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Cure against mumbo-jumbo

What is it about Baba Ramdev that impelled the government to engage him in talks on an issue like corruption? Simple. It is the vast following he enjoys across India. K Anji Reddy writes.

india Updated: Jul 12, 2011 22:04 IST
K Anji Reddy

What is it about Baba Ramdev that impelled the government to engage him in talks on an issue like corruption? Simple. It is the vast following he enjoys across India. But how is it that Ramdev and his kind have such a mesmeric hold over people? It is not just the spiritual salvation they offer.

It is the promise of physical well-being.

Satya Sai Baba was legendary for spotting diseases that were supposedly yet to manifest themselves and offer cures, often in the form of sacred ash. Amritanandamayi, the portly godwoman, is famed for hugging away ailments. And Ramdev, of course, is famous not only for his ‘trademark’ yogic ‘kapalbhatti’ breathing technique, but also for doling out pills and potions for free.

Many of Ramdev’s followers aren’t from the middle class. They are simple rural folk who couldn’t care less about reversing the rupee-dollar exchange rate or demonetising high value currency notes. Ramdev’s care may be free, but is it effective?

A more pertinent question is regarding the effect of the ingredients in his ‘medicines’ on people and his track record of curing even common illnesses — never mind cancer and diabetes.

Many ailments require common and affordable drugs. Expenditure on public health in India is abysmally low. But big pharma companies can afford to put out cheap generic drugs that can be subsidised by other, expensive categories of medicines. Half our problems would vanish if we were to focus on preventive care.

A host of ailments pose a crushing burden on the healthcare system. They can be prevented by simply improving sanitation and providing clean drinking water and basic amenities like oral rehydration kits in public hospitals. It’s when people are left only to the mercies of the private sector, justifiably driven by the profit motive, that people turn to anyone who promises a free cure.

Alternative medicines have their place in the system. Indians are the world’s largest users of alternative medicines. But the efficacy of many of these haven’t been proved. On the other hand, allopathic drugs have to undergo years of rigorous testing before they are put out into the market.

Quite often, the poor and ignorant are mislead by quacks.

What we really need are more skilled and semi-skilled health workers at the rural and mofussil levels who can guide people as to the availability and effectiveness of legitimate medication. We need workers who can prescribe effective preventive interventions. This won’t cost more than what is being squandered today on an ineffective and crumbling public health system.

Vaccines, too, should be made a more crucial part of the primary healthcare system. The idea should be to pre-empt the ailment wherever possible.

If this is done, there will be a significant decline in the popularity of godmen and godwomen. There will always be takers for promises of spiritual elevation. That’s up to each individual. But when people put their health into the hands of spiritual gurus, it is a cause for worry.

(K Anji Reddy is the founding chairman of Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd and Naandi Foundation. The views expressed by the author are personal)