For Decades Only Chinese Medicine Was Offered WHO Exalted Status, Jamnagar Center May Be A Game Changer

News of the Prime Minister’s laying of the foundation stone for the World Center for Traditional Medicine sparked a flurry of questions. Why Gujarat? Why Jamnagar? Why has Dr. Tedros, the director general of the WHO, been so far associated only with the pandemic, extolling the virtues of traditional medicine?

As Ayush’s former secretary (nearly 20 years ago), I was happy to hear that the foundation stone for the world center had been laid and an investment of $250 million (almost Rs 2000 crore) had been provided by India. When I headed the department, the World Health Organization, headquartered in Geneva, did little more than pretend to endorse traditional medicine. Without credibility, how could India’s assets of centuries-old empirical medical knowledge and even its treasure trove of home remedies be disseminated globally?

What other country in the world had universities, colleges, national institutes, more than 700,000 practitioners and a wide range of pharmaceutical companies devoted exclusively to Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha preventive and curative treatments? What other country has promoted Yoga and Naturopathy not only for well-being but also for healing? Where else were there pharmacopoeias and laws governing good manufacturing practices and drug testing? For decades, only Chinese medicine had dominated the traditional medicine division of WHO, Geneva and Ayurveda with all its codified texts and ancient wisdom was relegated to herbalism!

My frustration at being so ignored was shared by the late Professor Ranjit Roy Chaudhary, a renowned clinical pharmacologist and friend of traditional medicine. He understood the potential and effectiveness of herbal formulations and stressed the need to establish an inter-country traditional medicine council that could become a clearinghouse for the most effective therapies still in use regionally. . With his long exposure to the WHO, he felt it was necessary to involve countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, DPR Korea and even Thailand, to share knowledge and experience of documented Asian health outcomes.

The challenges ahead were insurmountable despite the political support and enthusiasm. Concerns about safety, efficacy, crude drug purity, toxicity, and lack of standardization have derailed any mention of even unexpected therapeutic results. Having traveled across the country, first as a secretary and years later as a report writer on the operational characteristics of the Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha systems, I had witnessed the relief people received from a range of treatments offered; for example, reducing chronic back and joint pain and intractable skin problems, alleviating long-term metabolic conditions, and even reducing the impact of paralysis and mental health disorders. But my observations and recommendations were set aside, like so many reports. I was also seen as a renegade – having spent 10 years managing public health and hospitals, now espousing unproven systems and ignoring the unsubstantiated claims of Ayush practitioners claiming miracle cures! In such a climate, going international was almost impossible.

And finally, why Gujarat and why Jamnagar makes sense, but a story worth telling. Jamnagar was once the capital of the princely state of Nawanagar, located in the northwest of the Kathiawar peninsula. In the 1940s, Dr PM Mehta, a court physician (himself trained in Western medicine), proposed to the then royal family that a center for Ayurvedic studies be established in the state. A lavish building was constructed in 1944 and a College of Ayurvedic Studies (Shri Gulabkunwarba Ayurveda Mahavidyalaya) was established in Jamnagar in 1946. In 1965 the State Assembly passed a resolution to establish an Ayurvedic University and some time later, Gujarat Ayurved University, one of the best universities for Ayurvedic studies, started operating.

The wheel has come full circle. I see this as a unique opportunity to move away from the big pharma model applied to traditional medicine, as Indian medical systems are holistic and the constitution or prakriti outweighs the symptoms and the disease. If people want to use traditional medicine to supplement recovery from cardiac procedures, robotic surgery and even chemotherapy (as was done at a leading allopathic tertiary care hospital in Gurugram), this should be welcome. If healthy lifestyles are to be promoted in the face of burgeoning lifestyle-related diseases, if quality of life can be made more bearable at the end of life, the World Center for Traditional Medicine should observe and legitimize the selected approaches. The goal of the center should be to overcome the barriers that stand between people’s needs and access to holistic health care without condemnation.

I see this as a moment of poetic justice. First, the establishment of a world center located in India can demystify the exalted status accorded hitherto only to China. Second, if the Indians vaidyas, hakims and siddhars stay humble and receptive, they can absorb successful approaches from other countries. Third, the global center will be of service if it acts as a bridge, clearinghouse, and point of reference for the treatment of medical conditions, especially lifestyle-related diseases. It must prioritize the needs of a growing elderly population that will live longer but still need gentler, safer remedies.

Pragmatism must replace symbolism!

The author was Secretary, Indian Systems of Medicine and later Chief Secretary, Delhi. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.

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