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Health minister's prescription to India: Make healthy lifestyle a social movement

India's new health minister is a great champion of alternative systems of medicine — AYUSH, for Ayurveda, yoga, unani, siddha and homeopathy — and wants to take them “to the highest level in the history of India, writes Sanchita Sharma.

health and fitness Updated: Jun 22, 2014 09:40 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Few things irritate Union health minister Dr Harsh Vardhan more than incompetence, and few things amuse him more than people getting his first name wrong. “‘Harsh’ means joy in Hindi, but ‘unpleasantly tough’ in English. When I was consulting a medical expert with the World Health Organisation (WHO), I was often told I was too pleasant a person to have such an unpleasant name,” he laughs. The unassuming otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat, or ENT) surgeon, who’s rarely spotted clad in a politician’s trademark khadi kurta, is in best form when the going gets tough.

As the BJP candidate from the closely-contested Lok Sabha constituency of Chandni Chowk, Dr Vardhan polled 4.38 lakh votes, 1.36 lakh ahead of his closest competitor, Ashutosh of the Aam Aadmi Party. Sitting MP and Cabinet minister Kapil Sibal from the Indian National Congress was a distant third.

The BJP’s Delhi chief minister candidate and five-time assembly election winner from Krishna Nagar has never lost an election since he first contested in 1993. He was handpicked by the party leadership to fight elections from the Capital’s most highly-profile contest.

“There was some debate over whether I should contest on a Lok Sabha ticket, but then the party wanted someone who could beat Sibal and that media guy, so there I was, contesting the Lok Sabha,” says Dr Vardhan, who led the BJP to victory with 32 of 70 seats in the 2013 Delhi Assembly elections. The BJP, however, fell short of an absolute majority and ceded governance to AAP.

Prescription for the nation
He says he’s in the Centre to stay. “This is what I do best,” he says, beaming behind files on seemingly unstoppable infections and unpronounceable diseases.

Providing 50 free medicines to all Indians from birth to death is the first step to universal access to healthcare. “I want to improve healthcare delivery by strengthening monitoring systems — the polio programme has shown us it can done — and motivating public health workers. If we modernise and use the existing infrastructure in an optimal manner — ensure there is no staff, medicins or equipment shortages — health coverage can be improved tremendously,” he says.

The avid cricket fan plans to get India on the wellness track by getting them to move some more. “40% of the world’s disease burden is because of physical inactivity. Given a choice, I’d rather build 25 playgrounds than one hospital,” says Dr Vardhan, who rarely misses his daily hour-long walk at the Yamuna Sports Complex in Surajmal Vihar-Anand Vihar in East Delhi.“I want to make health a social movement. Illness comes later, people have to be educated and given the tools to stay healthy,” he says.

“Lifestyle diseases are causing more deaths in India than infections. I have to get the message across that walking, playing sports, eating nutritious food and saying no to tobacco and alcohol can cut down risk of all the major killer diseases, such as heart attacks, stroke, diabetes and cancers,” he says.

He is a great champion of alternative systems of medicine — AYUSH, for Ayurveda, yoga, unani, siddha and homeopathy — and wants to take them “to the highest level in the history of India. “All have great potential and we need to focus on integration of all systems of medicine to not just treat but also manage and prevent illnesses,” he says.

Blast from the past
Though he’s been active in the RSS since he was 15, Vardhan was a reluctant entrant into politics. “I stumbled across the RSS, literally, while playing in the park. I’d just topped Class 9 — I went to the Anglo Sanskrit Victoria Jubilee Senior Secondary School, Daryaganj — and was playing cricket in the park when I found myself in the midst of an RSS shakha (group). We got talking and I soon found myself joining them on most evenings,” says Vardhan.

He started doctors’ RSS shakhas at Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi Memorial Medical College, Kanpur, where he did his MBBS and MD, and again at the Delhi Medical Association (DMA), of which he was president elect when he won the Krishna Nagar Assembly seat in 1993, from where he was re-elected in 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2013. He had no plans to join politics when he was first offered a ticket in 1993. “My practice was looking up when the party called and asked me to contest.

I said no. They called again, I said no, but when they called a third time and said you have to do it, I agreed,” says Vardhan who, given his training, was promptly appointed as the Delhi health minister.

It was under him in 1994 that Delhi introduced the pilot project of the Pulse Polio Programme, which was expanded to the rest of India. It won him the WHO’s Polio Eradication Champion Award Medal in 1998 and won India a polio-free certification on March 28, 2014. His government also passed the Prohibition of Smoking Act in 1997, making it the first state to protect smokers and non-smokers’ health.

Promises to keep
A doctor at the helm has its pros and cons, say people in the health sector. “As a medical man, he has a great opportunity to stop unethical practices in the medical profession, such as overcharging, negligence and illegal sex-selective abortions, which has led to millions of missing girls in India,” says health activist Sabu George. “Being a private practitioner who’s been an active member of the DMA, he needs to rebuild patients’ trust in private healthcare and involve private practitioners in public healthcare to improve transparency and outreach,” says a former director of AIIMS. “How efficient India’s healthcare system becomes will define him as a minister in the years to come.”