Under siege from within and without

Under siege from within and without

Mumbai: In November 2000, a crisis loomed over Ayurveda.

In a special report on complementary and alternative medicine, a British committee on science and technology, led by John Walton, president of the World Federation of Neurosciences, dismissed Ayurveda as a system “without any scientific basis". Walton ranked it even below hypnosis and aromatherapy, in the same category as dowsing (a type of divination to locate groundwater and ores) and crystal therapy (using gems for healing).

After protests and letters from the Indian government—who believed such labelling would hinder Ayurveda—the committee agreed to hear Ayurveda out. A 10-member delegation was cobbled up to defend Ayurveda in the Indian high commission in London. One of them was Ashok Vaidya, research director at Kasturba Health Society, a former Merc International fellow at Yale Medical School, and a former regional medical director at CIBA-Geigy (now Novartis).

The team, Vaidya recalls, walked into a huge room to talk to 50 committee members “who believed Ayurveda had no scientific basis and was totally third-rate. Then people from the defence sector presented some stunning data of a study about how Ayurvedic prescriptions were used to combat high altitude sickness". Vaidya himself presented data on the first study that measured the impact of an Ayurvedic drug on human plasma; the numbers, he says, made the committee sit up.

In a phone conversation, Walton says: “When I heard the evidence of the Indian Ayurvedic delegation and saw the numbers that they presented, I realized there was more to Ayurveda than I realized and that it was not so unscientific after all."

To Vaidya, the whole idea of dismissing Ayurveda was “just intolerable", he says. “But this was not the first time I had to go in defence of Ayurveda. It’s happened before, is happening now, and unless we wake up, it will happen again."

Vaidya refers to imminent trouble in the European Union (EU). Next year, the EU’s health directive on traditional medicine will impose the standards of synthetic drugs on herbal products, and it will prevent herbal products that don’t already have 15 years of history of documented use in Europe from being sold there.

Thus, herbs that have been safely used for several hundred years in India cannot be sold in the EU, lacking that 15-year history of use there. D.B.A. Narayana, one of India’s most renowned Ayurvedic scientists, believes, like many others, that the clause is somewhat ridiculous. “Not many Ayurvedic products have documented use there right now," he says, “and because they have not been used so far, they will not be allowed there in the future."

In the world of Ayurveda overseas, the directive is perceived as the product of lobbying by modern pharmaceutical firms. Naveen Gupta, founder of Amrita Ayurveda, which runs a chain of health centres and academies in Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands, says that the directive would hit the interests of Ayurveda in Europe hard.

“You’re talking about serious healthcare potential here," Gupta says. “I’ve been practising in Europe for the last decade, and the interest in Ayurveda keeps increasing because people want holistic healing. I’m taking our case to the European parliament, but I’m very sorry to say the Indian government does not take this seriously at all."

Gupta, a board member of the European Ayurveda Medical Association, feels aggrieved at the Indian government’s seeming inaction.

“It doesn’t engage with foreign governments to convince them about the long, safe and effective use of Ayurvedic drugs, and does precious little to safeguard the image of Ayurveda abroad," he says.

Gupta describes, further, how government officials visiting Europe in the interests of Ayurveda treat their trips as opportunities to shop and see the sights. Then “they go back and turn in some report or the other to superiors in New Delhi".

For their part—and a little contradictorily—Ayurveda practitioners in India complain that the government doesn’t guard its own market as the EU does. “We allow (foreign companies) to come and sell all their products here—supplements, food supplements, neutraceuticals," Narayana complains. “Do we have the history of their safe use in India? We don’t. We don’t sign one single memorandum of understanding with any country to approve Ayurveda there. If Russia or Hungary has approved of Ayurvedic therapies in their healthcare system, then it’s the effort of individuals (and) companies."

Shailaja Chandra, a former secretary at the department of Ayurveda, yoga and naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and homoeopathy (AYUSH), calls government policy “flaky". The thrust to sell Ayurveda depends on “pretty women lying amid rose petals and...things like that", says Chandra, who is writing a report on the state of Ayurveda ahead of the next five-year Plan. “How will someone else take it seriously if we don’t?"

The current AYUSH secretary, S. Jalaja, insists that the government does a lot to globalize Ayurveda. “We’re setting up validation centres in the United States in collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration there," she says. “We have a research project set up with the University of Mississippi. If Westerners accept it, the Indian elite will accept it—it’s sad, but true. We’re doing a lot of work in education, research, infrastructure and drug quality control, to bring Ayurveda at par with the modern system of healing."

Part of the problem may lie simply in a lack of continuity. In the 15 years since it was formed, for instance, AYUSH has had seven secretaries, and an eighth will take over from Jalaja next month. At one point, bureaucrats were changing every other month.

“Every time a new guy came, we hike up to go explain the Ramayana and Mahabharata of Ayurveda to him," Narayana says. “And so, some people like me, the Ayurvedic drug manufacturers and other vaidyas (healers) start the record again and again and again. By the time they understand and want to do something, they’ve gone to another more lucrative ministry."

Ayurveda may also be an arena for a clash of ministries. For instance, a sound Ayurveda policy would work out how to procure the best medicinal herbs and plants from forests. On the other hand, the ministry of environment and forests is attempting to preserve biodiversity by restricting access to such herbs and plants.

Madhulika Banerjee, a reader in political science at Delhi University, who authored the book Public Policy and Ayurveda, says the divide doesn’t end between governments and policymakers. It runs deeper, into the Ayurveda community itself, where “the old parameters...have fallen into disuse and no one is quite sure of what the new parameters of education, practice, regulation and research should be".

Some stakeholders see Ayurveda as “perfect" already, Banerjee says, “needing only tweaks as a nod to modern science". Others see it “as a possible addition to modern science and yet others want a composite dialogue between the two streams. In addition, they distrust all outsiders".

The insularity of the Ayurveda community can work even against people who are trying to help. Chandra, who has spent most of 2010 trying to understand the challenges facing Ayurveda, feels frustrated with the stalling she has encountered.

“No one wants to explain anything," she says. “I wrote to so many people, asking them to please answer some questions for me so I can put together a paper on Ayurveda and what it needs. Only a handful replied. There are very few people who are truly passionate and really want to fix the problems. Far too many just want to maintain the status quo that suits them."

A decade after the Walton committee thought Ayurveda “unscientific", Walton himself may have revised his opinion, but little else has been done to change perceptions. Ayurveda’s defenders worry that unless India gives Ayurveda the image it wants, others such as the EU will give it an image it perhaps doesn’t deserve.