Symposium on Gandhi & Health at 150, ICMR-NGM Joint Initiative

25-26 March 2019, New Delhi, India

Dr Vinod K Paul, member, NITI Aayog; Dr Vijay Raghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor to the PM; Parmeshwaran Iyer, Secretary, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation; Professor Balram Bhargava, Secretary, DHR & DG, ICMR; Shri Raghvender Singh, Secretary, Ministry of Textiles; dignitaries on the dais, distinguished experts, friends from the media, ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning.

I start by quoting Gandhi and his conviction that ‘in a gentle way you can shake the world.’ He was living testament to that truth.

It is indeed a privilege to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of such a visionary leader.

I extend my warmest thanks to the Indian Council of Medical Research, or ICMR, for convening this event.

ICMR’s contributions to implementing core Gandhian principles has always been commendable – I am pleased they have been documented in this first-of-its-kind, very important initiative.

Through access to Gandhian ideas on health, sanitation, nutrition and well-being we can access traditional wisdom on key public health principles that, when integrated with empirical evidence, can lead to better health for all.

Indeed, WHO appreciates very much ICMR’s role – particularly the very able and dynamic leadership of Dr Balram Bhargava – in steering this multidisciplinary team of experts to produce this special edition of the Indian Journal of Medical Research (IJMR) on Gandhi & Health @150.

I look forward to reading it myself and sharing it with my team.

Importantly, I’m sure it will serve as a repository of knowledge for communities across the world, especially in promoting healthy lifestyles – a pressing need given the challenges we face from noncommunicable diseases.

People from a range of disciplines could also learn a thing or two: as Gandhi observed, “It is health that is real wealth, and not pieces of gold and silver.”

Distinguished participants,

As many of you appreciate, Gandhi wrote extensively on health, mainly in Gujarati, which was later compiled as a book in 1942 and translated into English by Sushila Nayyar – a text that was approved by Gandhi himself.

The collection has been given the title ‘Key to health’. By Gandhi’s own account, this was one of the most popular among his many books, probably to this day.

Cleanliness and sanitation were one of Gandhi’s primary concerns, and it was one among many constructive agendas that paved the way for attaining India’s independence.

So committed was Gandhi to his principles he once remarked that “sanitation was more important than political independence”.

I’ll leave it to you to choose between the chicken and the egg.

Nevertheless, Gandhi’s ideas on health, if nurtured and appropriately adopted, can help address challenges that many countries around the world face, not just India.

It is indeed reassuring to see the launch of initiatives such as the Swachh Bharat Mission and Ayushman Bharat, which have the potential to promote game-changing health outcomes across this land.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasized, ‘It is our responsibility as citizens of India to help fulfil Gandhiji’s vision of a Clean India by his 150th birth anniversary in 2019.’

Distinguished participants,

India has made important strides in water and sanitation.

In 1990, unsafe water and sanitation was the second leading cause of the country’s disease burden.

With increased rural and urban coverage, the situation has greatly improved.

As per a WHO study released last year, assuming 100% coverage of safe sanitation services is achieved by October 2019, since its 2014 launch the Swachh Bharat Mission could avert up to 300 000 deaths due to diarrheal disease and protein-energy malnutrition.

In addition, if all sanitation services are used, the initiative could result in over 14 million more years of healthy life in the period measured, with the benefits accruing yearly thereafter.

As India is fast developing – changes associated with socio-economic development, from new agricultural practices to urban crowding and suburban sprawl – create conditions that allow communicable diseases to spread.

To address these challenges, we need strategies to improve the health of the entire population and that address all key social determinants of health such as hygiene and sanitation, nutrition, and physical fitness.

That means building robust and resilient health systems, and in doing so harnessing the power of traditional wisdom.

It means investing in health, both as a good in itself as well as its broader impact on productivity and growth.

It means pursuing universal health coverage and the promise that whoever you are, wherever you are, quality services can be accessed without financial hardship.

To this end, the ambitious Ayushman Bharat scheme is an important initiative, particularly its push to strengthen primary health care and establish 150 000 Health and Wellness Centres across the country.

The Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana (AB-PMJAY) is likewise a commendable endeavour to provide financial protection for persons accessing secondary and tertiary care.

WHO is, as always, committed to supporting the Government of India’s initiatives to promote health and well-being for all people everywhere.

In closing, I would like to focus on the concept not just of care, but of quality that was so central to Gandhi’s thinking.

As Gandhi himself said, “It is the quality of our work which will please God and not the quantity.”

By following this approach and including all social determinants of health in our agenda, India is setting a strong example to be emulated across the South-East Asia Region and the world.

Thank you.