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A health warning for Dr Ramadoss

I?ve come to the conclusion that Anbumani Ramadoss is the sort of minister we can do without. My grouse is not that he?s incompetent, corrupt or half-witted, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jun 17, 2006 21:02 IST

I’ve come to the conclusion that Anbumani Ramadoss is the sort of minister we can do without. My grouse is not that he’s incompetent, corrupt or half-witted. For all I know he may be an excellent administrator, honest and brilliant to boot. The problem is he has no respect for the rest of us. He treats us like children, even idiots. He thinks he knows best and that he’s always right. I’m afraid ministers who think they’re infallible are a nuisance. They need to be eliminated — much like pests!

Last week Dr Ramadoss asked celebrities to stop endorsing aerated drinks. With the likes of Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Sachin Tendulkar in mind, he said: “I urge stars... to desist from promoting these products.” Why? Because the good doctor has decided they’re bad for us and, therefore, we must not be tempted to drink them.

Earlier, the doctor’s wrath fell upon scenes of smoking in films and television. He believes these glamorise smoking and tempt us to follow suit. So now, a committee he will appoint will decide if smoking on screen is permissible. If it is, the concerned actor will have to feature in an advertisement warning against smoking to be run before, after and during the film. In older movies, a scroll with the same message will be run for a minute before and after each smoking scene.

Both decisions are silly. But since silliness is typical of politicians what irks me is that, in addition, both decisions transgress into areas where ministers ought not to venture. They intrude upon our right to decide for ourselves.

No one would deny smoking is bad — not even smokers themselves. Similarly, most people believe too many Cokes, Pepsis, Fantas, Thums Ups or Mirindas aren’t in their best interest although, to be honest, I’m not sure if they’re bad per se. However, a surfeit of anything isn’t advisable. That’s indisputable.

But do we need — or want — ministers to prevent us from temptation? And does prevention work? The answer to both questions is no.

Let’s take the second first. Will a warning by, say, Ajay Devgan or Sanjay Dutt put people off smoking? Indeed, does awareness of how bad smoking can be stop people from starting? Clearly, the answer is no otherwise how does Ramadoss explain the fact that the proportion of doctors who smoke is not smaller than the proportion of the general population? No one could be more aware of the damage cigarettes cause yet, despite this, they’ve taken to the weed in similar numbers.

However, it’s the first question that is cause for greater concern. Is it the job of ministers to prevent us from temptation? Unless they think of themselves as St Matthew, I would say emphatically not. Because when they try, what they’re really doing is stopping us deciding for ourselves. That, in turn, is denying us the right to make the wrong choice. This may be acceptable when you’re handling children but when it’s adults, it’s intolerable.

The issue, however, goes deeper. Its not simply disrespect for our adulthood but also denial of our humanity. Let me put it like this: I wonder if Ramadoss knows who Descartes was? Or has he heard of the dictum cogito ergo sum (actually it was je pense danc je suis, but why be pedantic)? In English, that’s ‘I think, therefore I am’. What it asserts is that it’s the capacity to reason, to discriminate right from wrong, to choose between alternatives that distinguishes human beings from other animals. Yet it’s precisely this capacity — the right to decide for ourselves — that the interfering doctor is denying us. By seeking to remove temptation he’s also attempting to do away with the difficult choices which test and prove our individuality.

If we have the capacity to choose between the UPA and the NDA — or the AIADMK and the PMK, the minister’s party — then, surely, we have the requisite facility to decide between smoking or drinking Coke and Pepsi and desisting from doing so? Let him warn as much as he wants or raise the price if he has to — although that won’t work — but don’t try and stop us choosing for ourselves.

Perhaps the health minister needs a health warning — in areas where no one else is affected we have a right to be wrong. It may not be good for us but it’s neither immoral nor illegal. And the decision is ours. Let us make it as we want.