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In early 2020, when India was fighting the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and the medical establishment was at sea about how to treat the viral disease, Patanjali Ayurved stepped in with a big claim.

Three months after the first case of Sars-CoV-2 infection was recorded in India, the ayurvedic company launched Coronil tablet. Its founder and yoga guru Ramdev claimed it was the “first evidence-based researched cure” to Covid-19.

In Mumbai, physician Jayesh Lele was aghast. Not only did the claim threaten to push already panicked citizens towards unscientific measures, it had apparent state endorsement. Two ministers of the Modi government – health minister Harsh Vardhan and transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari – attended the launch of Coronil, at which Ramdev did not wear a protective mask.

Lele filed a right to information application with the Ayush ministry that regulates traditional systems of healthcare. “I asked if the ministry had collaborated with Patanjali on Coronil or if, as Patanjali had claimed, the certification was on the lines of requirements laid out by the World Health Organization,” Lele said. The ministry said no such approvals had been provided.

Coronil, at that point, had been only approved as an “immunity booster” by the Ayush ministry.

Before Lele could counter Patanjali’s frivolous claims, the damage was done. He said the presence of the senior Bharatiya Janata Party ministers was like a seal of approval for the product. In just four months of its launch, Patanjali sold Rs 250 crore worth of Coronil kits.

From then on, Lele – who is also the general secretary of Indian Medical Association, the largest body of allopathic doctors in India – began to closely follow and record Patanjali’s misleading claims.

The list was long. “They would advertise in national dailies and claim their medicines could cure diabetes, thyroid and fatty liver disease,,” he said. “We began to collect evidence.”

In June 2021, he filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of Indian Medical Association against Patanjali’s deceptive advertisements and against the Union health ministry for supporting their claims.

On April 1, the Kerala drugs control department filed a complaint in Kozhikode court against misleading advertisements by Patanjali’s Divya Pharmacy.

A day later, while hearing the Indian Medical Association petition, the Supreme Court pulled up the company for continuing to defy its orders by publishing misleading advertisements about its products.

It refused to accept an apology from Ramdev and Patanjali’s managing director Balkrishna and asked why contempt proceedings must not be initiated against them. The next hearing is on April 10.

The court’s strictures, although important, is just one of the many warnings the company has received and chosen to ignore.

Past notices, warnings

In November, Patanjali gave an undertaking to the Supreme Court that it will not violate the law “relating to advertising or branding products manufactured and marketed by it and, further, that no casual statements claiming medicinal efficacy or against any system of medicine will be released to the media in any form”.

Patanjali was quick to forget the undertaking. A month later, it published a front-page newspaper ad in Chennai claiming to cure blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, liver failure, kidney failure and cancer and heart problems.

The ad promoted a range of products by Patanjali’s manufacturing unit Divya Pharmacy for such ailments.

Why are such ads a problem? Not every advertisement making medical claims violates the law. But the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act, 1954, prohibits advertisements for 54 diseases.

This includes diseases with no cure such as cancer, diabetes, blood pressure and heart diseases – ailments that Patanjali claims its medicines can cure. Such ads can draw punishment up to six months with a fine.

No such action has been taken against Patanjali yet.

Meanwhile, the company’s business is flourishing. According to Patanjali’s website, since its inception in 2006, it has established markets in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and some European countries. Within India, it has over 47,000 retail counters, and warehouses in 18 states. It plans to start factories in six more states.

A powerful alliance

The presence of two ministers at Coronil’s launch was hardly unusual. By all accounts, Ramdev has powerful political allies in the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Patanjali Research Institute in Haridwar in 2017 and has lent support to yoga and ayurveda.

In 2015, after the BJP came to power, the government gave Ramdev Z-category security – the third-highest level of security in the country. It is unclear what threat the yoga guru faced.

Perhaps that has offered immunity to Patanjali from any punitive action.

Between 2021 and now, Kerala-based ophthalmologist Dr KV Babu, filed multiple Right to Information queries with the government to understand whether action has been taken against Patanjali for misleading ads.

Two of Babu’s patients, who had glaucoma, had dropped out of treatment in 2019 to try Ayurvedic products, and returned in a worse state. It made him look closer at the claims Patanjali was making about Ayurveda.

“Till date the company has not been prosecuted by the Uttarakhand government,” Babu told Scroll.

Under India’s drug laws, Uttarakhand has the authority to take punitive action against Patanjali since the company’s manufacturing units are located there.

In 2022, Patanjali began to advertise that children with Type I diabetes can switch from insulin to their medicines and be cured. “This was a major public health disaster,” he said.

Babu wrote to the Uttarakhand government and the Union government to draw their attention to these claims. “I must have complained about various Patanjali ads about 10 times,” he said.

In April 2022, based on his complaint, a notice was served by the Uttarakhand government to Patanjali over its ads to cure arthritis, blood pressure, heart problems and diabetes. In May 2022, Patanjali stopped these ads, only to resume them in July 2022. The ads continued till January 2023.

In March 2023, the government informed the Rajya Sabha that there were complaints of 53 misleading ads of various drugs reported to the state licensing authority between August 2022 and March 2023 – all related to Patanjali products. The majority of the complaints were against BP Grit, which promises to control blood pressure, and Madhugrit, meant for heart conditions.

“The only action taken seems to be a notice to Patanjali,” Babu said. “No fine, no imprisonment.”

Babu is hopeful the Supreme Court will finally do what the government has failed to – stop Patanjali from misleading the public.

“Coaxing people to stop treatment and try their medicines without scientific evidence is equivalent to playing with their lives,” Babu said. “It has to be stopped.”

Scroll sent queries to Patanjali on the charges against them. The piece will be updated if they respond.

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this article.