Prime Minister Narendra Modi was speaking at the recent International Conference on the Frontiers of Yoga, held near Bengaluru, where he uttered words no one, certainly no PM, has had the courage to speak from a public platform. “We must also apply the techniques and methods of modern science, to test and validate results, assure quality and explain benefits,” Modi said before a community of traditional medicine experts and practitioners who had come expecting to hear hosannas in their praise.
He was right. To be a believer and a proponent of traditional medicine is one thing and to get the world to believe in traditional healing is another. In the absence of any tools of measurement, medical claims require proof of safety and effectiveness of outcomes judged by the same standards of research methodology and analysis as set out for modern medicine.
Ayurveda and two other traditional medical systems — Unani and Siddha — have been an undisputed part of India’s approach to medical pluralism for centuries. These systems have been recognised for the grant of medical degrees from 1970 and their medicines have been licensed under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act 1940. Taken together with the drugless therapies of yoga and naturopathy this group totals more than the entire allopathic fraternity presenting a powerful political constituency with direct influence on the community they serve. In 1993, the then PM PV Narsimha Rao, announced the setting up of a new ministry for ayurveda. After encountering bureaucratic resistance he agreed instead to carve out a separate department within the health ministry.
But the new department was not taken seriously by the ministry or its flagship institutions. In 2014, the department was re-christened, as the independent ministry of AYUSH but so far little has changed for the consumer.
And one morning Modi put his finger on the main reason for not gaining primacy, something that traditional medicine proponents have refused to confront for decades: The need to be judged by biomedical standards the world accepts.
Having said it the PM must do more: First, he should direct the CSIR, S&T, DRDO, ICMR and AYUSH to pool funds to promote high-quality clinical research on just 10 therapeutic procedures and formulations that are recognised to have the highest potential for success.
Second, he should direct the health ministry to put signages in clinics and government hospitals seeking volunteers for identified research projects where all costs would be borne by government.
Third, he should dispel the confusion around the prescription of ayurvedic drugs by modern medicine doctors. When all herbal medicines are sold over the counter, why haul up allopathic doctors for prescribing even garlic capsules?
India is sitting on a gold mine of knowledge and experience. Instead of using it to benefit humanity, traditional medicine educationists and practitioners are waiting for their day of recognition. The only way that can happen is if they validate knowledge using the tools of modern scientific research.
Shailaja Chandra is former chief secretary, DelhiThe views expressed are personal