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World Bank rapped for obstacles to health-care


Funded by developed countries, the World Bank claims its mission is to reduce poverty, but that message "is far from the truth," says Vineeta Gupta, an Indian doctor and human-rights activist, who blames the bank for denying health-care to India's poorest citizens.

As part of a US tour, Gupta spoke with 20 union and anti-globalization activists Sunday, September 16, at the Providence offices of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders Union, Local 217, and District 1199 New England Health Care Employees. The focus of her discussion was a $106 million World Bank loan that was used in 1995 to privatize health-care in the Indian state of Punjab.

Rupta says doctors like herself provided free care to the poor before privatization, but the practice has been barred by World Bank loan conditions and user fees have been established instead. In theory, the poorest Indians are exempt from user fees. But to avoid charges, they must have a government issued "yellow card" which entitles them to other welfare benefits. In her pamphlet, "World Bank Funded Health Care: A Death Certificate for Poor," Gupta reports that only 44 people in a Punjabi city of 270,000 had yellow cards. Following instructions from administrators, government workers haven't issued a new yellow card since 1996, she says.

Even without this barrier, Gupta notes, poor people must pay half an average day's wages, provide a home address, and comply with frequently changing renewal requirements to receive a yellow card. Those conditions effectively block access to care for thousands of homeless and destitute Punjabis, she notes. Denied free health care, poor Punjabis must go into debt when sick, give birth on the side of the road, or pay a few rupees to quacks who carry hypodermic needles in their turbans.

Rallying opposition to the privatized system has been difficult, however, Gupta says, because government corruption is widespread. "You can't get through x-ray or emergency services without a bribe," she explains. Although World Bank loans are causing more corruption, Gupta says, most people support privatization in the hope that bribery will stop. She adds that the poorest Indians have neither the time nor the resources to organize for universal health services.

The meeting began when Andrew Cortes, a member of the Carpenters Union and the Rhode Island Green Party, blamed "corporate globalization" for causing the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and he called for the peace and anti-globalization movements to work together to stop military action in Afghanistan. Gupta also opposes bombing Afghanistan.

Also criticizing the privatization of government services was Molly Dhlamini, a South African student activist. The corporations that have won contracts to provide cooking and cleaning services at universities in her country, she says, have reduced wages and benefits.

Issue Date: September 21 - 27, 2001