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12 March, 2012

Packaging old knowledge

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today  

India is placing much hope in the export potential of Ayurveda, the most popular of its traditional systems of medicine, but the efforts to market old wisdom in a new package is yet to make much headway beyond its own shores.

Ayurveda, which literally means Life Science, was the mainstay of the subcontinent’s healthcare system for at least 5,000 years, existing side by side with the older systems of tribal communities and systems like Unani and Homeopathy which entered the scene later.

All of them found their areas shrinking as the Western system of medicine gained ground in the last century. In the early years of Independence, they faced the prospects of gradual extinction under the combined pressure of the government’s modernisation drive and the powerful modern medicine lobby’s campaign denouncing them as quackery.

In the colonial period there were, apart from a few medical colleges which produced graduates, several schools of modern medicine which ran three-year courses and turned out licence-holders who rendered yeomen service in both urban and rural areas. Yielding to the demands of the medical graduates’ lobby, the government closed down the schools. If it had resisted their pressure and expanded them, India could have worked wonders in the health front ahead of China which made a big leap forward by producing an army of barefoot doctors.

The growing clout of modern medicine and the government’s encouragement to it persuaded students of a college of indigenous medicine in the southern state of Madras to stage a successful agitation and get it converted into a college of modern medicine in the 1950s.

For long Ayurvedic knowledge was the preserve of families where it was handed down from father to son. As the new generation took to modern education, the tradition began to die. It got a new life when the central and state governments started setting up facilities for training in the indigenous systems of medicine, heeding the World Health Organisation’s advice to promote them as they had a role to play in meeting public health needs.

Today there are Ayurvedic colleges all over the country and states like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra also have Ayurvedic universities. According to physicians trained in both Ayurveda and modern medicine, the former is more effective than the latter in the treatment of certain diseases.

Entrepreneurs have come forward to manufacture and market Ayurvedic products on a commercial basis. Departing from the traditional practice of preparing concoctions and powders for oral consumption and medicated oils for external application, they have put in the market tablets and syrups to enhance the traditional system’s appeal to those used to modern medicine.  They also promote their products through heavy advertising.

Ten years ago the Indian government, noting that China had built up an export market of Rs 260 billion for its traditional medicine products, drew up a plan to raise overseas sales of Ayurvedic products from a mere Rs 5.5 billion to Rs 50 billion over a five-year period. Ten years later exports remain way behind the target at Rs 15 billion. The top five importers are Ukraine, Russia and Kazhakstan (which together account for 45 per cent of the exports, the UAE (11 per cent) and the USA (six per cent).

The European Union’s directive on traditional herbal medicinal products, which came into force in 2005, requires use of medication for 15 years before large-scale imports are permitted. This inhibits growth of sales in that continent.

A law enacted as early as 1940 regulates the use of herbal medicines as prescription and over-the-counter medicine and dietary supplements. It directs that they be sold disclosing the medical, health and nutrient content. There are two legally binding multivolume national pharmacopoeias, one for Ayurveda and the other for Unani. Today more than 4,200 registered herbal medicines are in use.

Ayurvedic treatment, especially its rejuvenation therapy, is gaining popularity among urban Indians. Recognising this trend, superspeciality hospitals are now setting up Ayurvedic departments. Also, efforts are on to include Ayurveda in schemes to promote medical tourism.

Revalidation of the ancient knowledge through modern research is sure to go a long way in enhancing the appeal of Ayurveda to the rest of the world. This is not an area where commercial interests can be expected to take much interest. Some years ago WHO promoted a project to undertake studies with the help of a well-known Ayurvedic institution. However, the central and state governments have failed to carry forward its initiative.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 12, 2012.

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