THERE is a substantial amount of literature available on the various ways in which the British influenced the subcontinent; their presence is still felt in local and regional politics and even the armed forces. However, the effect of British rule on the development of healthcare and medicine in India is a somewhat less discussed subject — something which has been brilliantly addressed in Daya Varma’s Medicine, Healthcare and the Raj: The Unacknowledged Legacy.
Keeping in mind that readers might lack basic knowledge of the subject, most of the technical jargon and medical terminologies have been mentioned in explanatory notes. Interestingly enough, at the beginning of every chapter, the writer begins with two contrasting quotes stating two opposing views on the effects of the Raj time period on medicine and healthcare.
However some sections of Medicine, Healthcare and the Raj digress from the main topic at hand as Varma touches upon some of the expedient ways the British infiltrated India, and played the people of different religions and castes against each other to establish their supremacy: “India is held in English thralldom by an Indian army maintained at the cost of India … Britain needed to colonise India for two important reasons. One … was to compensate for the loss of the American colony. Secondly, the shift in the European power balance … made it necessary for England to show her power elsewhere.” Putting these sporadic digressions aside, the discourse brings forth intriguing angles such as the overthrow of the practices of the conventional Ayurveda and Unani Tibb by ‘modern’ medicine. Another commendable aspect of the author’s approach is his objective stance whether criticising or advocating British policies and practices.
It goes without saying that no book can be deemed authentic and reliable until the writer makes a painstaking effort to take into account all possible domains on the subject. Medicine, Healthcare and the Raj does provide such in-depth analysis of all the remedial methods that have existed in India for centuries now:
“Five major medical disciplines can be traced in India … primitive spiritual medicine … medicine of the Indus valley … Ayurveda … Unani Tibb … ‘Western’, ‘colonial’ or ‘modern’ medicine, introduced by the British … [and] homeopathy, which too exists in India”. Varma advocates changes in medical facilities such as the nationalisation of all private hospitals and argues that ‘modern’ medicine is superior to indigenous healthcare. He shares an interesting fact: it costs as much to train an Ayurvedic or Unani Tibb physician as a modern medicine practitioner.
There are also a number of broader issues related to health and medicine that the writer makes readers ponder over. At one place, he brings to attention certain factors that usually go by unnoticed by the general public: “The International Conference on Primary Health Care … declared health ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity’. The term ‘social well-being’ implies many things, all of which fall in the domain of good governance, and a just and equitable socioeconomic order; not just good therapeutics. Poverty and malnutrition are a bigger source of ill health than diseases … and they do not fall within the domain of medicine.”
In the latter part of this study, the discourse primarily focuses on topics like medical education of women, the advent of nursing and the entitlement to free health facilities for the general public. The author praises the British for encouraging women to study medicine — of utmost importance even today, as many women prefer to consult a female rather than a male doctor. Similarly, the process of training professional nurses also began under colonialism, along with the construction of hospitals and healthcare centres that provided free medical services.
Medicine, Healthcare and the Raj: The Unacknowledged Legacy
By Daya Ram Varma
Three Essays Collective, India