Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (BVB), the Rs3,000 crore social and educational trust, is closing down an ayurvedic research centre here, believed to be among the few in India combining ancient and modern drug techniques under one roof.
After 30 years of helping patients, doctors and researchers are focusing on finding a cure to both their own joblessness and a medical void in Mumbai. About 200 patients, who suffer from arthritis, cervical cancer and diabetes, were in the middle of treatments that doctors say cannot be interrupted nor readily resumed by another facility.
BVB, a charitable trust that has seen several leaders resign in recent months citing impropriety in the way funds were being managed, declined to comment in detail, but said the centre was being closed because it posted losses and its lease had expired.
Industry watchers say the closing is unfortunate because it comes against sudden interest in tangible research explaining the success of the ancient healing system.
While ayurveda also has become synonymous with spas and massages, the Swami Prakashananda Ayurveda Research Centre (Sparc) began with a rickety desk and two doctors full of questions about marrying tradition with technological advancement. Over three decades, it grew, mainly with the trust’s support, into a centre of ongoing experimental treatment with a budget of about Rs10 crore. With research has come recognition and grants from various government organizations and 250 publications in science and medical journals. One doctor says he is seeking US Federal Drug Administration approval for a diabetes drug.
Then, five months ago, doctors, scientists and technicians said they stopped receiving their salaries. Dr Ashwin Raut, who heads research in osteoarthritis and has 112 patients participating in his research project right now, said he just thought the trust, which runs 350 institutions from schools to cultural centres, was having financial difficulty. Doctors kept seeing patients anyway. Some relied on earnings from private practices; others quit.
“They gave us no reason when they stopped paying us our salaries,” Raut said. “It didn’t matter that much because we thought they will eventually pay. But now they have sent us notices terminating our services from 1 May. Now I don’t know what will happen to my patients.”
Sitting at his desk at Sparc, located on the Lotus Eye Hospital campus in Mumbai, Raut said patients sign consent forms refusing to take pain medication for the duration of treatment, usually 24 weeks long. “We have to fulfil our moral commitment because they depend on us for their well-being,” he said.
Ayurveda, the traditional Hindu system of health and medicine, is slowly gaining international acceptance and has a good chance of competing, even working, with modern medicine if adequate research proves its worth, industry observers say. Large companies such as Dabur Pharma, Zandu Pharmaceuticals and Himalaya Herbals are teaming up to create a “scientific bank of knowledge”, backing the effectiveness of ayurvedic drugs.
In India, ayurveda is estimated to be a Rs2,000 crore market, along with an export potential of $2.5 billion (Rs10,250 crore).
Industry watchers believe that clinical trials are the first step towards standardization, evaluation and credibility of a medicine. The Union Budget this year declared an allowance of nearly Rs54 crore for the “development of the Ayurveda System.”
“Research organizations are a desperate need of ayurveda,” Zandu’s former head N.S. Bhatt said. “There is no doubt that it cannot be allowed to falter.”
For example, Dr Jayshree Joshi, a former deputy director of the National Institute of Research in Reproductive Health, joined Sparc to do more clinical and research work. She is now researching cervical cancer using a turmeric compound for treatment.
At Sparc, Raut’s projects depend on medicines given in gradually increasing doses and withdrawn similarly. “My patients are being given a very potent ayurveda drug that has to be administered perfectly as prescribed by the ancient texts and monitored closely in modern laboratories because this drug has also been described as vishad, or toxic, in ayurveda texts,” he said. He added that he cannot predict individual reactions to a sudden stop instead of gradual withdrawal.
BVB was formed in 1938 and its goals and philosophies seem to explain its link to Sparc, which was run as a subsidiary; the trust advocates programmes modern and global in outlook but always mindful of Indian roots. In recent months, the trust, which boasts Microsoft founder Bill Gates among donors, has seen a spate of resignations from its leadership, including former Maharashtra governor P.C. Alexander, former air chief marshal and also former governor I.H. Latif and former Indian high commissioner to London L.M. Singhvi, amid allegations of financial mismanagement.
Approached in his office in Mumbai, BVB executive secretary and director general H.M. Dastur reacted angrily when asked about Sparc’s fate, “What do you know? It is closing down because its lease is expiring with Lotus Trust. ...Do you know they have written three letters to us in the last four months asking us to vacate?” When contacted by Mint, Lotus Trust declined to comment.
Dastur deferred further comment to BVB board member Manish Srikant, dean of the S.P. Jain Institute of Management in Mumbai. In a phone interview, Srikant said, “You don’t know the losses they are making, the lease (that) is expiring and lies they are publishing.”
He declined to talk further.
The doctors at Sparc say they intend to fight to keep the organization intact and will explore alliances and ways to preserve their work. The patients, though, say they don’t know where else they can turn.
“They cannot just leave it midway. Finish what you started,” said Raut’s 65-year-old patient Gopal Trimbak Kelkar, an architect in Mumbai.
“I have been suffering from arthritis in my right knee for the past 17 years. Six weeks ago, I came to him.” By the second week, Kelkar reports, he was able to sit cross-legged on the floor for two hours. “No pain,” he said, smiling.
BVB’s Dastur said the trust cannot afford to keep the centre afloat. “The research centre has been making losses of lakhs of rupees,” he said.
Spread over a three-floor run-down building in Juhu, the paint on Sparc’s wall is peeling, but it houses five laboratories in endocrinology, biochemistry, cytology, photochemistry, microbiology and tissue culture. Twenty scientists toil in specialities ranging from diabetes to molecular biology.
Its ayurveda experts work in internal medicine and ayurveda fundamentals. Recognized by Mumbai University, the centre acts as an advisor for biology students pursuing master’s degrees and PhDs.
The Indian Centre of Medical Research, a government agency, recently recognized Sparc as an “advanced centre for reverse pharmacology in traditional medicine”. Reverse pharmacology is defined as selecting drugs already in common use by doctors and then trying to find the active molecule that is effective.
Much of ayurvedic research, while now being performed by large pharmaceutical and health companies, is being done in smaller, older labs such as Sparc, observers say.
“It takes 10 years to create a new drug from scratch,” said Dr. Arun Bhatt, president of ClinInvent Research Pvt. Ltd, a research firm. Bhatt said he is familiar with ayurveda, but not connected to Sparc.
Two of the centre’s three research projects are scheduled to end in September. The project on cervical cancer was to finish in two years.