Dr Mukesh Batra: The alternative medicine man
India’s most famous homoeopath talks about building an international empire, and the doubts over homoeopathy’s efficacy and role in covid-19 treatment
During a recent interview for a piece exploring the role of homoeopathy in India’s covid-19 treatment protocol, a veteran homoeopath from Kolkata told me it would be better to speak to some academics and researchers—the “Irrfan Khans of homoeopathy"—before approaching the most well-known of them all, Mukesh Batra. Dr Batra, he added, was more the “Shah Rukh Khan of homoeopathy".
After a 3-hour Zoom interview with Dr Batra, the comparison seems to hold good on many counts. He is easily the best-known, most commercially successful homoeopath from India. His network, spanning six countries, is managed by a team of 400 doctors across 225 clinics. In FY18, his company reported ₹225 crore in revenue. Like the actor, Dr Batra’s full head of hair defies his age—69. But it would be strange if it didn’t. After all, his company built a fortune mainly on the back of hair- and skin-care treatments.
In person, Dr Batra is all wit and charm. “Think of (our business) as papad," he says. “Lots of housewives made papad in India. Then Lijjat came and institutionalized it." That’s what he did with homoeopathy in India, he says: “We formalized and corporatized it."
The chat took place over two sittings, with an hour’s break at lunchtime. Considerable time was spent discussing the efficacy of his treatments. For, homoeopathy hasn’t found acceptance amongst the scientific community. Some go so far as to describe it as hokum, offering hope when there isn’t any. Over the past decade, regulatory bodies in several countries have declared their reservations. France has announced it will stop reimbursing citizens for homoeopathic treatment expenses from 2021, there’s a growing demand in the UK to follow suit. In 2015, a landmark Australian study analysing over 1,800 papers on homoeopathy concluded there was “no good quality evidence to support the claim that homoeopathy is effective in treating health conditions".
Dr Batra, however, has a ready retort. “A lot of these studies are biased and we shouldn’t get carried away by them," he says. Homoeopathy does have its limitations, he accepts: There isn’t much it can do for a gunshot wound, for example. “But in many chronic psychosomatic cases, it plays a very good role."
But then, he adds, he’s used to sceptics. “Back in the 1980s, when I would go to a party and say I am a doctor, people would say, ‘Oh very good.’ When I would tell them I am a homoeopath, they would do a namaste and then say their bye-byes and thank yous."
In recent years though, homoeopathy has found greater public acceptance and political backing in India. And after the covid-19 outbreak in January, the Union ministry of Ayush (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) recommended Arsenicum Album 30 as an “immunity booster". In the following weeks, Dr Batra’s network, like numerous politicians, businessmen and members of civil society, distributed the pills in large numbers. There are no clinical trials proving its efficacy against covid-19, Dr Batra agrees. But if a proper trial is done, he adds, “you can give the world scientific evidence on the basis of which homoeopathy works for various diseases".
In a normal world, it would have been possible to meet Dr Batra at his clinic off Chowpatty in Mumbai. It’s a small office behind Wilson College, where he set up his first clinic with “the first electronic medical software in the world". But concessions have to be made for the pandemic.
So, one afternoon, my laptop lit up to the living room of a 150-year-old Portuguese mansion in Aldona, Goa. Dr Batra was sitting on a wooden chair, wearing a cool blue polo-neck. A vintage dining set formed the backdrop, a chandelier suspended above it.
His family had flown to Goa in March for a break from the city, Dr Batra says, agreeing that it’s not a bad place to be stuck in. “Plus, we have a mango tree, so we get the best local mangoes. They are not Alphonsos but they are fabulous."
Dr Batra retired from active practice five years ago. His son Akshay, also a homoeopath, runs the day-to-day operations now. Dr Batra continues to be the face of the brand but more as the “chairman emeritus". Meaning, “I give advice when asked. If not asked, I keep my mouth shut." Lately, he has been spending time in charity work, photography and on penning his biography.
The story begins in Lucknow. Dr Batra’s parents were doctors. His father, a homoeopath, was the principal at a local college and mother, an allopath, worked as the deputy health secretary with the Uttar Pradesh government. “My parents were busy people," he says. “I experienced how medicine was all-consuming and decided that I won’t become a doctor at all."
In the late 1950s, Dr Batra’s father landed a job as the principal of the Bombay Homoeopathy College in Vile Parle, now known as Smt Chandaben Mohanbhai Patel Homoeopathic Medical College. He was just 7 when they moved to Mumbai. After he finished high school, a trustee from his father’s college offered him a seat at the institution. “He told me homoeopathy was growing, it will be good for you.... I thought, some people mortgage their land and jewellery with the ambition that their child would become a doctor. Here, I was getting an invitation." Was there no entrance exam? It was a relatively new college, says Dr Batra. “They wanted people from good homes."
He didn’t start off as a “serious" student. But he soon had a change of heart. “During my college days, I had developed 28 warts on my face. I had the annual day coming up and was supposed to go up on stage for an address." At his father’s suggestion, he used homoeopathic medicines.Within two days, he says, the warts fell off. There were no scars. “It was magical."
After a bachelor’s degree in homoeopathy, he got another in psychology from Pune University. His first job was at a charitable hospital in Malabar Hill, at age 23. Within a few years, he had gained a reputation as a hard-working, enterprising doctor. In 1982, he set up his first clinic, at Chowpatty.
The next decade was a blur. Between consulting patients, paying off loans and raising two children with his now ex-wife Nalini, he was heading for a burn-out. In 1996, he decided to turn his general practice into a super-speciality. He hired a market research agency, surveyed his patients and identified 14 segments where his treatments had shown good results. Once he stopped general consultation, his patient load fell from 150 to two a day. He had more time to research and spend on each diagnosis. Two years on, he rebranded “Positive Health Clinic" to “Dr Batra’s Positive Health Clinic".
It was around this time that Dr Batra’s association with hair loss and skincare treatment began. He hadn’t planned on it, he says. “The Drugs and Cosmetics Act has a list of diseases one can’t advertise for. Hair and skin are an open category. So we started advertising." Later, Akshay, who also became president of the The Trichological Society, UK, drove a targeted outreach for Dr Batra’s hair-related treatments. Today, says Dr Batra, over 45% of their 80,000 patients are seeking treatment for hair loss.
In business, he says, he followed the “Raj Kapoor model: If his movie did well, put the money in a new one." Soon, he set up a second clinic in Bengaluru. Once successful, he set up more, hiring and training a fleet of doctors, expanding to more cities and later, countries. It has only been onward and upwards since.
For all his success, Dr Batra hasn’t escaped bad press. Quora and Reddit threads are littered with criticism of him, trashing the “96.6% treatment success rate" he advertises. One of the most commented threads reads, “How big a scam is Dr Batra’s?"
“It pains me a lot to see it happening," he says. “But it’s usually the unhappy customers talking about it, not the happy ones."
Between 2013-18, the Advertising Standards Council of India, an independent watchdog, pulled up Dr Batra’s several times for misleading advertisements and exaggerated claims. In 2014, it was for claiming to have won an award for being “India’s only trusted brand in homoeopathy". In 2017, it was for advertising cures for diseases in violation of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act and Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act. In 2018, for advertising a certain gene-targeted therapy that could “predict and prevent diseases 15-20 years before they show up".
Dr Batra is convinced it boils down to “competition, jealousies". “Beyond a point, you can’t argue. It’s a quasi (judicial) body, not legal. So should I waste my time in controversies or get on with my life?" Dr Batra’s, he adds, is governed by the food and drugs administration (FDA) and the Central Council of Homoeopathy. “We have had no complaints so far."
Asked about the resistance to homoeopathy in the West, he says: “The (British) royal family uses homoeopathy. I can send a list of important people in the world who do too."
Popular isn’t necessarily effective, is it?
The way homoeopathy medicine is administered in the West differs from India, says Dr Batra. “There are more than 300 double-blinded randomized control trials (RCTs) done on asthma, arthritis, etc," he adds. While Mint couldn’t independently confirm this claim, several reviews of RCTs in homoeopathy have questioned the procedural rigour and quality of evidence. Dr Batra does agree that for homoeopathy to be established as a scientific system, many more trials are needed.
“Today, people are looking at holistic healing. The side effects of allopathy are making a move.... And we have government support too, which we didn’t have for so many years. As these things keep evolving, you will see the benefit more and more. And just like we took yoga to the world, we will take homoeopathy too."