Following allegations that PHFI got university affiliation for their institute without following proper norms, they have now been pulled up for having govt officials on their governing body.
Wikimedia Commons, Infosys, PHFI

Did the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) – one of the biggest health advocacy groups in India – lobby to get university affiliation for their institute in Delhi without following proper norms? And are they using the top bureaucrats in their governing body to get funds from the government, and to further their policy agendas within the establishment?

These are the allegations against the society – whose Chairperson is Infosys co-founder NR Narayana Murthy – which was mired in controversy just last year for allegedly misusing and diverting foreign funds. In fact, the Ministry of Home Affairs in April 2017 had cancelled their Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) licence because of these allegations.

In an RTI reply sought by a resident in Kerala by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in February 2018, it has come to light that at least one-sixth of the members of PHFI’s governing body are serving government officials. In fact these members hold key administrative posts in the government, especially in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

The RTI reply accessed by TNM shows that among the members are P K Pradhan, Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India; Vishwa Mohan Katoch, Secretary, Department of Health Research, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research; TKA Nair, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister of India; and Dr RK Srivastava, Director General Health Services, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India. Former Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia is also on the governing body.

Following up on an RTI query, the Central Information Commission slammed them for having civil servants on board. With the PHFI influencing several policy matters in the health sector of the country, concerns have been raised about a possible conflict of interest with the presence of top government officials as members.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in their RTI reply have claimed that they have not given any orders for the civil servants to be part of PHFI. So how are they part of the board? According to PHFI, the ex officio members were serving the PHFI in their ‘private capacity’.

Calling their bluff however, the Central Information Commission in its order in 2011 observed, “This Bench is of the view that such a claim is untenable. It is difficult to assume that senior Public Servants can be on the board of an organisation like PHFI-which has numerous interactions with the Government, in private capacity. In fact, this would necessarily imply a conflict of interest.”

They further said, “The Commission can only assume that such Public Servants must necessarily be acting on behalf of the Government – when they are required to take executive decisions as members of the board – in a public-private partnership (PPP) such as PHFI. Any other conclusion would be an improper slur on their integrity. It is not possible that India’s leading Public Servants could be acting in any manner, but as representatives of the Government when they are on the board of PHFI. It is also true that significant funding is provided by the Government to PHFI. Hence, it is presumed that the five officials on the board of PHFI are discharging their duties as Public Servants.”

The Commission, in its letter also stated that the PHFI has been getting significant grants and other benefits from the government.

Allegations of lobbying

It’s not just a theoretical conflict of interest that the PHFI has been accused of. The society runs the Indian Institute of Public Health in Delhi (IIPH-D), which offers a Masters in Public Health (MPH) course. The MPH programme is affiliated to the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Science and Technology (SCTIMST) in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala – an Institute of National Importance under the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. Now, there are allegations that they lobbied hard to get this affiliation, without fulfilling the norms required by SCTIMST.

An engineer from SCTIMST, speaking to TNM, said that the decision was taken without much thought, and that several underlying concerns were not addressed.

“There were several contentions due to which the PHFI’s application was not considered. There were questions about whether the affiliation could be given. However, after it was considered as an out-of-the-agenda item, it was passed. This raises several suspicions. Also, the amount is hand-written in the MoU that is signed with the PHFI and SCTIMST” he added.

In several meetings that were held at the SCTIMST (copies of the minutes of the meetings, which was part of an RTI reply, are available with TNM), the request put forth by the PHFI seeking affiliation for the course has been discussed back and forth since 2014.

The Institute officials who held key positions raised several concerns including the capacity of Indian Institute of Public Health, Delhi to be able to run the course.

However, over three times after it was pushed into the agenda during these meetings, an SCTIMST official approved the affiliation, allegedly without addressing the concerns that were put forth in 2015.

This comes to light with a letter that the PHFI has written thanking the Institute for ‘reconsidering’ the affiliation. The decision was taken after the impending request by PHFI was discussed as an ‘out-of-the-agenda item’ in the meeting.

A screenshot of the MoU that has the amount mentioned

Responding to these allegations, Prof Asha Kishore, Director, SCTIMST denied any wrongdoings and said that all the necessary procedures were carried out.

She said that initially, the PHFI had sought affiliation to carry out various courses in all its IIPH centres. However, in the request that came later, the PHFI sought permission to offer the course only at IIPH Delhi and permission was granted after it was discussed in the general body and academic committee.

“I wish to submit that the Institute has not deviated from the rules and regulations laid down under the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute Act of 1980, as alleged. The allegations leveled against those occupying top positions of the Institute are false information provided by those  with ulterior motives and may kindly be dismissed,” she said.

PHFI responds

Reacting to the controversy, PHFI denied allegations levelled against them. Replying to queries sent by TNM, the spokesperson said, “PHFI did not engage in lobbying for the Master of Public Health (MPH) programme offered at the Indian Institute of Public Health Delhi. Indian Institute of Public Health, Delhi (IIPHD), a constituent unit of the Public Health Foundation of India has complied with the processes of Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Science and Technology (SCTIMST) with regards to the affiliation of the Masters in Public Health Programme.”

They also opined that having government officials as governing body members is only for doing good at large. “PHFI has its own Governing Body which looks into the functioning of the Public Health Foundation of India. PHFI is a public-private initiative, with the Government, civil society, academia and philanthropic private sector representatives together determining the direction of PHFI in contributing to India’s public health capacity. Hence relevant government officials were included as ex-officio members of the board. Therefore there is no conflict of interest. SCTIMST is guided by its own institutional governance processes. The two bodies act independently,” they said.