Dr Amit Sengupta, who has been one of the biggest advocates of public health and a leader of the health movement in India and internationally, died on Wednesday in a swimming accident in Goa. Sengupta was a founding member of the People’s Health Movement, which was created in 2000, and served as its associate global coordinator. He was also a national convener of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, the Indian chapter of the movement which serves as a network of health organisations across the country working to improve public health and access to healthcare.

Sengupta studied at Maulana Azad Medical College in Delhi and had a general practice for a few years but soon got involved in science literacy as a member of the Delhi Science Forum and the All India People’s Science Movement. He also participated in the the Total Literacy Campaign in the early 1990s. With the creation of the People’s Health Movement globally and the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan in India, Sengupta became deeply involved with understanding and addressing problems in healthcare due to globalisation.

“Amit was a stalwart of the people’s science movement since the 1980s,” said Dr Abhay Shukla, who is also a convener of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan. “He was one of the leaders and pioneers of the People’s Health Movement and had an important role in the formation of JSA in 2000. He was a prolific writer, a very good public speaker and an excellent organiser.”

Dr Sanjay Nagral, a transplant surgeon who is also associated with the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, said, “He was one of the doctors who had a low key practice but basically gave up what could have been a lucrative career to work for people’s health.”

One of the problems Sengupta focussed on was the impact of trade on access to essential medicines. He was involved in a landmark Public Interest Litigation at the Supreme Court on banning hazardous and irrational drugs. He also researched and wrote about the impacts of privatisation of healthcare and the performance of global health institutions.

“He had an interest in understanding the larger drivers that affect health,” said Anant Bhan, bioethics researcher. “It was not narrow and focussed on biomedical health but also the impacts of globalisation, corporatisation, patents, larger development paradigms both globally and in India. He was also interested in seeing all this coalesce by reaching out to movements that are community based and by enhancing science education.”

T Sundararaman, professor of of health systems studies at the Tata Institute of Social Studies in Mumbai, who has also known Sengupta since the 1980s, said, “He gave voice to and amplified people’s struggles for healthcare from all over the place on the international arena – giving them the platform and making sure their voices are fed into the network.”

Global and local

Sengupta coordinated the editorial group that brought out the Global Health Watch – a civil society alternative to the the World Health Organisation’s global health reports – launched in 2005. The aim of the Global Health Watch is to monitor global health institutions and shift the global public health discourse to a more people-centred approach that highlights social justice. The Watch covered subjects of health financing, health systems research, health of the marginalised, globalisation, intellectual property rights and more.

Ravi Duggal, an independent researcher and health activist, knew Sengupta through the movement against irrational drugs and later through the People’s Health Movement. “He was one of the strongest pillars of the People’s Health Movement and the global health campaign,” he said. “We did some research together and as a budget expert I did some work with them on looking at health issues from the budget perspective. Our common ground was the right to healthcare and seeing that public health becomes stronger.”

Sengupta was involved in programmes on rural industrialisation that were supported by the Department of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Rural Development.

“What probably differentiated him from others was that he was a medical doctor but deeply interested in engaging with movement like the farmers’ movement and other development movements that look at inequities,” said Bhan.

Sengupta was was at the centre of organising two big public health meetings this year – the National Health Assembly in Raipur in September and the People’s Health Assembly in Dhaka in mid-November.

“In the last couple of years he actively encouraged younger activists to take active organisational roles in the JSA and that was an important transition that happened in the National Health Assembly this year,” said Shukla.

One of those younger activists is Sulakshana Nandi, who also a convener of the jan Swasthya Abhiyan. “I remembered him always laughing,” she said. “There was not much that would put him down. He had a lot of optimism to fight things out. Public health is a field were things often look dim and many people can turn cynical. He was certainly not cynical. His optimism was very refreshing to all of us.”

In a post of Facebook, Mohan Rao, professor of community medicine who has known Sengupta for 35 years wrote, “Amit was also great fun. He used to laugh at me when I was depressed about the state of our country... I cannot remember the number of times we have marched together in demonstrations for public health issues, and against the ferocious Hindutva nationalism we confront... His loss is a huge blow to progressive movements in general, and to the people’s health movement, in India and internationally.”

Here is some of Sengupta’s writing for Scroll.in.

  • Why India cannot risk putting its health in the hands of the private sector
  • The latest NSS data is a stark reminder of the alarming breakdown of public health services
  • India’s new National Health Policy sets a very low bar for better public health
  • The WHO has a new chief. Will India now find its voice at the global health organisation?
  • Bill aiming to reform India’s medical education regulator will also boost privatisation of colleges