Not entirely a picture of health

Narendra Modi must be feeling pleased with himself. In addition to being the Prime Minister of the country, he has now become the lead yoga practitioner of the nation. There is something corny about having the PM lead a mass exercise event, but Modi is not your average politician. Behind the move, no doubt, is some thought and calculation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads a mass yoga session on International Yoga Day at Rajpath, New Delhi on Sunday. Pic/PTI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads a mass yoga session on International Yoga Day at Rajpath, New Delhi on Sunday. Pic/PTI

India is making no bones about taking ownership of the yoga brand. There is nothing wrong with that. If the French can doggedly insist that they “own” champagne, we can certainly do that for this ancient form of meditation and exercise. The Modi government is seeking to kill two birds with one stone on this. First, to use yoga as a vehicle for India’s soft power in the world, and second as a mobilisational platform within the country around an issue which seeks to transcend barriers of caste and creed. This is something that Modi has been doing as a politician, witness his call for Swachh Bharat or for building toilets across the country.

In all this, traditionalists may complain that yoga is losing its essence, since its meditative aspects are very personal and do not quite easily lend themselves to “soviet” kind of drills that we witnessed on the Rajpath on Sunday. But then, in the years that India did not claim any kind of ownership, yoga has already developed various strains building from the traditional ones like hatha yoga, ashtanga yoga, kundalini yoga and so on and leading to modern teachers like Iyengar, Bikram or Bharat yoga.

Modi’s move to take international ownership of yoga has been carefully thought through. It was articulated in his first speech to the UN General Assembly as Prime Minister in September 2014, calling for the UN to adopt an international yoga day. As part of this, India’s permanent representative at the UN introduced a draft resolution at the UN General Assembly in December. The draft was supported by 177 Member states, and 175 of them co-sponsored the resolution which was adopted and the UN declared June 21, the summer solstice, as the International Yoga Day.

So, not surprisingly, there were reports of yoga day observance from around the world. Millions of people participated, from places as diverse as the iconic Times Square in New York to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Eiffel Tower in France. There were observances in Kazakhstan, China, South Korea, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, to name but a few of the cities. Yoga could well emerge as the focal point of an Indian effort to promote its culture through government-sponsored institutes much in the way the French, Americans or the Chinese seek to do so around the world.

All this said, there is also need for a reality check back home. Promoting yoga cannot be a substitute for action on the ground on issues that affect the health of the people. This is a country with many people who have really serious health issues and who are wracked by malnutrition. Yoga cannot help, and there is need for caution against inflated claims that it can cure this disease or that ailment.

A perspective on the real health challenges in the country is provided by the India Country Report on Millenium Development Goals brought out by the government of India. Its own assessment is that the country’s target in halving the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and in improving maternal health is in the “slow or off-track” category.

An uncomfortably high some 20 per cent of our billion plus population - come within the official count of poverty. The proportion of underweight children remains around 33 per cent and India has failed to meet the goal of reducing the proportion from 52 per cent to 25 percent between 1990 and 2015. Likewise infant mortality remains at a high figure of 39 deaths per 1000 live births, missing the 2015 target of 27. Associated with this is the maternal mortality ratio which should be 109 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015, but it is actually 140. Whether it is malaria or tuberculosis or other diseases, India’s figures continue to be uncomfortably high.

For good health, there is also need to look at some other issues as well. First, is the provision of safe drinking water. While the government claims that 87.88 per cent of households had access to “improved source” drinking water, this does not quite mean that this water is either safe or potable. There is, of course, another area and this has been a focus of Prime Minister Modi’s attention access to latrine facilities. Even today nearly half the households in the country do not have proper sanitation facilities.

So, it is important to look at Prime Minister Modi’s yoga initiative in the perspective of the massive challenge of eliminating hunger and poor health that afflicts large numbers of our citizens. Before we can have the luxury of taking the high road to good physical and mental health with yoga practice, we need to gird ourselves towards some basic issues that relate to good health. At the same time, of course, we should not decry efforts, such as the one that took place on Sunday to promote sound health practices and at the same time make Indians proud of their cultural heritage.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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