Kashmir Running Short of Life Saving Drugs as Clampdown Continues

The region continues to grapple with restrictions for the 18th straight day after its autonomous status was revoked on August 5.

Srinagar: On Wednesday, Rizwan Nabi travelled from his native village of Meemandar in Shopian district, some 60 km south of Srinagar city, to purchase medicines for his ailing mother, Nazira Bano, a diabetic.

According to Nabi, the local drug shops have run short of supplies in the district.

“My mother hasn’t taken medicines for the past two days now. I am worried about her health and today braving all odds I reached Srinagar hoping to get medicines for her,” he said, waiting in a queue for his turn at a drug store in the city. “Here, people are saying there is a dearth of supplies.”

No sooner had the young man reached the counter, he was sent back by the pharmacist, who said stocks were already exhausted a few days ago. As he was leaving the counter, the chemist suggested that he visit Karan Nagar locality, the hub of pharmaceutical companies in Kashmir. “You better hurry up, you may get the medicine there.”

Many people visiting the city, the summer capital of Kashmir, with prescriptions are not as lucky as Nabi.

The Valley’s drug stores are running short of stocks as the region continues to grapple with restrictions and communication blockade for 18th straight day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government scrapped its autonomous status on August 5.

Though the Valley’s markets are shut, drug stores remain open. However, they are not able to replenish exhausted stocks.

Kashmiri girls ride a scooter on a deserted road during restrictions after scrapping of the special constitutional status for Kashmir by the Indian government, in Srinagar, August 20, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

“We are running short of many life saving and emergency drugs including cardio-vascular, anti-depression and anti-diabetic ones like Atorvan, Starvauss, telmisartan, Azulix, Syndopa, etc. Other important medicines used to treat cancer and renal diseases are ordered every week,” said Shafqat Mir who runs a drug store, Medics, in Karan Nagar.

Giving a sense of the gravity of the situation, Mir said these days he was able to shell out only half of the medicines written on prescriptions.

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“You can see for yourself that most of the shelves are empty and whatever medicines have been exhausted are not being replenished for now. No fresh supplies are coming in and we don’t know how long this situation will continue,” he said.

the issue of healthcare in the region was in the spotlight earlier this week, when British medical journal The Lancet published an editorial raising concerns about the health and safety of Kashmiris. The Indian Medical Association shot back at the journal, saying in a letter that it had “no locus standi on the issue of Kashmir” and had “committed breach of propriety in commenting on this political issue”.

Depleting stocks

A pharmacist in the commercial hub of Lal Chowk near the Ghanta Ghar, Clock Tower, showed The Wire a four-page list of medicines he had ordered five days ago. Of the 127 listed items, he said he received only 79 items.

“It is becoming difficult to continue operations. People ask all kinds of questions and we don’t have all the answers,” the pharmacist said.

At least four drug stores in Kara Nagar and outside the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS), the Valley’s tertiary care health institute, had the same tale to narrate.

Since the authorities have also blocked landline phones and snapped mobile and internet services, the drug stores have no means to connect to stockists and dealers within and outside Kashmir to place fresh

“How shall I contact my stockist to place an order?” said Mushtaq Ahmad, owner of Pukhta Pharma. “There is no way to connect to dealers and that has led to the situation today.”

The Valley gets more than 80% of its medical supplies from Jammu, while the rest is imported from Chandigarh, New Delhi, Mumbai and other Indian cities.

“We physically sent our runners to Jammu and other places, but they were told airliners and transporters are refusing to lift consignments for Kashmir,” said Ahmad.

State government authorities and the Government of India fear that once restrictions on public movement are lifted completely and communication is fully restored, the region may witness protests and the situation could further deteriorate.

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The fear has led to panic buying, one of the reasons being attributed to the shortage of drugs in the market.

“A patient who would usually buy medicines for two weeks has instead bought supplies for three months,” said Arshad Husain Bhat, the president of the Kashmir Chemist and Distributors Association. “The situation is not panicky yet, but if the supplies are not restored in the next few days, we may find ourselves in a problem.”

There are around 2,000-3,000 Srinagar-based distributors supplying drugs to all ten districts of the Valley, which has a population of over 7.2 million, according to Bhat, a stockist and owner of AA Pharma.

However, Bhat said only 500 of the distributors have a wide reach. “The problem is that the supply-link between the drug stores, stockist and depots has been broken. That needs to be addressed by the authorities. The only way to do that is to restore internet and phone services as soon as possible,” he said, at his store near the SMHS hospital.

On Tuesday, Bhat’s landline service was restored for “some time” before it was disconnected again. “I was able to talk to my supplier in Jammu. But I can’t place an order on the phone. I need to order a long list of medicines,” he said.

Shri Maharaj Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar. Photo: PTI/Files

Rural situation could be ‘serious’

Bhat feared that the situation in rural Kashmir could be “serious” since the stockists have not been able to reach out to them in the past 18 days.

“There will be problems in the districts as we are completely cut off from them. I believe it will be a serious one,” said Bhat.

M.L. Bindroo, the owner of Bindroo Medicates, the oldest chemist shop in Kashmir – running since 1931 – also emphasized the importance of communication systems in the field to keep the supplies going.

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“The shelf stock has been exhausted as the quantum of the purchase made by the patients has gone up. The situation in the Valley is bad, but we need to find a way around it to ensure that patients don’t suffer,” he said.

The local administration has maintained that the situation in the Valley was “improving gradually”, citing “opening of some schools” and cash withdrawn by people from ATMs. The situation on the ground, however, continues to remain tense. Markets are still shut and people prefer to stay indoors amid reports of large scale arrests being carried out by police over the past two days.

“You can see for yourself and assess the situation. These are challenging times,” said Bhat of AA Pharma. “Whatever supplies we have left, we are trying to reach out to people. Once the supplies are exhausted altogether, we will shut down.”