Indians’ indifference to health frustrates insurers, fitness chains

By James Jose, IANS,

New Delhi : What do fitness chains and life or health insurance companies in India have in common? The answer: Consumer apathy.

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Wellness companies and life insurers had started wooing the Indian middle class thanks to its rising income levels and dramatic changes. But much to their surprise, they have realised that Indian consumers don’t always care enough about being fit or ensuring contingency funds for the future.

“The overall attitude towards buying life insurance products is one of postponement,” said ICICI Prudential Life executive vice president Anita Pai. “It just doesn’t feature in people’s priority list,” Pai told IANS.

Procrastination and apathy seem to add to the general unawareness about health issues, the stakeholders said, adding this makes the task of getting new customers that much more difficult for insurance companies and health chains.

Little wonder, available statistics suggest that while life insurance penetration in India is about 4.4 percent, those who have insured their health is around 1.2 percent

This apart, the general insurance penetration in India is also rather low in India at 0.6 percent, against the world average of 2.14 percent.

Fitness centres and gymnasiums, accordingly, form under 20 percent of the $2 billion wellness industry in India, which Ernst and Young estimates is growing at 30-35 percent per annum.

“Health doesn’t command that value here,” said Vikram Aditya Bhatia, managing director of Fitness First – an international chain of gyms. “The attitude is – ‘let’s postpone. Let’s procrastinate. It won’t happen to me right now. When it happens, I’ll deal with it’,” Bhatia added.

What stands out in stark contrast is that India figures among the countries that witness highest incidence of road accidents. It also has an increasing population of diabetics and those suffering from cardiovascular diseases.

“People will spend Rs.500,000 on a bypass surgery 20 years down the line, but they don’t want to spend Rs.99 a day today on fitness,” said Bhatia.

Marketers attribute this phenomenon to Indians having been conditioned over a period of time to deal with situations as they arise, and not specifically plan for a negative event.

They even have a term for a society’s level of willingness to prepare for negative events or take steps to avert such occurrences – uncertainty avoidance. The lower the count as per this parameter, the more unwilling is a society to face reality.

“India lies very low on uncertainty avoidance compared to a lot of other countries. So we tend to deal with life on a day-to-day basis,” said marketing expert and director at KPMG Anand Ramanathan.

“The attitude of ‘chalta hai’ (all is fine) has been passed on from one generation to another. So even while incomes have gone up, people still have this attitude,” he added.

In a seminal study conducted across 70 countries in 2003, noted behavioural expert Geert Hofstede had said: “In Germany, there is a reasonable high uncertainty avoidance (65) compared to India where it is around 40.”

In other words, Germans tend to reduce risks to the minimum and plan for the future, unlike Indians. But it’s not as if Indians are oblivious of the need to prepare for contingencies.

“I know I need to lose weight, plan for my future and stuff like that. I keep promising myself I will join a gym next month, save enough money to start investing in a retirement plan. But these things just get pushed back,” said Prahlad Sharma, a 29-year-old sales executive.

“But these have become recurring New Year resolutions.”

(James Jose can be reached at [email protected])