Chandigarh: A small “non-profit” chemist shop in Ludhiana has become the centre of a massive controversy in Punjab after its manager brought out what he claimed is the “best kept secret of the pharmacy industry”.
Baljinder Singh Jindu, a social activist who took over the reins of a defunct chemist shop as a charity venture, released a Facebook video last week where he sought to explain how the MRP of different medicines was phenomenally higher than their purchase cost to chemists.
Through the nearly 26-minute video, which has been shared nearly 12,000 times on Facebook, he names several commonly used medicines before revealing their purchase cost and MRP.
While Jindu has received support from the Akal Takht, the highest temporal body of Sikhs, among others, the video has angered the chemist fraternity, which has since released several videos hitting out at Jindu.
The Punjab government, meanwhile, launched an inquiry Friday to investigate how a non-pharmacist had taken over the reins of a chemist shop when the law reserves the role for qualified pharmacists.
Jindu, who claims he and his family have also received threats, said the furore has “only strengthened my resolve”. “I never imagined my video will lead to such a furore but the reaction has only strengthened my resolve,” he told ThePrint.
How it all began
In May, Jindu tied up with a chemist shop that was not doing very well and decided to revive it. He named the shop ‘Modikhana’, a name of deep significance among Sikhs.
“When Guru Nanak Dev ji (first Guru of the Sikhs) was working at Sultanpur Lodhi… in a shop called Modikhana, he would give away all he could to the poor, even his own earnings,” Jindu said. “With the same intention, I got into this.”
According to Jindu, he has been running a social service organisation called Sikh Welfare Council since 2011. “We do charity work. During Covid-19 (lockdown), we started doing langar sewa and realised how any disease is a curse for the poor. That is how we decided to start a medicine shop for the poor,” he said.
“We started selling everything at cost price and, within 15 days, our daily sales touched Rs 1 lakh. We did not make a single paisa in profit… the shop is run with charity funds,” he added.
He said he came to know the differences about the cost of medicines when he visited a wholesale market to make purchases for the chemist shop.
“I was shocked. A medicine with a printed price of Rs 108 cost me only Rs 9. An injection worth Rs 2,544 cost me only Rs 419. The N95 mask selling for Rs 250 to 300 each cost me Rs 40. I came back and decided to go live on Facebook and make the public aware of how much they were being cheated when they paid the printed price and how huge the margin was for retailers,” he told ThePrint.
A week since he released the video, Jindu said, he has now been boycotted by the chemist community and is no longer being supplied medicines.
“All hell broke loose with that video. I spoke the truth and I stand by it,” he added. “Medicines, generic or otherwise, have huge margins. And none of this is ever transferred to the buyer.”
Chemists in Punjab have taken exception to Jindu’s description of them as “thieves”.
“What Jindu is talking about are generic drugs and not ethical/branded ones. And while there is a rule regarding not selling something above the MRP, chemists are not bound to sell a medicine below the MRP. It depends on what your own input costs are,” said a chemist in one of the videos issued to counter Jindu’s claims.
The Punjab Chemists Association has condemned Jindu for bringing a “bad name” to the fraternity. “We are not against his highlighting the margin that is there in generic medicines but we object to the manner in which he has painted everyone else as scamsters taking the public for a ride,” G.S. Chawla, general secretary of the Punjab Chemists Association and president of the Ludhiana Chemists Association, told ThePrint Friday.
“Also, when the government has not issued any fresh licences for the past six years, how did he open a chemist shop?” he added.
Taking suo motu cognisance of social media reports, the state drug controller has initiated a probe into Jindu taking charge of the shop.
“We have nothing to do with what he said on social media or its backlash. But since the matter is in public domain, we feel it is our duty to find out if this shop is running with a valid licence or not,” said Punjab drug controller Pradeep Mattoo Friday.
“I have sought a report from the zonal drug controller who will be submitting it in the coming days.”
Jindu said the chemists are being supported by cabinet minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu, who is also the local MLA, but the latter has denied the allegations.
“I have nothing to do with this issue. I am not supporting anyone. In fact, I stand by those people who are helping society. Jindu has been my neighbour for many years and I know him quite well. He has a habit of going astray but that doesn’t mean that I will go against him,” Ashu told ThePrint.
‘It’s not that simple’
Jagdeep Singh, president of the Punjab Drug Manufacturers Association, said there is no “simplistic solution” to the MRP controversy.
“The rates of almost 50 per cent of the drugs are controlled through the drug price control orders (DPCO) of 1995 and 2013. For the rest, the manufacturer has been given the liberty to set any rate. It is true that there is a wide margin in the cost of generic drugs vis-a-vis the MRP because generic drug manufacturers are not spending money on marketing,” he said.
“The margin is the attraction to retailers so that they put in the effort to sell the drug at the counter. Companies manufacturing ethical/branded drugs, however, have marketing overheads and margin for the retailer is low.”
Punjab’s talking point
Although the chemist fraternity is upset, Jindu’s initiative has earned him several supporters, including Akal Takht jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh.
“If anyone does sewa, we are with them. There should be more modikhana businesses in the state,” he told mediapersons earlier this week. Lok Insaaf Party MLA Simarjit Singh Bains, meanwhile, visited Jindu’s shop Monday.
On Friday, a grocer opened another “modikhana” in Ludhiana.
Reformed gangster Lakha Sidhana, too, issued a video in favour of the modikhana concept, as did singer Khan Saab and social activist Anmol Kwatra.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.