LAHORE - Mohsin rang up his friend in London and asked him to bring a bottle of panadol for him. His friend who had moved abroad in search of greener pastures a long time ago told him that the medicine was easily available in Pakistan. Living in the UK for years, he had forgotten what life was like back home. It had slipped his mind what might have prompted Zahid to make that demand. He forgot the simple fact that in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, markets are flooded with spurious and substandard medicines owing to inadequate quality control.

An Investigation carried out by The Nation found out that the business of spurious and substandard drugs continues to thrive because of poor supervisory mechanism on the part of the drug inspectors as well as lack of deterrent punishment by the only drug court for the entire division of Lahore which has four districts – Sheikhupura, Nankana Sahib and Kasur – and a population of over 10 million.

For over 100 pharmaceutical companies in the division, there are only ten drug inspectors. The situation is even worse off in the other districts where there is only one drug inspector for one district. According to the Pakistan Pharmaceuticals Association, the number of medicines registered across Pakistan is 66,000. Given the number of medical stores in the metropolis and pharmaceutical companies in Punjab (reportedly the number stands at 180), one drug inspector per district and one drug court per division is barely enough to cope with the job.

At the only drug court in Lahore, punishments do not act as deterrent so far as the business of spurious and substandard medicines is concerned. The court record shows that from January 2013 to March 2014, 1,415 cases were adjudicated. In more than 90 percent of the cases, the maximum fine awarded to the culprits was between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 while out of all the cases, the maximum jail punishment awarded was four years. From January 2013 till March 2014, the cumulative total of fine imposed stands at Rs 12.565 million.

Punishments are given under the Drugs Act 1976 under which maximum fine is Rs 100,000 and maximum imprisonment 10 years.

In a hypothetical situation, if a patient dies after taking a spurious medicine, the maximum punishment for the culprits will either be a small fine or one-year term in jail.

“The illegal business of pharmaceutical companies, spurious medicines and quacks is thriving because of soft punishments,” said a court official on the condition of anonymity.

The source also revealed that the drug inspectors were providing protection to this illegal practice for their own vested interests. He added it was very common for a drug inspector to take ‘monthly’ from pharmaceutical companies. However, no one will admit that corrupt practice is going on.

At its own end, the only drug court in the entire division of Lahore is embroiled in other problems as well, which has increased the backlog of cases. Proceedings were stopped from April 2 to May 5, increasing the number of pending cases after the tenure of the judge had expired. From April 2 onwards, no appointment was made by the relevant authority which delayed the dispensation of ‘justice’ besides negatively impacting the working of the court. A new judge took charge on Monday 5, but it is an additional charge valid up to three months.

At the moment, the court is embroiled in a legal battle going on between two former judges, both of them vying for a permanent appointment. Until the case is decided, there can be no permanent appointment.

Regarding the performance of the drugs inspectors, Adviser to Punjab Chief Minister on Health Khawaja Salman Rafique said the government was taking steps to end the business of spurious medicines. He said it would be ensured that all drugs inspectors were inducted through the Public Service Commission. He added that for proper monitoring of the drugs inspectors, the government would be providing them with android phones and data about their operations would be computerised to keep them under check.

The court on inside out

Just as the court’s performance beggars description, so does its physical condition. The court’s electricity has been cut off over nonpayment of dues for five months. With no electricity and no tap water, the functioning of the court has seriously been affected.

The only source of light in the court room is the daylight from the windows. Fax machines, photocopier and other software equipment cannot be used. Apart from the judicial staff and the judge, absence of electricity has also been a source of inconvenience to the litigants.

The court’s building is ramshackle. The first room within the house, which is the courtroom barely looks like the place befitting its sanctity. The decorum of the court is nowhere to be seen in this small room.

There are no security cameras installed inside the courtroom nor is there any chamber for the judge. Except for the bench of the judge and a wooden plague bearing names of the previous judges, there is very little to suggest that the bare minimum of the decorum fitting a courtroom has been upheld.