Insight from Civil Society Engaging
with Science and Technology
Indigenous Medical Systems and
Ayurveda: Response and Resistance from Civil Society
This is an academic study of Civil Society
intervention and I am not a part of any civil society organisation. In
this presentation, I am trying to understand the issues that are being
raised about Ayurveda in particular and to some extent traditional and
indigenous medicine systems in general.
I want to begin by saying two things. One, we need to
start with the understanding that Policy is a reflection of power
relations in society. Policy is not about what is the most appropriate.
Policy is not about what is technically the best thing in a situation.
It will claim to be any or all of these things. But fundamentally, at
its heart it is a reflection of the current power structure and power
relations in society. And that’s why policy is deeply political.
Many of us are trying to say the same thing from their
own vantage points. And I think as an academic, I just felt that it is
my responsibility to bring it up and then point out what is the driving
force behind what we are trying to understand here.
Two, we are talking about civil
society. There is a lot of debate within our discipline on what we
understand by civil society. So I have picked up a very simple
definition – civil society is a social community, which is capable of
organising itself independently of the specific direction of state
power. The State may consider that the policy they want must move
in a particular direction. It is the civil society which is outside of
the political society which actually has the capacity to generate
different kinds of ideas and organisations which takes it away in
directions different from that of State. That’s why it is so
powerful. It is important to understand that it has the capacity to
influence the State.
And here, in terms of trying to understand
what it does with respect to Ayurveda, I am including one component
which is not what a lot of people are discussing. In understanding
civil society, it is very important to include the market. Specifically
in the case of Ayurveda and I suspect in other areas like power which
Sreekumar was talking about, where there are so many other players.
They are very powerful players. They create good products, as well as a
frame that decides the direction that policy can be influenced in. And
that is why it is very important to understand what it is exactly that
they are doing.
The two components that I will be
looking at, are the market for Ayurveda, and second the groups and
movements that have mobilised people to take initiatives on health care
and their relationship with Ayurveda or Indigenous systems of medicine
First, I talk about
the market. It does two things - It creates specific kinds of products,
and consumers to suit them. The market actually constructs the drugs
and cosmetics market in such a way that it uses the whole idea of
traditional products, but only creates it in those forms that can
“sell”. So I have studied extensively the pricing, the
advertising, and so on and shown in my larger work which has been
published elsewhere, that this is exactly what the market is doing
Second, it targets one segment of the consumer market
that would find product attractive which means that the product selects
some customers. It creates a niche market, which obviously has a
certain class character, which would create a certain position in the
social hierarchy, and so on. In effect this automatically leaves out
others. Both the product and the marketing complement each other
to do this.
Four kinds of products have been created in the market
- Classical Ayurvedic medicines
- Patent products, new formulation in the form
of tablets, syrups, etc.
- Cosmetic and personal care products - they
position Ayurveda as “wellness”
drugs that are moved as new products
It is important to understand the character of the
products, simply because these are positioned by the market to be the
face of Ayurveda. They have appropriated Ayurveda to make these
products and have used this to influence policy. They are able to
influence policy not so much to promote Ayurveda, but to bend
regulations and rules, as well as generate support for these four
categories of products.
For one, it seeks to focus favourable
policy towards these four kinds of products while it leaves out a whole
range of other things. And this is most clearly demonstrated in
the 2002 policy on traditional medicines. This policy focuses a great
deal on these things. And it is from there that the whole focus of the
current government or rather the last two governments has been on
supporting medico-tourism, of hotels, and spas. This is a very powerful
trend for the market, and that is what is influencing policy most of
Then we look at the second part namely civil society. The purpose of
the groups that have been working on this issue is very clearly
political. While politics and politicians are constantly being put
down, a political scientist, I want to say is the driving force. It is
one of the most creative forces, and I use the word politics and
political purpose in its best creative sense.
Basically what civil society organisations have done is
to organise and mobilise communities, to work towards health care. In
this process, they have taken up some kinds of positions on Ayurveda,
tried to understand the politics and looked at Ayurveda in terms of a
public health care system which the market couldn’t be bothered
And what it does is bring Ayurveda back into the public health
discourse. I see that there are four kinds of movements and groups now
that influence Ayurveda in particular and Indian systems of medical
systems, in different forms, and in recovering a great deal of local
health traditions and so on. The positions of which are highly
contested and debated.
And I have discussed in some detail the four kinds of
groups that influence Ayurveda in particular and Indian systems of
medicine in different forms, like promoting, conserving, documenting,
and so on.
The third group is actually trying to do what the market is trying to
do namely making and manufacturing medicines, but making them cheaply
available. The Ayurvedic medicines in the mainstream market are
extremely expensive and therefore are completely outside the range of a
large number of people. It is a different matter that the consumer
market is large enough for the market to run itself. But as a
system it leaves out many people. This is where these groups come
in. They have developed and recovered the skill and capacity to
make those medicines. It is an attempt to recover the knowledge and
production so as to re-position Ayurveda, by placing these in the hands
of those who understand the use of these medical systems in a
different way – namely not simply a beauty care products, but as an
effective, low cost, and decentralised health care system. Thus it is
very much a political act, as I understand it.
And the fourth category or group is a very powerful voice of dissent,
which actually, challenges state policy. It is a very unusual argument.
It challenges the market logic of the policy intervention as well as
the attempt to understand Ayurveda along the lines of Science and seeks
to legitimise indigenous medical knowledge in its own terms. It first
offers critiques of science itself. It then offers alternatives, for
adaptation and sustenance. This is a very valuable contribution
that the civil society is making, towards relocating the terms of
knowledge and using indigenous medicine systems “for, by and of” the
people as it were. And I am aware that I am using very blanket
and large terms, and would be happy to qualify it when there is time
And what can we
conclude from looking at civil society, and what it is doing. It
is important that civil society is open to critical appraisal
themselves, on whether what they are doing is okay or not. While it is
different from the market, it is great because it focuses on recovering
power for ordinary people, and that purpose is very important and
should not be lost. Besides there are many other issues, which come up,
and need to be resolved as we go along.
They need to be understood, as
sources of creativity. And what dominant science, dominant Indian
Science can learn from them and needs to learn from them.
This is something that those who are
within the civil society, those who understand and engage with the
State, are able to influence policy to do these things. They need to
recognise and improve things. The reason is that they
recover for these people, they restore the accessibility of these systems and they are helping realise
the goal of public health care which actually the government
interventions on health care are unable to do.
If you evaluate the impact of this part of civil society, it is
actually very limited. But the point is that it has very deep political
potential. And as Rukmini said that this kind of larger
mobilisation is important, and that’s why I am excited about the KICS
forum, because I think that many of us are speaking reflecting each
other’s positions on this. Even though we are working in different
sectors there is a common political understanding that we all share. We
need to explore alternatives and tie up with each other, and that is
what is possibly going to make a long term impact on policy because
this is politics from the ground. And if we go from what I started
with, that policy is a reflection of power structures, and politics on
the ground. Then if we are able to influence and alter, politics and
power structures on the ground, then we will be able to impact
powerfully, policy making.
The studies refered to in this presentation, is contained in the
book: "Power, Knowledge, and Medicine: Ayurveda at Home and in
the World" by Madhulika Banerjee Orient Longman Hyderabad