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Indian judge says billion-dollar ayurvedic company has taken the public 'for a ride'

Yoga guru Baba Ramdev, the brand ambassador for the billion dollar company Patanjali Ayurved, addresses the media during a launch of "premium products" in New Delhi.
Rahul Singh/ANI via Reuters Connect
Yoga guru Baba Ramdev, the brand ambassador for the billion dollar company Patanjali Ayurved, addresses the media during a launch of "premium products" in New Delhi.

MUMBAI – Imagine if there were a magic pill to ward off COVID-19. Or if you could cure diabetes with vegetable juices and herbal pills instead of controlling it with insulin medication. Or if yoga and breathing exercises were all you need to do to get rid of asthma.

These are all claims made by Patanjali Ayurved, one of India's biggest manufacturers of traditional ayurvedic products – reflecting the beliefs of a 3,000-year-old tradition of Hindu healing practices. The word "ayurveda" comes from the Sanskrit terms "ayur" (life) and "veda" (science or knowledge.) Its practitioners use herbs, animal extracts and minerals, processed according to centuries-old texts.

Many scientists have expressed concerns over the lack of research into the safety and efficacy of ayurvedic products. The United States, for example, categorizes these products as dietary supplements and not as medicinal drugs that can cure or prevent illness.

Nonetheless, Ayurveda enjoys widespread acceptance among Indians. And under India's Hindu-nationalist government that took power in 2014, ayurveda and other alternative systems of medicine have received unprecedented government support.India's ministry of alternative medicine getsnearly $500 million a year. The government also promotes ayurveda through its international trade and diplomatic channels. All this set Patanjali's fortunes soaring.

Supreme Court weighs in

But now the Supreme Court of India has temporarily banned Patanjali – named after a Hindu mystic best known for his writings on yoga – from advertising some of its products. This is an interim order, which means Patanjali can challenge it – but so far they have not.

In fact, neither Patanjali nor the government have commented on the case.

"The entire country has been taken for a ride," Ahsanuddin Amanullah, one of the two judges conducting the court hearing, told the lawyer representing the government, according to an article in livelaw.com, a news website that covers courts in India. "You shut your eyes!"

The Indian Medical Association had brought the case to court in August 2022, claiming that Patanjali and its brand ambassador Baba Ramdev made a series of false claims against evidence-backed modern medicine and its practitioners, and spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. Their petition also referred to instances where Ramdev lambasted modern medicine as a "stupid and bankrupt science" at a yoga session.

The trigger was a series of Patanjali advertisements in Indian newspapers in July 2022 claiming that ayurvedic products could cure chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart diseases and autoimmune conditions. The Indian Medical Association's petition alleged that such claims were in violation of India's Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act.

Politics of medicine

There's a political angle to this story as well. The company's public face – yoga guru Baba Ramdev – is a vocal supporter of India's ruling party, the BJP, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi even inaugurated Patanjali's ayurvedic research facility in 2017.

The supreme court's order, although temporary, is a blow to advocates of ayurvedic medicines, including the prime minister and his Hindu nationalist party. Some scientists have accused their government of promoting these alternative medicines at the expense of modern medicine, partly as a way to glorify India's culture and history.

"One of the political ideas of this government is to glorify the Hindu tradition," says Dhrubajyoti Mukherjee, president of the Breakthrough Science Society, an organization that promotes scientific thinking. "But in the name of our glorious past, the government is propagating obscure, unscientific ideas."

Consider the Modi government's own relationship to Patanjali.

A 2017 investigation by the news agency Reutersfound the company has received more than an estimated $46 million in discounts for land acquisitions in states controlled by the BJP.

Millions in sales, a billion in income

A few months after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, India's health minister at the time, Harsh Vardhan participated in the company's launch of pills, where Ramdev, the yoga guru, claimed the pills showed "100 percent favorable results" during clinical trials on patients.

Despite experts flagging the lack of evidence, the company said itsold 2.5 million kits in six months, consisting of the tablets to ward off COVID-19 and bottled oils that would allegedly boost immunity.

And the company is making an enormous amount of money: Its income was over $1.3 billion in the financial year 2021-22, with profits of $74 million before taxes.

A previous court order in November 2023 forbade the company from issuing advertisements with misleading claims. The very next day, Ramdev held a press conference about remedies for high blood pressure and referredto "lies spread by allopathy," a reference to science-based medicine, according to the lawyer for the Indian Medical Association.

Critics have long alleged that the company's defiance of court orders is likely because of its proximity with India's ruling party, the BJP. The company has received multiple notices and warnings from regulatory agencies and advertising watchdogs in the past.

A spokesperson for Patanjali did not respond to an interview request from NPR.

Addressing the overall impact of misinformation about ayurvedic treatments, Dr. Jayesh Lele, vice president of the Indian Medical Association, says "Our worry is people are being misguided. We have got people who've left our treatment saying their kidneys will be able to function properly [using ayurvedic medicines] and ended up with renal failure. The same happened with patients suffering from hepatitis, who've got the wrong medicine and ended up with further problems. And if you say every day that modern medicine is bad, that is not acceptable."

Government cash promotes traditional treatments

The action against Patanjali comes at a time there's been a culture shift in the government's approach toward health care. India has a dire shortage of qualified health-care personnel and infrastructure gaps. Yet, it spends less than 3% of its GDP (gross domestic product) on health care.

After Modi was sworn in as prime minister in 2014, he ordered the creation of a separate ministry for traditional medicines. Despite continuing doubts over such systems' efficacy, the ministry's budgetary allocation has increased three-fold: from nearly $160 million to around $500 million. In 2020, the Modi government also allowed ayurvedic practitioners to perform some surgeries in public hospitals. The Indian medical association called for a nationwide strike soon after, protesting what it saidwas a "retrograde step of mixing the systems."

Kishor Patwardhan, professor of ayurveda at the Banaras Hindu University in the city of Varanasi, disagrees with this form of state support. "Ayurveda can only be promoted using good evidence," he says.

The Modi government has also been accused of diluting scientific education, cutting back on research and teaching mythology as history. One ruling party politician, former minister for higher education Satyapal Singh, dismissed Darwin's theory of evolution; one Hindu nationalist academic claimed test-tube babies originated in ancient India. In 2015, the prime minister pointed to Hindu scriptures as proof that plastic surgery existed in ancient India.

"These ideas are coming from important political people, sometimes even the PM," says Mukherjee of the Breakthrough Science Society. "People have faith in leaders. If something comes from them, it damages the society."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Omkar Khandekar