Friday, March 09, 2007


Amit Varma of India Uncut frequently gets galled at where he thinks our taxes are flowing. He often, and rightly so, disparages those government plans, schemes and policies which waste our hard-earned money.
In general, I agree that in our country, many of the plans that the government indulges in don't exactly utilise our money in an efficient manner. But that does not mean that the plans per se are misguided or flawed

The problem I have with some such posts by Amit, is that I get the impression that he tends to see things in black and white. Maybe he is criticising the government for not handling the money properly, and he could be right. But I get the impression that he takes a simplistic approach towards the endeavours themselves, the value (or lack thereof) of which is not as easy to gauge as appears from his posts.

Consider his latest post ("Your maid funds Unani") in which he is full of indignation about the crores that our finance minister has allocated to the "Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy". Granted, that the use of our hard-working maid's money should be justified. Granted, the name is rib-tickling. But that does not mean the money is necessarily not warranted.

Modern medicine is increasingly turning towards traditional medicine and therapeutic approaches, not because of desperation but because of a confluence of ideas that its researchers increasingly see with these ancient practices. However, we have not paid the kind of focused attention that needs to be paid to say Ayurveda, that is necessary for identifying essential compounds or metabolites in Ayurvedic plants and turning them into effective drugs. The results are there for us to see- western scientists and doctors have rapidly appropriated many active compounds from traditional Indian medicines and culture. Turmeric powder's active ingredient (Curcumin) has been now proven to be effective in inflammation and cancer therapy among other things. No one else but my own advisor and his colleagues already have patents on the use of curcumin to target proteins in the human body that are involved in cancer. Likewise, Azadirachtin, one of the active constituents of the Neem tree has also been used in many modifications against disease. Many analogues of azadirachtin and curcumin are now in clinical trials.

However, we obviously cannot blame western scientists for taking advantage of our traditional therapies. It's a free market out there, and if we don't capitalise on our resources, somebody else will. Also, the aim is to fight disease in the end, and nobody cares where the resources come from. But at the same time, we are losing many possible new opportunities and sources of revenue because of our indifference to these therapies and compounds. A conference on curcumin that my advisor attended in Indonesia featured only one or two Indian researchers.

Needless to say, insufficient funding is surely one of the causes of the laxity in research in these fields. Naturally, if government does not fund these endeavours, companies will. But since when did the government start allowing companies an untramelled patent regime in our country? This is a government policy that we should definitely criticise, but in the short term, by any way possible, it is imperative that our researchers and doctors discover the hidden potential in our traditional therapies before we are trumped by others. As an aside, in this context, I am not putting Unani, Homeopathy, and Ayurveda on the same level. I have extreme reservations sometimes to the point of apathy about Homeopathy and Unani. But as a chemist, I see great promise for Ayurveda in a modern context, where personalised medicine, an age-old concept in Ayurveda, is being increasingly rediscovered by modern scientists within the framework of genomics.

Thus, we should welcome the fact that the government is significantly funding research in alternative medicine in our country. It can create employment, spike Indian medicinal chemistry upwards, and firmly secure our rights on what has been invented and practiced in our own country for thousands of years. Now, whether the government will efficiently allocate this money or not is a totally different question, and I think there's a lot of reason to be pessimistic on this point. After all, Ayurvedic research can be stunning or can consist of complete quackery. But the allocation of money itself, if anything, should be seen as a possible breath of fresh air for such enterprises and for our development. I think our maid servant can feel validated about that (although it probably won't be easy to convince her since she mainly worries about getting her next meal)

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Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

As the popular saying goes , " The road to hell is paved with good intentions." The democratic governments of the world always justify their actions on the argument of serving a common good, and many times the intention behind the plans is indeed good (socialism and communism promised to improve the lot of the proletariat). But as Milton Friedman is never tired of pointing out, the efficacy of a program should be judged on the basis of its-well- efficacy and not intentions. More often than not, whatever the governments do, private sector can do it at half the cost. Government spending is almost always wasteful and less efficient especially so in a developing country like India. Take any instance in India where government has kept a distance and played the role of a referee rather than a player. Examples abound- in software, communications, airline industry, and some manufacturing sectors. In less than 10 years, the private businesses have contributed much more than the government has done in more than 50. The stagnation is evident in sectors where government is still playing the role of a big brother, e.g., agriculture, large scale manufacturing and particularly depressingly- education. The lesson is obvious, whenever government intends to increase spending- whatever may be the intention- be skeptical, be very skeptical and yield only when the case for the spending is overwhelmingly strong.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Thanks for the comment. As you said yourself, the efficiacy of a program can only be judged by its efficacy. Nothing succeeds like success.
I think it's a dilemma; how do we evaluate the necessity and use of a program before it is implemented? I completely agree that especially in India, we should be ultra-skeptical about any government spending. However, Amit's criticism seemed to be also about the funding part of "government funding". I agree that we should be skeptical about the fact that the government is going to fund such programs. I would also consider that dubious. All I want to say is that the funding itself for the Unani department is not totally unjustified.
If the private sector funds such fields, I would also prefer it any day before government funding. But I think that there is a sort of prejudice in modern pharma about funding such endeavors which may not go away soon. Some of the prejudice is justified, but a lot of it is not. In the absence of private funding, let's see what the government does. The fact that it is funding such endeavors is a good augury in my opinion. How well it does that will, as you said, decide the efficacy of process. Our eyes will be on the government.

1:06 PM  
Blogger Kelly Gorski said...

"nothing succeeds like success."

I could not have said it better myself.

6:39 PM  
Blogger gaddeswarup said...

I noticed this in 2005:
Do you have any news of the progress of the digital library? Thanks.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Bishu said...

Good to see someone who thinks on the same line. However if you follow Amit's comments on my blog, I think he's not against Ayurveda but his grievances are directed to taxation as a policy and presents his case with of the 500+ crore allocation to the Dept of AYUSH.

Having said that, I personally felt that the grant was quite justified considering the amount of infrastructure and tasks this particular department is carrying out.

12:35 AM  
Anonymous amit varma said...

Ashutosh, actually you're mistaken in saying that I'm "criticising the government for not handling the money properly." In my book, the issue of how the government handles our taxes is secondary: that it spends it on things like Unani is primary. It shouldn't.

I understand and respect your views on the importance of funding alternative medicine. That is why I think you should put your money where your mouth is and fund it privately with your own money. Demanding that I or my maid fund something we do not believe in, which is effectively what you're doing when you ask government money to be spent on it, is unfair and harsh.

If it is such a good cause, you fund it. If it is profitable, I'm sure many others will come forward to invest in it. But if you don't and others don't, why force people who don't believe in it in the first place?

2:49 PM  
Anonymous amit varma said...

Also, um, it would be nice if you spelt my name correctly!

2:50 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Sorry for misspelling your name! There seem to be too many "Vermas" around!

My point is that issue are not black and white as you will agree; why do you and your maid think this is not a profitable endeavor? Reading your post, I could not escape the feeling that you were voicing your opinion not just as a personal opinion, but as an objective evaluation of what you see as an objectively unworthy activity. I think you already made clear in your comments on Bishu's blog that it was after all strictly your personal opinion, which is fine. But then, why voice it as your maid's opinion too?

3:53 PM  
Anonymous amit varma said...

Ashutosh, it is both my "personal opinion" as well as my "objective evaluation of what [I] see as an objectively unworthy activity," as you put it. How are the two different?

And if you feel that I can't speak for my maid, then neither can you, and neither can the government. None of us should then take her money, we should let her decide for herself what to do with it. That, in fact, is precisely what would please me most.

1:46 PM  
Anonymous amit varma said...

Also, Ashutosh, far from not being black and white, it is very clearcut: if you feel Unani is a worthy investment, you put your money into it. Why demand that other people's hard-earned money go into funding something you believe in? That is just wrong, pure black, no shades of grey.

I hope you understand that this is not a discussion about the merits of alternative medicine!

1:51 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Before I pen a reply, let me ask you a question; are you against (almost) all forms of compulsory taxation whatsoever? The answer will add to the flavour of the discussion at least for me and help me to put it in perspective.

How can a personal evaluation and an objective evaluation be the same? An objective evaluation means that you are assigning some kind of an evidence-based truth value ('True' in this case) to the statement 'Government funding of alternative medicine is wasteful and unwarranted'

And if you think this funding is not justified, then I want to ask you another question; will you then also oppose government funding of all modern medical research too? In the US for example, much of the background research behind almost every new drug comes from the NIH, which is essentially government funded. Will you oppose all government funding of medical research, both in the US and India?

As for the maid, I completely agree that neither you nor I nor the government have any right to tell her where to spend her taxes. But then, why should she pay taxes for anything at all? Would that be ok with you? Also, if your major thrust is towards the freedom of choice, I am completely with you there, but just because freedom of choice should be allowed does not mean it is justified. After all, your maid can be quite misinformed about what Unani et al. can do for her. If anything, that could make as much of a case for her paying taxes for it as it does for her not paying taxes.

And I still don't agree that the matter is black and white (as I am sure you will agree that most social matters are not). One reason is the above stated one, that she may be misinformed about what she is paying taxes for. Secondly, what kind of a state will it be if every person does not pay taxes for something just because he or she does not have a clue about how those taxes are being used. I understand that government should be as accountable and transparent as possible, but does that mean that nobody should pay taxes unless the government makes a detailed point by point record of its every public endeavor available to every citizen in the country?

As for the specific point in the post, I am not disputing that government spending is inefficient. But to my knowledge, the current pharmaceutical model just does not see funding for alternative medicine as profitable, by their definition of "profitable". Now, just because private sector does not see something as being profitable surely does not mean that that activity is wrong or misguided? In such a case, if anything is to come out of it, and if government funding is the only option, then let's go ahead with that, and channel our energies in making sure that it is as efficiently carried out as possible. I understand that with our ludicrous corruption and bureaucracy, this is extremely difficult, but I don't see any other short term option.

Maybe you did not intend to, but your post made it seem that you are against the funding of Unani etc., that is the motive itself.

8:03 PM  
Anonymous amit varma said...

Ashutosh, the answer to the first question of your last comment is there in my post, as also the follow-up essay to it: I believe in minimal government, which looks after defence and law & order and a few essential public services. I accept that as a necessary evil, but one that should have its limits. Read up on "classical liberalism" and "libertarianism" in Wikipedia do get a better sense of where I'm coming from.

Also, how does one assign "some kind of an evidence-based truth value" to the moral question of whether my maid's money should be forced from her? My opinion on the matter is more objective than yours, in the sense that I don't allow my personal feelings of which causes deserve funding to get in the way of recognising my maid's predicament. Beyond that, on a moral question, everything is opinion. Am I to assume that no assertion on such matters carries any weight then, as you seem to assert?

I won't repeat myself on the issue of how if you think something is worth funding, you should fund it, and not make demands on other people's money. You would rather be totalitarian about this, and insist that others fund your support of alternative medicine. I can only shake my head ruefully at this, one last time, and wander off! Cheers.

10:13 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Please think a little before using words like "totalitarian". I am taking no such stance. Maybe you want to call the government totalitarian and that's your prerogative. I never said that the maid should be forced to pay taxes. I did not dispute her personal right to pay them. But I did dispute the fact that that would be the best way of running a democratic country.

The main reason why I am calling your perspective black and white is because it raises questions which I have stated above which you have not answers. Granted, every person has the right not to pay taxes for things which he does not want. But then aren't you talking about a possibility where these people become free riders? Why should they then avail of benefits which they don't deserve because they don't pay taxes for those benefits? Sure, for example, you should have the right to not pay taxes for the construction of roads. But then what gives you the right to use them? So if your maid is not paying for say Ayurvedic research, then she should not have the right to use an Ayurvedic drug developed from that research which can cure a life-threatening condition of hers. Is this any more morally upright or fair?

The main question which you had not answered relates to where you should draw the line? Is it ok then if everyone who does not think they will get malaria should not pay taxes for malaria research? Can you really envisage a society where everyone does not pay taxes for something he does not believe in? Can you imagine such a society and country having benefits for its population that comes from those taxes? It is hypocritical for someone to not pay taxes for something he does not believe in, and yet expect the benefits of that government action.

You might say then, let the majority decide what are the "right" government endeavors. So now do you expect that the government knock at every citizen's door and get his or her approval (or lack thereof) for every action it is going to undertake?

Some of your propositions may even be conceptually possible, but they are practically impossible to implement.

I am aware of the philosophy of classical liberalism. The main problem I see with it is the one above; if you don't pay taxes for something, don't expect to get the benefits from it. Again, even if you actually agree with this notion, it is devilish to implement.

And just because someone thinks that some personal liberties should be sacrificed does not make that person morally any less inferior than a libertarian. It can even mean a greater sense of morality, as it means that that person, by paying his taxes, will reap the benefit from them. But I don't want to argue over the moral position because that's neither here nor there. I believe that moderation should be the key to everything, and even though libertarianism is a philosophy I admire, you simply cannot expound its extreme tenets and proclaim that it could even be practically feasible. Let's all just live in the jungle then, to each his own without impinging upon other's rights. Is that your conception of a dream society?

Again, one of the most important questions you have not answered is "Where do we draw the line?" Why do you think it's ok to pay taxes for modern medical research then? Again, you might say that the real point is, let the citizens decide what to pay taxes for. But as I said above, then don't expect the citizens to avail of the benefits those taxes bring. More importantly as I said, it would be impossible to run a functioning society if every one of us had his own conceptions for what's worth paying taxes for and what's not. Don't you think that this 'ideal, if carried to its extreme or even logical end, could cause anarchism?

In any case, I have said what I want to say. I did not proclaim that my position is "right"; as I said, social scientists know better than to deal in absolutes. But it is clear that even though I personally find your premise black/white, we essentially disagree about the exact role of government. And we can have our own opinions about that, that's ok. But thanks for the comments (and I of course don't mean this sarcastically)

10:13 AM  

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