Political Pilgrim’s Progress

Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister for Science & Technology, Earth Sciences and Environment, Forest and Climate Change has a long and distinguished record of public service, leaving his indelible mark in all fields of activity undertaken. An ENT surgeon by profession to start with, Dr. Vardhan branched out into public life in 1993, when he got elected to the Delhi Assembly from the Krishna Nagar constituency in east Delhi. This marked the beginning of a scintillating run in electoral politics, which saw him getting elected to the Delhi Assembly for four more successive terms (1998, 2003, 2008 and 2013) and to the Lok Sabha in 2014 from the Chandni Chowk constituency in Delhi.

Dr Vardhan’s public life has been marked by standout achievements in the fields of health, education, law, science & technology and environment. He was instrumental early in public life, through his mass, country-wide campaign, in wiping out polio from the face of India. Subsequently, he was at the forefront of the battle against tobacco and drug abuse and was instrumental in the enactment of several laws including the Delhi Prohibition of Smoking in Public Places & Non-Smokers Health Protection Act to tackle these problems. Subsequent to this the Supreme Court directed all states to replicate this law and 12 States enacted similar laws. He for the first time implemented the Rational Drug Policy which was recognised by the WHO as the Delhi Model and was adopted by many countries.

Stellar record

His track record as a Union Minister from 2014 onwards has been stellar. At the helm of the Ministry of Science & Technology, Dr Vardhan’s focus has been to motivate the country’s scientists to come up with new technologies, processes and products that can provide innovative solutions to people’s problems. He has made it a point to visit all the labs and research institutions under his Ministry to motivate the scientists working there to achieve greater heights. He is committed to setting up a roadmap for the implementation of the ‘Make in India’ programme, for building a robust R&D infrastructure and promoting synergies between industry and scientific research institutions. At the Ministry of Environment, he has been instrumental in planting the seeds of a mass movement to make the protection and preservation of the environment the concern and goal of every citizen.

Fondly called ‘Doctor Saahab’, Dr Harsh Vardhan is known for his disarming simplicity in personal life and transparency at the workplace. He is also held in high esteem by officials for his hands-on style of functioning. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once said of him, “He joined politics with the laudable objective of using his considerable medical knowledge and experience for serving the common man.”

Early Life

The second child of the late Om Prakash Goel and Snehlata, Dr  Vardhan was born on December 13, 1954. He has an older sister and a younger brother. The young Harsh Vardhan had his schooling in the Anglo-Sanskrit Victoria Jubilee Senior Secondary School in Daryaganj, which is one of the oldest educational institutions in northern India, founded in 1869. Later, he decided to become a doctor and attended GSVM Medical College in Kanpur from where he cleared his MBBS and MS with specialisation in ENT.

The soon-to-be-doctor Harsh Vardhan (second from right) with fellow medical students in Agra during final year posting at a mental hospital

He then returned to Delhi to set up practice as an ENT surgeon. Dr. Vardhan joined the Indian Medical Association’s Delhi Chapter in 1984 and worked hard to build solidarity in the medical fraternity. He also held various posts in the Delhi Medical Association––from Secretary and President (East Delhi) to State Secretary and President––where he showed early signs of his leadership qualities. Within the BJP, he has worked hard to organise a 'Doctor's Cell' and helped establish vibrant units of this in many states.

Seva before Swayam

Despite his remarkable achievements, Dr Harsh Vardhan maintains a low profile. An RSS activist since childhood, he retains the swayamsevak’s tendency to downplay the ‘swayam’, giving precedence to 'seva'. Few who follow Indian politics are aware that Dr Vardhan pioneered the Pulse Polio programme in India. He launched it first in Delhi, which was then home to 10 per cent of polio cases in India.

Nothing better than a doctor administering his own medicine: Dr. Harsh Vardhan on the polio eradication beat

In 1994, on a single day (October 2, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi), he organised the mass immunisation of 1.2 million children. No immunisation programme in India before this had involved such awesome logistics. Interestingly, the entire programme was enthusiastically supported by school children, who acted as ‘Polio Sainiks’, apart from the involvement of activists from over 400 NGOs, the RSS, Rotary International and thousands of people from all walks of life.

But Dr Vardhan had bigger plans. His vision was for a polio-free India, which could only be achieved by extending the Pulse Polio campaign to cover the whole country. At first, experts, both Indian and foreign, were sceptical about the venture, considering the fact that this needed an awesome number of doctors, paramedics, volunteers and administrators.  Remember, this was the age before internet, mobile phones and widespread telecommunications facilities. Yet, undaunted by these challenges, Dr. Vardhan went around the country, persuading Health Ministers of all states to cooperate in making the Pulse Polio programme a success. Today, polio stands eradicated in India. Since then 6 years have passed without a single case and as of today our country is polio-free certified by the WHO for over 3 years.

Fight against tobacco

Next, Dr Vardhan focused his attention on tobacco consumption. As an ENT specialist, he was regularly confronted with cases of laryngeal, oral and lung cancer––all attributable to tobacco use. He conceived the first anti-tobacco legislation in India, despite facing stiff opposition from the tobacco lobby, whose clout continues even to this day. In 1997, under his bold leadership, the Delhi Prohibition of Smoking and Non-Smokers Health Protection Act was passed.

It was Dr Harsh Vardhan who spearheaded the introduction of anti-tobacco legislation in India

It was welcomed by hundreds of millions of Indians affected directly or indirectly by the tobacco menace. The Supreme Court provided a helping hand by passing an order asking all states and the Centre to follow suit. Soon, other states followed Delhi’s example, culminating in a Central legislation in 2002 banning smoking in public places. Fighting tobacco use still remains Dr Vardhan’s passion and he has attended several international conferences on tobacco control.

Dr Vardhan believes that a society does not become “modern” by just superficial change. Progress and modernisation, he feels, mean adopting lifestyles that reflect collective maturity and vision. “You can’t call yourself a superpower if ‘Health for All’, ‘Universal Elementary Education’ and ‘Environment Protection’ are mere slogans,” he says. The World Health Organisation (WHO) in recognition

Dr Harsh Vardhan being awarded the WHO Director-General’s Commendation Medal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (May 1998)

of his multifarious contributions to society, awarded him the Director-General’s Commendation Medal at a function held in Rio de Janeiro in May 1998. This was an honour previously bestowed on the likes of US President Bill Clinton and football superstar Pele. In January 2001, Prime Minister Vajpayee honoured him with Rotary International’s ‘Polio Eradication Champion Award’.

Dr. Vardhan is the first Indian to receive this prestigious award, which was earlier conferred on former British Prime Minister John Major, former President Bill Clinton of the US, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a galaxy of other major international personalities. At the function held in New Delhi, attended by a large number of international luminaries to confer the award on him, Prime Minister Vajpayee described Dr Vardhan as ‘Swasthya Vardhan’.

Former Prime Minister A.B Vajpayee conferring Rotary International's 'Polio Eradication Champion Award' on 'Swasthya Vardhan' in New Delhi.

Bipartisan following

Dr Vardhan is one of the few politicians in the country to enjoy broad, bipartisan admiration. Former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral famously commented at an international event: “If I have to single out one minister for an outstanding award in India, then my first choice will be Dr Harsh Vardhan”.

Dr Vardhan has been conferred the Paul Harris Fellowship by Rotary International twice. The International Institute of Polypathy based in Milan, Italy, nominated him as a Fellow in 1996. In 1995, the then President of Lions International, Mr C. Pino Grimaldi, awarded him the Lions International Service Award. In 1994, he received the ‘IMA President’s Special Award of Appreciation’ and was given the ‘IMA Special Award to Eminent Medical Men for Distinguished Achievement of Highest Order’ for two successive years, 1995 and 1996. On ‘Doctor’s Day’, July 1, 2002, he was named ‘Doctor of the last Decade’ (Swasthya Ratna) by the New Delhi branch of the Indian Medical Association for being the “noblest medical campaigner of the last decade”.

The social activist

A number of prestigious social organisations have honoured Dr Vardhan with awards. The Maharaja Agrasen Forum conferred on him the 'Aggarwal Ratan Award' in 1994. The Jain Mahasabha bestowed on him the 'Ahimsa Samman' in 1996. The 'Sewa Shree Samman' was conferred on him in 1996 for his outstanding achievements by Dr Manmohan Singh, the-then Finance Minister. The All India Conference of Intellectuals conferred on him the ‘Delhi Ratan Award’. The Acharya Kshemchand Suman Seva Samiti conferred on him the prestigious Acharya Suman Shree Samman for the year 2001. He has also received the Vocational Excellence Award from the Rotary Club of Delhi Uptown for his outstanding contribution to serving the community, with special mention of his dedication and commitment in providing relief to the victims of the Gujarat earthquake. He is also a recipient of a Certificate of Excellence from Dr Bhisham Narain Singh, the former Governor of Tamil Nadu, on behalf of India International Friendship Society for outstanding services, achievements and contributions. In February 2002, he was honoured at the Polio Plus International Presidential Summit held in Mumbai in acknowledgement of his commitment to the eradication of polio. In 1999, Dr Vardhan received the ‘Human Care Award of the Millennium’ for excellence in the medical profession from the Chief Minister of Delhi, Smt. Shiela Dixit, on behalf of Punjab & Sind Bank. The International Institute of Integrated Medical Sciences, Varanasi, awarded him the Certificate of Academic Excellence. For his services to the environment, Dr Vardhan received the National Environmental Seva Samman at the 1996 World Environment Congress. He also received the Rashtriya Hindi Samman in 1996 at the All India Hindi Sammelan by the Dr Ganga Sharan Singh Rashtriya Hindi Sansthan.

The ‘Big Idea’ man

A major pioneering initiative of Dr Vardhan was his implementation of WHO’s Essential Drug Programme, which revolutionised governments’ attitudes to public healthcare. Under the plan, maximum budgetary outlay was apportioned to those drugs most needed by the people. Dr Vardhan’s initiative came to be known as the ‘Delhi Model’ and was taken up by several foreign countries and at least a dozen state governments in India. The Delhi Society for Promotion of Rational Use of Drugs, which is a powerful movement now, was also birthed by Dr Harsh Vardhan and he continues to be associated with its progress.

The anti-drugs campaigner hits the streets to rally against all forms of substance abuse

His missionary zeal has touched other areas of healthcare as well. Under him, Delhi’s Maulana Azad Medical College got the country’s first-ever Department for Occupational and Environmental Health. He launched the ‘Matri Suraksha Programme’ to ensure proper mother and childcare for Delhi’s middle and lower income groups. The ‘Cancer Control Programme’, the ‘Cataract Free Delhi Programme’ and the ‘Shravan Shakti Abhiyan’ for the rehabilitation of the elderly and the hearing impaired were begun under his leadership. His administration also launched the ‘Healthy City Project’, the ‘Hepatitis B Immunisation Programme’ and a Delhi Research Centre for Modernised Promotion of Ayurveda. Two significant pieces of legislation that bear his stamp are the Delhi Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy Act and Delhi Artificial Insemination Act.

Expertise sought

Dr Vardhan’s fame as a committed health practitioner has grown far and wide. Experts from all over the world consult him and he is invited abroad regularly to address gatherings of medical practitioners and social activists. His life-long commitment to polio eradication also continues. To this end, he has also served as Advisor to the South-East Asia office of WHO. He is the first Indian to have been nominated to the prestigious WHO body, the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE), in which capacity he counselled the international body on developing policies on vaccines and biologicals.

As far as the medical fraternity is concerned, Dr. Harsh Vardhan has been primus inter pares, helming several bodies like the DMA and IMA

Apart from this, he has served on the Global Technical Consultative Group and the Technical Consultative Group of the South-East Asia region for polio eradication. This is the highest body of WHO dedicated to the elimination of polio.

Dr Vardhan is a member of several prestigious organisations not only in the medical field but also culture, diplomacy and related areas. He is a life member of the International Medical Parliamentarians Organisation, the Antarrashtriya Sahyog Parishad, the Council for International Affairs and Human Rights, the Panchnad Research Institute, the IMA Academy of Medical Specialties, the Association of Otolaryngologists of India, the All India Rhinology Society, the Gems Association and the Delhi Society for Promotion of Rational Use of Drugs. He is also one of the founders of Green Forum, the country’s first multi-party platform of leaders interested in environment protection.

Contributions to journals

Dr Vardhan has presented research papers at several national and international conferences. He has also contributed to the world’s leading medical journals and has travelled to many countries, where he has visited various centres of excellence to learn and consider the relevance of their developments in the Indian context. He has also been a senior member of an Expert Advisory Committee for Health Programmes on the Doordarshan Bharati channel.

He regularly contributes articles on the environment, health, medical ethics and progressive issues to mainstream media. Dr Vardhan’s articles have been published by Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, Punjab Kesri, Organiser, DNA, Business Standard, Panchjanya and other specialised magazines and journals apart from the vernacular press.

Family and friends

THE FAMILY 'VARDAAN': Nutanji and children Sachin, Inakshi and Mayank(back row, left to right) with the pater familias

Married to Nutan, a specialist in hospital administration who later opted to be a homemaker, Dr  Vardhan has two sons.His elder son, Dr Mayank Bharat, has done his MBBS and MBA from Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. His younger son, Sachin, has graduated in Accountancy and Finance from Monash University, Melbourne, and is a CPA now. Daughter Inakshi, who did B.Com (Honours) from Delhi University, followed it up with an MBA degree and teaches Management in Delhi University. A non-smoker and teetotaller, Dr Vardhan believes in the medical efficacy of yoga and physical exercise. He made sports, yoga and value education compulsory in the school curriculum when he was Delhi’s Education Minister.

Followers of all faiths acknowledge Dr Vardhan as a leader who can unify all communities and bring about national reconciliation. He has worked with Imams of mosques all over India to help implement polio immunisation among poor Muslim communities. In special recognition of his services to the community, the prestigious Ghalib Academy of New Delhi conferred the ‘Best Professional’ award on him in April 2008.

A leading trait of Dr. Harsh Vardhan’s personality is that he creates a sense of community with members of all faiths

In June 2008, he worked closely with the Catholic Archdiocese of New Delhi to launch the first anti-plastic bag movement in Delhi––the ‘Green Shopper’ campaign––which also promotes business partnerships in the manufacture and marketing of environment-friendly products involving poor communities organised into self-help groups across India.

Green Fingers

In June 2007, Dr. Vardhan held consultations with leaders of the environment movement in Delhi and resolved to become India’s premier ‘green’ leader. In July 2008, when he went to the US to address the annual convention of the American Physicians of Indian origin, he was hailed as a “leader of the future” by the entire community of Indian doctors in that country. To honour him, the Mayor of Las Vegas, Mr Oscar Goodman, handed him the key to the city.

In December 2004, Dr Vardhan came out with his own account of how he conceived and implemented the Pulse Polio programme. The book, titled, ‘A Tale of Two Drops’ (English) / ‘Kahani Do Boondon Ki’ (Hindi), was released at a glittering function in New Delhi by Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the presence of Shri L.K. Advani, Shri Mohan Bhagwat, Smt. Sushma Swaraj, and Dr Samlee Plianbangchang, the-then Regional Director, World Health Organisation, South-East Asia Region.

Pep to the party

If the Bharatiya Janata Party went on to winning ways in Delhi the credit all vested with Dr. Harsh Vardhan

As President of the Delhi Pradesh unit of the BJP, a position that he held four times, Dr  Vardhan proved that an able professional could also be a good organiser. Earlier, he had also held the post of Vice-President of the party’s national unit. In late 2003, he was nominated President of the Delhi unit of the BJP and worked to rebuild the party’s structure from the grassroots to the top. Under his guidance, the resolve and motivation of the common worker was restored and soon the BJP returned to winning ways. In April 2007 the party recaptured the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and in 2008 the Delhi Cantonment Board. Under Dr. Vardhan’s able leadership the BJP secured the maximum number of seats in the 2013 Assembly elections when he was projected as the Chief Ministerial candidate by the party. The BJP also won all seven of the Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 Parliamentary elections.

Apart from politics, Dr Vardhan has also been involved in promoting the legacy of Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Jan Sangh, who gave his life for Jammu and Kashmir’s integration with India, and Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay, the visionary and ideologue who conceived the theory of Integral Humanism. In early 2008, he was named Secretary of the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Foundation by the-then BJP President, Shri Rajnath Singh, which took up three important projects: to assemble the collected works of Dr Mukherjee, to restore his house in Kolkata along with all memorabilia and, most importantly, promote research on subjects of national importance.

All through his public life, Dr Vardhan has campaigned relentlessly against corruption and mal-governance. He has won the respect and admiration of all for defending their human, civic, environmental and consumer rights.