New Delhi: An organisation representing nearly 8.5 lakh brick-and-mortar chemists across India has moved the Delhi High Court against the Narendra Modi government, alleging it is promoting online pharmacies, their arch rival, through Aarogya Setu app.
A writ petition was filed on 8 May by the South Chemists and Distributors Association, which is the southern wing of the All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists.
The organisation has asked the central government and three other respondents to immediately delink the AarogyaSetu Mitr portal, which is “promoting” e-pharmacies, from the Aarogya Setu App.
The AarogyaSetu Mitr portal, which is a public-private-partnership initiative, lists several e-pharmacies and telemedicine services, and promotes itself as “an effort to bring healthcare services to the doorstep of all Indians in the time of the Covid-19 crisis”.
The three respondents are the principal scientific adviser to the Government of India, the NITI Ayog and the government’s IT infrastructure-maker National Informatics Centre — all of who facilitated the making of the portal.
“In a highly illegal, arbitrary and discriminatory manner, the website (AarogyaSetu Mitr) promotes and acts as a marketing tool for e-pharmacies only and excludes marketing, distribution and sales by the offline chemists,” according to the petition seen by ThePrint.
The petition stated the e-pharmacies are “illegal under the law and continue to operate despite an injunction order passed by this court”.
The petition also raised questions over the government’s intention of favouring “online pharmacists” and requested an urgent listing of the matter in the court for hearing.
“The actions of the respondents (Indian government) are causing grave prejudice to the petitioners (offline chemists). The customers are being misled to buy medicines only from e-pharmacies and are raising doubts about the medicines being offered by the petitioners,” it said.
‘Website promotes vested interests’
The local neighbourhood pharmacies, the petition said, are suffering immensely.
“The customers have been given an impression that home delivery cannot take place from the local pharmacy stores and one has to buy medicines only from e-pharmacies,” said the petition.
It also pointed out the similarity between the name of mobile application (Aarogya Setu) and the website (AarogyaSetu Mitr), and called it “intentional”.
“The website seeks to take advantage of the name and goodwill generated by the Aarogya Setu app, even though the website is not government-owned and solely promotes vested interests,” the petition added.
What is AarogyaSetu Mitr initiative?
The website provides links of popular e-pharmacy outlets, including 1MG, PharmEasy, NetMeds and MedLife, apart from providing one-click option to book diagnostic tests from chains such as Lal PathLabs, Thyrocare and Metropolis.
This initiative, according to the website, has been facilitated by the offices of the principal scientific adviser to the Prime Minister, and NITI Aayog, with voluntary participation from organisations, industry coalitions, and startups who have helped create a platform for citizens of India to connect with some key services at home.
“The key service provided is free tele-consults for patients who may have Covid-19-like symptoms, along with ancillary services like home collection of samples for diagnostics and medicine delivery at home.”
Legality of e-pharmacies
Despite topping the 100-day agenda of the Modi government, there is no law to govern the online sales of medicines in the country.
They currently do not fall under the ambit of any existing law, although they function on the principles of their brick-and-mortar counterparts.
In 2015, the Modi government began debating the advantages and disadvantages of legalising online medicine sales, however, no official notification has been rolled out yet to restore the legality.
While online pharmacies have acquired the necessary licences under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, their legitimacy is often questioned in the absence of a law or rules for the market.
The sale of medicines in India is currently regulated under three legal frameworks — the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945, and the Pharmacy Act, 1948 — all drafted in an era when online sales were not foreseen.
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