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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.