A protest marked by senseless bloodshed, announced by pharmaceutical manufacturers and chemists for Monday, took the side-line as an explosion ripped through the crowd gathered outside the Punjab Assembly, leading to the deaths of over 20 and injuring dozens of others. In the wake of this attack, it is almost natural that most people are not aware about what the protesters were demanding, considering the fact that security concerns are now at the forefront.

The recently passed amendments to the Drug Act 1976 in the Punjab Assembly are the source of the consternation. The tightening of rules and harsher punishments concerning the sale and manufacture of substandard drugs or those stored without adhering to precise temperature specifications alongside making the hiring of a licensed pharmacist at every pharmacy compulsory are some of the changes within the amendments.

It is important to separate the two stakeholders, the manufacturers and the retailers, and view them as mutually exclusive, although with a similar end result in mind. Both want the amendments gone, albeit for entirely different reasons. The manufacturers now have to ensure that all medicines being produced are registered and up to standards, which is not a bad thing in the slightest. Greater transparency in the process of vetting and registering drugs is a possibility, but the public deserves medication that fulfils quality standards and provides treatment, instead of making patients sicker.

Retailers form the other half of this equation – for them the only problematic amendment to the old drug act is allowing for greater autonomy to drug inspectors and regulatory bodies for raids, inspection, seizure and then using the evidence gained for conviction. The retailers complain that this allows for an increase in already rampant corruption of drug inspectors that are untrained and seek personal benefit. They are not wrong, and provisions for transparency in the system of inspections must be allowed for; the drug inspector cannot be allowed to become judge, jury and executioner, leaving pharmacies at their mercy.

Greater regulation of local drug production and storage, especially temperature sensitive drugs, is necessary. Increased monitoring is also a plus, no matter what the chemists or manufacturers say. Chemistry is a very specific science, not to be trifled with; drugs cannot be developed or stored in imperfect conditions. A fractional miscalculation can be the difference between life and death.

Having said that, there are valid concerns of the protesters that the government has not taken into account so far. Widespread corruption in the drug inspector fraternity and other regulatory mechanisms often makes life harder for even those that are following the rules. The Punjab government is attempting to make pharmacies and drug manufacturers more accountable, but must not do so at the expense of the entire industry.