India finally decides to get rid of foreign-funded health consultants

With increasing attempts by foreign influence in policies and government decision making, the government has decided to end the decades-old practice of filling gaps within its health system with consultants hired by foreign aid agencies and nongovernmental organisations.

These agencies have been functioning within the government's health machinery or as part of it for years. 

Under the new rules, the services of consultants who have been working with the government's health system on behalf of foreign aid agencies for more than three years will be terminated.

Manoj Jhalani, joint secretary in the ministry of health, said a total of around 100 people will be terminated, adding that roughly 100 who remain will need to be approved by a new screening committee.

Fifty employees of the National AIDS Control Organisation were given notice this month, though supervisors said they hoped to retain them as government employees.

Foreign-funded consultants working with the central government for more than three years have to quit by December 2016, a move seen as an effort to reduce the influence of international agencies and NGOs on public policy.

The clampdown on professionals who draw salaries from foreign agencies but employed by government departments was part of a push to plug data leaks in various ministries, which was flagged by the cabinet secretariat last May. The secretariat asked the finance ministry to compile a list of such consultants.

Besides, there are fears of global agencies using consultants on their rolls to influence Indian policy.

India hires professionals because of a shortage of experts to run signature programmes, especially in the health ministry where more than 200 experienced consultants risk losing their jobs after the new rules were issued.

''In the health ministry, such consultants are spread across programmes. Since there is a directive now, we will abide by it,''?said CK?Mishra, additional secretary (health) and mission director, National Health Mission.

The ministry oversees the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) and programmes such as tuberculosis and malaria control, immunisation, and family planning.

Almost half of the 90 health ministry consultants have been around for three years or more and will leave at the end of June. ''Of the 215 consultants in the health ministry drawing salaries from foreign aid groups, roughly 125 work with NACO,'' a source said.

Many of these professionals are funded by the World Bank, UK's Department for International Development (DFID), USAID, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UN agencies such as the WHO.

''WHO Country Office for India has not been approached by the government on this subject, but we are aware of the matter. It is too early for us to comment on how it may impact our work,'' said Dr Henk Bekedam, WHO Representative to India, in reaction to the government's clampdown.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which works with the Centre and states in health, education, financial services and agriculture, viewed the directive as a sign of the government's commitment to ensure ''critical functions and skills required for the planning and delivery of key health and development initiatives are retained within the government system''.

The government came up with a stringent and streamlined procedure for such hiring consultants, saying they should be employed for a limited period and for specific purposes. But extensions will be allowed after approval from a government committee before the three-year term ends.

Any consultant will have to sign a ''confidentiality clause'' on the contract and they are barred from sharing information and data with agencies or person outside the government.

The fresh guidelines say consultants will have a limited role involving only ''presentations and analysis of possible options with supporting data and best practices'' and ''should not be engaged for policy formulation''.

The rules will effectively block any possibility of interaction with and access to policy-makers and classified information.

The directive does not apply to consultants working directly with and for global agencies operating in India.

The environment ministry has consultants from World Wide Fund of India while experts from Britain's DFID worked for the housing and urban poverty alleviation ministry until their contract ended last December.

A dozen representatives from USAIDS and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are working with the urban development ministry to oversee the Swachh Bharat Mission.