did the Indian public respond by thinking twice about buying Ranbaxy products? Did Malvinder Singh, one of Ranbaxy’s promoters and CEO for much of the period in question, face any social disgrace for his role in the deceit? Did the Indian government build on the FDA’s allegations by launching thorough probes of its own? No, no, and no. The promoters of Ranbaxy sold their stake to Daiichi Sankyo for $2 billion in 2008, with Malvinder Singh staying on as CEO.The Japanese corporation, having failed to unearth the rot in Ranbaxy during due diligence, sold it at a substantial loss a few years later.

Conspiracy alleged

Far from investigating Ranbaxy independently, the United Progressive Alliance government released a statement  alleging a conspiracy against India. “Vested interests are raking up isolated issues reported regarding technical deficiencies on manufacturing practices," it said, adding, “Some of the spurious drugs detected in the international markets, alleged to be exported from India, are desperate attempts by other countries getting affected by the strength of Indian pharma industry.”

In the past couple of years, many Indian companies have faced suspensions on sales following international scrutiny. The most recent scandal involves GVK Biosciences. Europe’s premier medical agency recommended suspending medicines connected with trials conducted by GVK after finding systematic data manipulations of electrocardiograms over a period of at least five years. The National Democratic Alliance responded through the commerce ministry rather than the health ministry, exactly as the UPA has done. Commerce Secretary Rajeev Kher in effect endorsed malpractice by stating,  “The past few years have seen a lot of action where the fault was not seen in the substance of the medicines but in the processes. We feel that this approach needs to be tempered.”

The same conspiracy theory trotted out in the Ranbaxy case, about Big Pharma wanting to crush Indian generics, is being used by advocates of GVK today. The Bharatiya Janata Party has gone so far as to unilaterally cancel trade talks with the European Union in protest against the GVK decision, even though many of GVK’s tests were done for foreign companies, which have suffered equally as a result.

Similar charges

Those who claim that governments of affluent nations are hand-in-glove with manufacturers of patented medicines not only fail to understand the complex and often conflicting interests operating in the health care and insurance markets, but also fail to recognise that the first push to the dominos was provided by a World Health Organisation investigation related to medicines sold in Africa. This July, the WHO exposed the dubious tactics of Chennai-based Quest Life Sciences. The accusations of backdating paperwork, using the same ECGs multiple times pretending they were from different patients, and so on, are very similar to the allegations against GVK. Is the WHO also working at the behest of Big Pharma, then? If not, why is it difficult to believe that GVK might be echoing the practices of Ranbaxy and Quest? Should the Indian government not at least conduct an enquiry of its own before jumping to the defence of these privately held companies?

India’s success in the field of generic drugs has given us much to be proud about. That success, it is now apparent, has a dark side to it, whether it be clinical trials done on underprivileged patients without proper informed consent or data fudged to speed up clearances. It’s best for consumers and for the economy that we face malpractice head on, and restore our image by improving manufacturing processes rather than through some PR exercise.

Did the German government and public react to news of Volkswagen’s fraud by whining about American attempts to stifle German auto exports? We come across as immature and petulant when we call off important trade negotiations over regulatory matters best sorted out between medical experts, and when we cry conspiracy at the drop of a hat from a misplaced sense of nationalism.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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Top picks, best deals and all that you need to know for the Amazon Great Indian Festival

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The Great Indian Festival (21st-24th September) by Amazon is back and it’s more tempting than ever. This edition will cater to everyone, with offers on a range of products from electronics, home appliances, apparel for men and women, personal care, toys, pet products, gourmet foods, gardening accessories and more. With such overwhelming choice of products and a dozen types of offers, it’s not the easiest to find the best deals in time to buy before your find gets sold out. You need a strategy to make sure you avail the best deals. Here’s your guide on how to make the most out of the Great Indian Festival:

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Big discounts and top picks

The Great Indian Festival is especially a bonanza for those looking to buy electronics and home appliances. Consumers can enjoy a minimum of 25% off on washing machines, 20% off on refrigerators and 20% off on microwaves, besides deals on other appliances. Expect up to 40% off on TVs, along with No-Cost EMI and up to Rs 20,000 off on exchange.

Home Appliances

Our top picks for washing machines are Haier 5.8 Kg Fully Automatic Top Loading at 32% off, and Bosch Fully Automatic Front Loading 6 Kg and 7 Kg, both available at 27% discount. Morphy Richards 20 L Microwave Oven will be available at a discount of 38%.

Our favorite pick on refrigerators is the large-sized Samsung 545 L at 26% off so you can save Rs 22,710.

There are big savings to be made on UV water purifiers as well (up to 35% off), while several 5-star ACs from big brands will be available at greater than 30% discount. Our top pick is the Carrier 1.5 Ton 5-star split AC at 32% off.

Personal Electronics

There’s good news for Apple fans. The Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch Laptop 2017 will be available at Rs 55,990, while the iPad will be available at 20% off. Laptops from Lenovo, Dell and HP will be available in the discount range of 20% to 26%. Top deals are Lenovo Tab3 and Yoga Tab at 41% to 38% off. Apple fans wishing to upgrade to the latest in wearable technology can enjoy Rs 8,000 off on the Apple Watch series 2 smartwatch.

If you’re looking for mobile phones, our top deal pick is the LG V20 at Rs 24,999, more than Rs 5000 off from its pre-sale price.

Power banks always come in handy. Check out the Lenovo 13000 mAh power bank at 30% off.

Home printers are a good investment for frequent flyers and those with kids at home. The discounted prices of home printers at the festival means you will never worry about boarding passes and ID documents again. The HP Deskjet basic printer will be available for Rs 1,579 at 40% off and multi-function (printer/ scanner/ Wi-Fi enabled) printers from HP Deskjet and Canon will also available at 33% off.

The sale is a great time to buy Amazon’s native products. Kindle E-readers and Fire TV Stick will be on sale with offers worth Rs 5,000 and Rs 1,000 respectively.

The Amazon Fire Stick
The Amazon Fire Stick

For those of you who have a bottomless collection of movies, music and photos, there is up to 60% off on hard drives and other storage devices. Our top picks are Rs 15,000 and Rs 12,000 off on Seagate Slim 5TB and 4TB hard drives respectively, available from 8.00am to 4.00pm on 21st September.

The sale will see great discounts of up to 60% off on headphones and speakers from the top brands. The 40% off on Bose QC 25 Headphones is our favourite. Top deals are on Logitech speakers with Logitech Z506 Surround Sound 5.1 multimedia Speakers at 60% off and Logitech X300 Bluetooth Speaker at 58% off!

Other noteworthy deals

Cameras (up to 55% off) and camera accessories such as tripods, flash lights etc. are available at a good discount. Home surveillance cameras too will be cheaper. These include bullet cameras, dome cameras, simulated cameras, spy cameras and trail and game cameras.

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The sale is also a good time to invest in home and kitchen supplies. Mixer-grinders and juicers could see lightning deals. Don’t ignore essentials like floor mops with wheels, rotating mop replacements, utensils, crockery etc. Tupperware sets, for example, will be more affordable. There are attractive discounts on bags, especially laptop bags, backpacks, diaper bags and luggage carriers.

Interesting finds

While Amazon is extremely convenient for need-based shopping and daily essentials, it is also full of hidden treasures. During the festival, you can find deals on telescopes, polaroid cameras, smoothie makers, gym equipment, gaming consoles and more. So you’ll be able to allow yourself some indulgences!

Small shopping

If you have children, the festival is good time to stock up on gifts for Diwali, Christmas, return gifts etc. On offer are gaming gadgets such as Xbox, dough sets, Touching Tom Cat, Barbies, classic board games such as Life and more. There are also some products that you don’t really need, but kind of do too, such as smartphone and tablet holders, magnetic car mounts for smartphones and mobile charging station wall stands. If you’re looking for enhanced functionality in daily life, do take a look at the Amazon Basics page. On it you’ll find USB cables, kitchen shears, HDMI cables, notebooks, travel cases and other useful things you don’t realise you need.

Check-out process and payment options

Amazon is also offering an entire ecosystem to make shopping more convenient and hassle-free. For the festival duration, Amazon is offering No-Cost EMIs (zero interest EMIs) on consumer durables, appliances and smartphones, plus exchange schemes and easy installation services in 65 cities. HDFC card holders can avail additional 10% cashback on HDFC credit and debit cards. Customers will also get to “Buy Now and Pay in 2018” with HDFC Credit Cards, as the bank offers a 3 Month EMI Holiday during the days of the sale. Use Amazon Pay balance for fast and easy checkouts, quicker refunds and a secured shopping experience.

Sales are fun and with The Great Indian Festival offering big deals on big brands, it definitely calls for at least window shopping. There’s so much more than the above categories, like minimum 50% off on American Tourister luggage! To start the treasure hunt, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon.in and not by the Scroll editorial team.