Dinesh C Sharma is an award winning journalist and author with over 30 years’ experience of reporting on science, technology, innovation, medicine and environment related issues for national and international media outlets.
Currently, his columns appear in Mail Today, Indiatoday.in, Rediff.com, DNA and Metro India. In addition, he writes for The Lancet group of journals and other international publications. He is also a contributing author for the Ecological Society of America. He is the author of The Long Revolution: The Birth and Growth of India’s IT Industry and more recently, Know Your Heart. For updates on his work, visit him here.
NAW- Tell us about your latest book, Know Your Heart? What is it about? How did you get the idea for it?
“Know Your Heart” is an attempt to unravel the mystery behind rising tide of heart disease in growing economies like India. Lifestyle ailments like diabetes and heart disease are usually associated with economic growth and affluence. Though India is still to reach growth levels of developed West, heart disease has already become the number one killer in both cities and villages. This is really surprising. It appears there is sharp rise in risk factors such as consumption of unhealthy foods and tobacco as well as physical inactivity in the past 25 years or so, which is roughly the period when economic liberalisation began in India. Therefore, I have tried to look at public policies which are responsible for promoting risk factors of heart disease. For instance, if availability of unhealthy food rich in salt, sugar and fat has gone up, which public policies are responsible for it? Are government policies responsible directly or indirectly responsible for rise in tobacco consumption?
I decided to explore these often unseen links between our health and politics of the state and businesses based on my personal experience as a science journalist and as someone who was seeing the problem all around oneself. On the one hand, doctors and experts blame tobacco, junk food and sedentary lifestyle for heart disease, on the other I am seeing in my family and circle of friends and colleagues that heart disease is striking so frequently and rapidly. That’s why I decided to join the dots and go beyond what everybody thinks is a mere health problem.
NAW- You tackle sickness and health in a very interesting manner. It’s true that a share of the fault lies with the government because it should be run on welfare principles and not on profit basis. But the government cannot ban tobacco or alcohol because of the voluminous profit the industry generates, now can it?
I am arguing in the book that decisions that affect a citizen’s health are not taken in isolation. Poor people can’t just be told to eat vegetables and fruits five times a day when a packet of chips costs much less than a pair of bananas, thanks to skewed policies of the state. Indian state doles out subsidies for manufacturers of processed food products while growers of fruits and vegetables get none of it. Not just this, sellers of fruits and vegetables are being elbowed out of big cities.
I am glad you raised the issue of tobacco, to which I have devoted a full chapter. Tobacco is a political hot potato. Many politicians have direct and indirect interest in this industry and they opposed printing of graphic health warnings on tobacco products like bidi (cheaper, hand-rolled cigarettes). The Government of India gives awards to top cigarette exporters and funds tobacco-related research. If the government can’t ban tobacco for whatever reasons, the least it can do is stop subsidising it. In any case, a recent study has shown that economic burden of tobacco-related diseases in India is US$ 22 billion a year, which is far greater than tax revenues tobacco generates.
NAW- What can readers expect to learn from your book?
They can get an easy-to-understand view of the heart disease problem in India, its medical and non-medical causes and a detailed account of how government and corporate policies are fueling three major risk factors – unhealthy food, tobacco and physical inactivity and causes behind these factors. We need to learn from examples of countries where heart disease rates have gone down due to pro-health policies, and community level initiatives in India. Though the book is focused on India, it would be useful also for readers from other emerging economies which find themselves in situations similar to India as far as lifestyle diseases are concerned. It’s not a book about do’s and dont’s for heart patients but gives readers a larger picture.
NAW- Tell us about your other book, The Long Revolution.
“The Long Revolution: The Birth and Growth of India’s IT Industry” was published in 2009. It traced the history of India’s information technology industry from the days when the country had just a couple of computers to the state where it has become the world’s backroom. It was a fascinating journey indeed. The popular notion about the Indian information technology industry is that it came to the world scene at the turn of the century when the Western world needed cheap engineering labor to fix the Millennium Bug or the so-called Y2K problem. Well, this was a turning point but the story does not begin here but soon after the independence in 1947. The early thrust given on scientific research and American-style engineering education by India’s first Prime Minister Nehru and his scientist-colleagues like Bhabha and Mahalanobis laid the foundation for the computing industry. In the 1980s, the state-sponsored Software Technology Parks scheme helped small software companies overcome infrastructure problems and connect with American and European customers. All this has helped in India become a global outsourcing hub.
NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey. How did you first get published?
I had started writing my first book around 2002 or so but the project did not move at desired speed. It got a boost when I was selected for a prestigious book writing fellowship called New India Fellowship in 2005. It is given to people who want to work on any aspect of post-independent history of India. In India, not many such opportunities are available to independent writers and academics who want to pursue subjects of their interest. Though the fellowship support was for only one year, I continued on my own and finished the book in 2007, and it was eventually published by HarperCollins India. An international and revised edition of the book is due in March 2015.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
When I am not writing books, I am writing news articles and features. I have been a professional journalist for three decades and held a full-time day job as Science Editor with the India Today Group of publications in New Delhi a few months back. I write regular columns in Indian and foreign media, mainly on science and technology related issues, and I am contributing editor for some publications.
NAW- Who are your favourite writers?
I like to read non-fiction, contemporary history by Indian and foreign authors. Among my favourite writers are Ramachandra Guha (author of India after Gandhi), Thomas Freidman, William Dalrymple, Robin Jeffrey, Khushwant Singh and Rama Bijapurkar. I am greatly influenced by the writings of Guha and consider him my intellectual guru.
NAW- What will you be working on next?
A science travelogue based on my visit to the Arctic Sea to report on climate change experiments is in the press and will be out sometime later this year. I have just started working on a possible book on the disturbing and cosy relationship between medical companies, hospitals, paid researchers and media. This nexus, I believe, is harmful for patients and consumers.
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