The Central government on Tuesday informed the Delhi high court that it will suspend Mitr portal, which is linked to the Aarogya Setu app to promote online sale of medicines, following objections by nearly 8.5 lakh brick-and-mortar retail chemists across India.
The court was hearing a petition filed by the South Chemists and Distributors Association, which alleged that the portal was promoting online pharmacies through the Aarogya Setu app. Initially, the government had has opposed the plea, arguing that the website was developed so that medicines are easily accessible to Covid-19 patients.
Clarifying that the government has suspended and delinked the Aarogya Setu Mitr portal, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare told the court that online delivery of medicines is essential to meet the emergency arising due to the pandemic.
Additional Solicitor General Maninder Acharya, who was representing the central government, clarified that if the government decides to relaunch the portal, it will ensure that all the issues raised in the petitions would be catered to. For now, the website is not available.
The petitioners had claimed that the Mitr portal was acting as a marketing tool for epharmacies, and does not mention offline pharmacies. Aarogya Setu Mitr had listed online pharmacies like Netmeds, PharmaEasy, Medlife and 1mg, to offer medicines online.
It added that this is misleading as the Aarogya Setu users believe that drugs for the treatment of Covid-19 were available only through epharmacies, saying that there is no basis for a government-owned platform to promote private commercial ventures.
The association demanded that the government should also list licensed local chemists on the website. Besides this, it had sought directions for the IT Ministry and National Informatics Centre, who were managing the contact trace of Aarogya Setu. The association had also sought directives for NITI Aayog.
Earlier this week, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), which also represents epharmacies, has urged the government to finalise the draft epharmacy policies as the delay may hamper competition in the sector. It highlighted that several vested distributors and retailers were spreading misinformation about epharmacies, which would affect competition and contribute to high drug prices in India.
The Centre had released the draft rules for online pharmacies in September 2018. The rules made it mandatory for online pharmacies and cosmetics stores to obtain licences within two months of the notification. Post that only licensed stores will be allowed to operate in India.
However, the government is yet to finalise these guidelines. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government had decided to finalise epharmacies regulations within the first 100 days of its second term, but this wasn’t possible due to the protest from offline pharmacies.