When over 800,000 pharmaceutical shops in India go on strike on Wednesday against the sale of drugs on e-commerce platforms, it will start a new chapter in the classic fight between old and the new economy.
At stake is not so much consumer safety or the legality of selling drugs online, as the strikers would like everyone to believe, but a battle for the Rs 80,000-crore annual retail drugs business that “off-line” pharmacists are unwilling to cede without a fight.
All-India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD) wants the Centre to stop the sale of drugs on e-commerce platforms like Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal, which it says is putting consumers at risk apart from jeopardising the livelihood of over 4 million people directly employed in the drugs trade.
Sale of drugs online is a fairly recent phenomenon and over the last two years or so, nearly a dozen or so e-pharmacies have emerged that offer home delivery. AIOCD believes it is impossible to monitor the sale of prescription drugs (such as sleeping pills) online, which puts consumers at risk. AIOCD general secretary Suresh Gupta said, “What we don’t understand is why the central government is unwilling to stop sale of drugs online, which is only helping 10-odd companies and putting the entire nation at risk.”
Currently there is no provision in the law (Drugs and Cosmetics Act 1940) for online sales of medicines. On the other hand, no law prohibits it either. It is precisely for this reason that the Drugs Controller General of India decided in the last week of August to set up a consultative committee to look into this matter. The objective is to create provisions in the law that will regulate online sale of drugs. The committee is headed by Harshdeep Kamble, Maharashtra’s Food and Drug Administration Commissioner.
AIOCD is outraged that the government is even thinking of regulating something that it feels should be banned outright. “They are going to amend the law and impose a system the country is not ready for,” said Gupta.
Attempts to reach Kamble for comments were unsuccessful.
New online retailers such as 1mg.com and Zigy.com (promoted by former Infosys executive Phaneesh Murthy) told HT any fear over safety of selling drugs online are completely unfounded. Prashant Tandon, founder, 1mg.com, said, “We do not allow any orders of sleeping pills, habit forming drugs or Schedule X medicines to go through our platform. Every prescription we receive is checked by our team of 35 pharmacists.”
Hemant Bhardwaj, co-founder and CEO of Zigy.com, believes the objections stem primarily from fear of losing business. “This must be a collaborative effort of online and offline businesses,” he said.