Loans can be used to set up PHCs, support medical education, diagnostic services, pharmaceutical businesses, blood banks etc.
Agricultural cooperatives will soon be able to access a ₹10,000-crore fund for the creation of health infrastructure.
With COVID-19 putting a spotlight on the shortage of health facilities in rural areas, the National Cooperative Development Corporation, an autonomous institution under the Agriculture Ministry, rolled out the Ayushman Sahakar scheme to extend term loans worth ₹10,000 crore to co-ops for the next five years.
“Our primary motivation is access to healthcare for farmers in rural areas. That driving spirit gets amplified because of COVID-19. The pandemic has re-emphasised the gaps in healthcare in the country,” NCDC Managing Director Sundeep Nayak told The Hindu.
Over the last three months, the spread of the pandemic has shifted from cities towards rural areas, potentially threatening the agriculture sector which has been the one bright spot in the economy so far. At the end of June, 80% of the districts with more than 1,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were urban, while only 20% were rural. By the end of September, the ratio had morphed. Of districts with over 1,000 cases, 53% are now rural, according to data analysed by CRISIL Research.
The pandemic has brought into focus the requirement of creation of more facilities, said Union Minister of State for Agriculture Parshottam Rupala at the launch. Expressing the hope that Ayushman Sahakar would revolutionise the way healthcare delivery takes place in rural areas, he also urged the cooperatives to take up healthcare services as an activity for farmers.
There are already 52 hospitals being run by cooperatives across the country, with a cumulative bed strength of more than 5,000, said Mr. Nayak. The NCDC’s loans can be used to set up primary health centres but could also support medical education, diagnostic services, pharmaceutical businesses, blood banks, telemedicine or even wellness centres. Both allopathic and AYUSH-related projects can apply.
“There is a huge need for medical and nursing education in rural areas. But the problem is a lack of infrastructure. Co-ops find it difficult to access credit for such projects as banks may not give them loans for non-agricultural purposes,” said Mr. Nayak, adding that employment generation in rural areas is one of the secondary benefits of the scheme.
Apart from working capital and margin money to meet operational requirements, the scheme will also provide interest subvention of 1% to women majority cooperatives.
The NCDC disbursed over ₹28,000 crore of loans to cooperatives last year. It does not get any budgetary support or grants from the government and raises all its money from the market.