New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government Tuesday informed the Delhi High Court that it will suspend the AarogyaSetu Mitr portal, which is linked to the Aarogya Setu app to promote online sale of medicines, following objections by nearly 8.5 lakh brick-and-mortar retail chemists across India.
The court was hearing a petition filed by the South Chemists and Distributors Association, which alleges that the portal is promoting online pharmacies through the Aarogya Setu app.
Additional Solicitor General Maninder Acharya made the statement before a bench led by Justice Navin Chawla and said the portal will remain suspended for the “time being”.
Speaking to ThePrint, Senior Advocate Sudhir Nandrajog, who argued the case on behalf of the petitioner, said the stand taken by the central government is an “admission that the linkage was against the current norms which bars online pharmacies”.
An affidavit filed last week by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) in response to the petition also said that draft rules for online pharmacies are yet to be framed.
“In view of this submission the government had no option but to suspend the website,” Nandrajog said.
According to the affidavit, the rules framed under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 –- the legal framework which regulates the sale of drugs — has no provision for online sale of medicines. However, a government notification issued on 26 March had amended these norms to allow e-sale of medicines in view of the pandemic.
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Portal a ‘marketing tool for e-pharmacies only’
The AarogyaSetu Mitr portal is a public-private-partnership initiative which lists several e-pharmacies and telemedicine services. It promotes itself as “an effort to bring healthcare services to the doorstep of all Indians in the time of the Covid-19 crisis”.
The petitioner had termed the move to link the portal with the Aarogya Setu app as illegal, arbitrary and discriminatory because it served as “a marketing tool for e-pharmacies only and excluded marketing, distribution and sales by the offline chemists”.
The petition also stated that e-pharmacies are “illegal under the law and continue to operate despite an injunction order passed by this court”.
The government said the Aarogya Setu app was designed to spread awareness about Covid-19 and help people have access to health services during the pandemic.
The ministry, however, did not respond to a query on whether e-pharmacy services being provided on the AarogyaSetu Mitr portal were registered. It simply said that at present there is no provision under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 and Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945 for online pharmacies.
Draft rules for e-pharmacies under consideration
According to the government, the debate on advantages and disadvantages of legalising online medicine sale began in 2015.
Suggestions were invited from various stakeholders and a public notice was also issued which proposed to establish a robust e-enabled structure for regulating sale of medicines in the country.
The last meeting to discuss the matter was held on 10 June last year, in which representatives from the Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Chemical and Fertilisers, NITI Aayog, Indian Medical Association and various State Drug Controllers had participated. All were asked to submit their detailed representation on the proposed notification.
Meanwhile, retail chemist stores, druggists and NGOs had moved various high courts, including the Delhi HC, to restrict online sale of drugs through e-pharmacies.
All the courts have passed directions that require the central government to consult stakeholders before finalising a draft on it.
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