A long time ago–a little more than two decades ago–India was in a precarious economic position.
In the beginning of the 90s, the country’s balance of payments crisis had come to head and India was at the brink of economic meltdown. The government was close to default and its foreign exchange reserves had fallen to such a low that we could barely pay for three more weeks of imports. The government had no choice but to open up its hitherto closed, socialist economy.
But then a series of economic reforms were initiated by the man who is now our prime minister.
One of these was the opening up of the broadcasting industry, which brought Western cable television into Indian households. Or so the government would have you believe.
The truth is that the rapid growth of cable TV in India stemmed from opportunistic entrepreneurialism. That and the failure of the government to react quickly to something new–something it didn’t understand.
Cable TV started to blossom when one international broadcaster, fed up of dealing cleanly with the government, started shipping (read smuggling) satellite dishes to India via Nepal. These dishes were lapped up by eager entrepreneurs, who capitalised on the frenzy around watching the First Gulf War on television to set up cable networks.
Some had no more than 50 customers, whereas others had thousands. They grew wide and they grew fast. Compared to January 1992, when just 412,000 households with cable TV, the number had grown to 7.3m just two years later.
Before the government could wake up, there were also 60,000 cable operators in India. And once it did, it promptly passed the Cable Television Networks Act of 1995 and the money train came to a halt–although not before cable television had become a part of Indian society.
It had helped shape the template of how to capitalise where the government failed. The Indian IT sector also followed this template to the letter, and it also won.
It is more than a coincidence–and something of an irony–that another rapidly growing industry has been using the same approach, that has much to thank television for.
That segment is dietary supplements.
You cannot switch on an Indian television today and skim through the hundreds of channels there without expecting to see a long-format advertisement on a dietary supplement.
Often, these ads are made in the form of reality shows–sometimes with well-known actors, other times with buxom models and occasionally with film extras out to make another buck.
Their claims can vary wildly: some pills will fix your depressive mood; a syrup will make you tall enough for basketball; and orange mixture can help you lose weight.
Bad in bed? Fear not: there is a imaginatively-named pill for that. A green liquid claims to make 60-year old feel fit enough to run a half-marathon.
And then one powdered mixture caught my eye. It can reverse balding, they say. I hope they are right. I am yet to be married.
I cannot forget the day when a well-known ingredient maker told me he had clients across India making and marketing foods for local, regional and national markets. Its a free-for-all, he laughed, adding that there are never-before-seen opportunities for companies to create a huge market as Indians earn better salaries and are open to changing their lifestyles.
He also reminded me that with little food regulations, the government either did not understand, or didn’t care to understand, what these companies were doing. For now, he said, you could even claim that popping a pill could make you a Martian.
Dietary supplements have been around in India for centuries, albeit less in number and more preventive in nature. The Chyawanprash, for example, is a jam-like mixture of Ayurvedic herbs and spices that is said to cure everything from the common cold to arthritis and penile dysfunction. It is now at the core of a US$5bn market in India.
However, it might be an icon of the industry, but a series of studies have been finding serious lapses in the preparation of many brands of Chyawanprash. Some have even been serious enough to cause severe sickness. If that is the case with Chyawanprash, you can only wonder about those other pills and syrups you see on the shelves.
In India, dietary supplements face nowhere near the scrutiny they do in Europe or the US. Here, they are are sold under the banner of fast-moving healthcare goods, and many of these supplements have their basis in pharmaceuticals. This means that their backers knew the products could have never passed through India’s regulatory regime for drugs, and so were best developed as supplements. Its the reason why you see so many “Ayurvedic supplements” and not many “Ayurvedic drugs”.
The Food Safety and Standard Act of 2006 sought finally to classify supplements as food items and to bring them under the regulation of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
But that is again only on paper. There still needs to be a consistent effort to develop the infrastructure and processes for it to match international standards. The FSSAI has still not managed to wrap its head around health claims advertising, it will be a long time before you see the body regulate to the point if formulation processing and laboratory testing.
Meanwhile, you will see more and more of companies hawking dietary supplements that can work magic. You will see them on television. You will laugh at their absurdity. You will laugh at the bad acting.
But you will also know that for every five of us laughing at them, there will be five short, fat, depressed, old, sick, and injured people looking at them with hope. At most times, misguided and harmful hope.
Have your say: Do you agree with Ankush? Let us know in the box below.