What Legal Action Can Ramdev Face for Selling an Unproven COVID-19 'Cure'?

The AYUSH ministry has been criticised for not initiating legal action against Ramdev and Patanjali Ayurved on its own.

New Delhi: On Saturday, an FIR was registered against yoga guru and businessman Baba Ramdev, whose company Patanjali Ayurved was marketing a “cure” for COVID-19, called ‘Coronil’, without taking the AYUSH ministry’s approval.

Last Tuesday, Ramdev’s company launched an Ayurvedic product that it claimed could ‘cure’ COVID-19. As The Wire had reported then, the company did not provide any evidence to support its claims – not even results from a well-design randomised controlled clinical trial.

Soon after the launch, the AYUSH ministry had pulled up Patanjali Ayurved, saying the company must stop advertising the product and selling it until its claims have been verified. At the time, however, the ministry did not take any punitive or legal action against the company.

The FIR registered in Rajasthan is based on an advocate’s complaint. Five senior company officials – including Ramdev – have been booked under Section 420 (cheating) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act.

Government licensing officers had earlier said that while applying for permission, Patanjali Ayurved simply called the drug an immunity booster rather than a COVID-19 cure.

The AYUSH ministry decision simply to halt advertising and sale – but not take legal action against Patanjali Ayurved for misleading the public on medical issues – has been criticised. So what are the laws the company broke, and what is the kind of action Ramdev could face?

Lawyer Sarim Naved explained on a video for The Wire that medication in India is regulated under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act. Ayurvedic medicines too are included under this Act. A provision of the Act, Naved explained, makes it clear that misbranding a drug is a legal offence.

Part of the misbranding provision, Naved said, is to make any false or misleading claims about the drug. The drug is then liable for confiscation, and the company executives liable for prosecution under the Act.

The second level of action can be taken if the drug enters the marked, is consumed, and causes harm to the consumer. In such situations, the manufacturer will be liable under general criminal law for the harm caused.

For a drug to enter the market, Naved explained, there is a laid down procedure that must be followed. A company cannot, on its own, decide the use of a drug and market it as it likes. No country in the world allows for this, he argued, and it only leads to an increase in quackery.

“People are desperate for a coronavirus cure right now,” Naved said. “So if anyone promises something may help, it will definitely sell. So the company will do well. But if people’s health is affected, who will pay for that?”

Lawyer Avani Bansal too questioned the AYUSH ministry’s response to Ramdev’s claims. “It’s one thing for the ministry to say it hasn’t given Baba Ramdev permission to sell his medicines just yet, but we all know that Ramdev has a huge following. So when a person of his stature and following claims that he found something and has evidence, without producing evidence for it, to my mind it is fraud committed against the people of India at large.”

There are clear laws that the AYUSH ministry can invoke against Ramdev in this situation, Bansal continued. She referred to 2008 amendments to the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, which introduced serious penalties for anyone selling spurious drugs. This, she said, would include broadly any drug that says or claims to do one thing, but doesn’t do that.

There are also ample provisions in the Indian Penal Code, like sections under chapter 14, which can be applied in this case, Bansal argued. The chapter deals with public health and safety. “These are criminal offences,” she said, citing Sections 269 (Negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life) and 276 (Sale of drug as a different drug or preparation), “which provide for minimum punishment up to six months imprisonment”.