Just posturing: Yoga blitz won't solve India's health crisis

  • Samar Halarnkar, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Aug 12, 2015 00:04 IST

A disclaimer: I do not do yoga, I never have.

My physical well-being comes from running, swimming and eating right, which includes a lifetime of eating dead animals. At 50, I am reasonably fit, happy and calm (even if I say so myself) and have more than enough energy to keep pace with two jobs and a hyperactive five year old and her friends.

I have seen and known the benefits of yoga, and I recognise it as a great part of my culture. But it is not my path. What I found most troubling about the recent government-sponsored hoopla over yoga was the subtle pressure to conform and the unsubtle message that refusing to doing so is somehow — to use that suitably paranoid term — anti-national.

The yoga diktat is a smart way of imposing India’s dominant culture without using the word ‘Hindu’, although it was obvious that Vice President Hamid Ansari, if he was not a Muslim, would never have been targeted by Sangh supporters for his supposed non-participation. Even Congress-ruled Karnataka is planning to include yoga in its school and college curriculum.

Nationally, the Congress tied itself in knots trying to oppose it, and there was silence from the otherwise voluble fringes of Islam. Indeed, 47 Islamic countries came forward to sponsor India’s record-breaking United Nations resolution to establish June 21 as international day of yoga. The agenda of the yoga blitzkrieg is, of course, a matter of opinion.

Those who saw the scene at Rajpath as reminiscent of Hitler’s rallies at Nuremberg (“Guten tag, mitron”, said one wag on Twitter) smirked, but they were drowned out by declarations of a proud reclaiming of Indian heritage and a newly confident global projection of ‘soft power’.

I might be left cold by the yoga blitz, but there is one thing that cannot be denied: That yoga and its curative, preventive and cultural powers are now significant talking points.

If only we could spend half as much time talking about a growing national emergency, or — if we must — link it to yoga as it could be a mitigating factor. I refer you to India’s speedy, ominous disease transition, which my colleague Charu Bahri investigated recently.

In 2005, she wrote, the average Indian had a 50-50 chance of dying from a non-communicable disease as a communicable disease. Today, the odds of dying from a non-communicable disease have doubled.

It is exacerbated by India’s poor health-care system, the worst in the emerging world and lagging behind many poorer countries — all issues that need a more urgent focus.

In large part, this emergency is connected with the rapidity with which our lives have changed: inactivity, eating habits, long working hours and working conditions, mobile phones and stress. Many causal effects and details require more research.

What we do know is that the incidence of cancer doubled within eight years, diabetes tripled within 19 years, chronic respiratory diseases doubled in 14 years, and cardiovascular diseases are now India’s top killers, replacing older ailments like tuberculosis and malaria, which too have continued.

Indians are now facing a double assault. The epidemiological transition, as it is technically called, occurred over a century ago in the West. In India, it has taken no more than two decades (1990s-2000s), which also constitute the era of economic growth, urbanisation and aspiration. Could yoga become a bulwark against diseases? It just might.

But the yoga hoopla is uncannily similar to the sweeping frenzy that India witnessed when the Prime Minister launched the Swacchh Bharat Abhiyan (the clean India programme) nearly nine months ago.

India isn’t any cleaner, and it will never be, until the causes of the crisis are addressed: 45 million tonnes, or 3 million truckloads of untreated garbage, left festering every day by municipal authorities nationwide, causing health and environmental problems. Garbage is only one reason for environmental degradation.

The urban air is foul; 13 of the world’s 20 most-polluted cities are in India, and water and soil are increasingly contaminated. Combined, these factors are prime facilitators of the lifestyle-disease explosion.

The outcomes will unfold — if they have not already — in the form of lower learning ability (Is the fall in the learning abilities of schoolchildren related to health issues? We do not know), reduced productivity and growing inequality as ill-health pulls back those who have risen above the poverty line.

This explosion has no immediate solutions because there is little awareness it even exists. In this formidably complex mess, believing that yoga is the national one-stop health solution is like waiting for Dhanavantri (the god of health) to work miracles.

Instead of acknowledging the real problems, we are happy with trending tweets and television-ratings-point-driven issues, such as sweeping streets and doing yoga on them. Instead of pursuing the real problems, we prefer manufactured outrage against easy targets. Maggi’s lead problem is one instance.

India does have a serious lead-toxicity issue — at least half our children already have unsafe levels of lead in their blood — for which Nestle India isn’t responsible. Last week, every state that banned Maggi released test results: There was no lead found in the Maggi they tested.

That never made it to the headlines.

Our lead poisoning continues, and we are back to waiting for the next attention-catching inanity.

Similarly, instead of discussing the larger, tougher causes of the health crisis, we prefer the yoga hype. “Rejuvenate with yoga,” reads a government of India SMS I received on Sunday. “It helps achieve control over the mind and flexibility of the body.

Live life to its full potential.” I’ll try. But I really want to discuss the things that cut down on that potential.

(Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org. The views expressed are personal.)

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