How the home ministry is imperilling India’s health

The government is acting against national interest by hounding health advocacies.

It takes a special kind of person, endowed with skill and perseverance, to work with prickly government agencies in fields where governance is in a state of collapse and to hold close to his or her heart the interests of India and its people.

Two of those people are K Srinath Reddy and N Devadasan, both doctors who redirected their professional skills to set up health advocacies that work closely with government agencies in finding ways to end a hazard that costs India crores of rupees and millions of lives every year. Yet, Devadasan’s Institute of Public Health had its licence to receive foreign donations revoked in October and Reddy’s Public Health Foundation of India last week, both on fiddly grounds of regulatory compliance and disclosure. Foreign donations are important because Indians are notoriously reluctant to donate money to fuzzy issues like health, however important these might be to national wellbeing.

The issue that appears to have – unofficially – riled the government is anti-tobacco advocacy, and there is some truth to that, but the scale and pettiness of the action betrays the government’s larger ideological weaknesses, which now seem inimical to India’s national interests.

First, let us consider how hobbling anti-smoking campaigns cripples Indians.

If you want to kill yourself, there are few better ways to ensure success than to smoke. About a million Indians die from smoking-related causes every year – or about 114 every hour. “Tobacco use, and in particular smoking, is the largest cause of preventable death among adults in India,” observed a 2012 study in the journal Current Science. Smoking has strong associations to cardiovascular disease, cancer, tuberculosis and respiratory diseases. The health ministry reported in 2011 that Indians aged 35 to 69 spent Rs 1 lakh crore on smoking-related diseases, or about six times the amount the government received as tax from tobacco products the same year.

Anti-smoking campaigns and taxes appear no brainers, but India’s tobacco lobby clearly has an influence on government. Industry lobbying against pictorial warnings on bidi and cigarette packs was revealed when a parliamentary committee managed to stall an increase in the size of the warnings for a year to 2016. Cigarette smoking can be cut by 54% if excise is increased by 370% from present levels, and bidi use by 40% if excise is raised 100%, according to a Public Health Foundation of India policy brief. The government knows this: the Union health secretary is a member of the Public Health Foundation of India’s executive committee. The Institute of Public Health, a much smaller organisation, is the Karnataka government’s anti-tobacco implementing agency, working closely with a host of state departments.

Not in India’s interest

Since both organisations perform quasi-government functions, no tobacco lobby could be strong enough to hobble them so deeply as to set the home ministry – which revoked their foreign donation licences – against the health ministry. That action flows from a stronger lobby, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose economic affiliate, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, has acknowledged efforts to rid India of one of its strongest global supporters in improving national health, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is one of the funding agencies of the Public Health Foundation of India. “We have met the Union health minister and raised the matter regarding funding of PHFI by BMGF,” Manch co-convenor Ashwini Mahajan told the Indian Express.

The Manch undoubtedly sees the Gates Foundation as an organisation working against Indian interests (it has alleged a nexus between the Gates Foundation and pharmaceutical majors and accused it of influencing health policy-making). It would like Indians to do the work the Gates Foundation does, but there is no Indian organisation currently capable of deploying such finances, expertise and long-term resolve. Unlike other non-governmental organisations that have been hounded, the Public Health Foundation of India and the Institute of Public Health are not even involved in helping victims of the 2002 Gujarat communal riots that left over 1,000 people dead, or those displaced by mining and factories – particular bugbears for this government.

Using the bogey of public or national interest, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has allowed his officials a free hand against non-governmental organisations inconvenient to the government’s policies and ideology, even if these help implement the state’s own laws, fill in for governance failures and assist the most vulnerable. In so doing, it is the government that is acting against national interest.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.