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Not always about the money, honey

Paromita VohraIt was a special kind of wonderful when the Supreme Court rejected the patent claims of pharmaceutical company Novartis, over Gleevec, a drug, used to treat cancer. The company sought to prevent manufacture and sale at lower prices of similar drugs by Indian companies, claiming the innovation was solely theirs, a claim the court did not find sufficient basis for.

In a time when any talk of public good and the commons is pooh-poohed in favour of seemingly non-denominational ideas about monetary profit, it’s great to have values of fairness, humanity and genuine progress endorsed through a ruling that will allow millions of people access to treatment without which they could die—of debt if not neglect.


Illustration/ Amit Bandre

Corporates, as usual, moaned about how this would discourage companies from investing in research and making life-saving innovations. Sounding like those old-time conservatives who moan that gender parity will destroy the culture, yaniki, their culture.

If their life-saving innovations are priced prohibitively, how manytimes are they life-saving enough to count? At the heart of thisdiscussion is the question—how do we actually measure benefit and success?

Money monoculturists like to throw numbers at you. Are numbers and money the only way to understand benefit? Or are they just one of the many ways to do so?

Let’s take the Mumbai University teachers’ strike, which is partly about money. The teachers are fighting for arrears owed to them under the Sixth Pay Commission (issued in 2006). Why should something as routine as this become a matter of cajoling, protesting and boycotting? Along with increasing contractual hires and reducing grants?

With BCom exams underway, invigilation has been carried out by substitute staff. Three hundred and ninety of these are volunteers— retired service officers, masters students, tuition teachers, homemakers who have pitched in to help with invigilation duty, for Rs 100 a day.

Clearly those people aren’t doing it for private profit. The benefit they perceive to themselves exists in some other realm, which is hard to quantify. Altruism is often dismissed as touchy-feely, but there is something so deeply pragmatic about it, because it recognises that it is a combination of energies and motivations that keeps things moving and growing.

Government systems exist to make sure these energies are combined in a way that is fruitful to society as a whole. If they don’t, then we have to make sure they do. Not in some vague, platitudinal aam aadmi way, but in exactly these focused spaces like the university. Parents and students need to support the rights of teachers way before it comes to a strike stage, as a way of ensuring their own welfare.

Novartis may like to say they developed Gleevec completely. That it is their creation alone. In fact, not only does it build on pre-existing treatments (like everything in the world), but it was co-created by a man who worked for a research institute that was publicly-funded. So it was really a combination of inputs and investments that created this drug and perhaps a joint benefit should ensue from it—for companies and for people too, not just one or the other.

The monoculture of numbers that privatisation fundamentalists insist on, is a philosophy of decay, not progress, in the long run. After all if the formulae of money and numbers and spreadsheets were foolproof and people did not matter, then the guys who made Himmatwala would be laughing all the way to the bank no? Apparently they’re not. Maybe because they didn’t let the public laugh with them too.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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