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Waking up to herbal wealth

The three-day International Conference on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants focused on enhancing cultivation and marketing of herbal plants in the country, which can be commercially viable for the farmer. R. UMA MAHESHWARI reports.

HERBAL PATH: Cultivation of medicinal plants can lead to economic prosperity.

WITH THE opening up of the global market for herbal and traditional medicinal plant extracts, and the subsequent increase in demand for the same, India is beginning to realise the potential for playing its own card in a sector that it has traditionally been strong at. It has resulted in many state governments propagating the cultivation of herbal and medicinal plants (setting up committees/boards in the process) on a larger commercial scale than before, to reach the international markets. As regards the Indian knowledge systems, there are apparently seven lakh registered practitioners of Indian systems of medicine (including Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Tibetan medicines) in the country.

India is known to have 15,000 medicinal plants, which include 7000 used for Ayurveda, 700 in Unani and 600 in Siddha medicine, apart from other, perhaps non documented, systems. In Andhra Pradesh, Srisailam, Bhadrachalam, Nagaram, Tirumala, Paderu are said to be good source regions for medicinal plants.

But what is the real picture - in terms of infrastructure, investment, involvement of local farmers - in this sector for India to play at a level field in the global market? What are the constraints and what are the areas, which call for more groundwork?

Delegates from across the country, and abroad - biologists, herbal practitioners, cultivators, government officials and NGO representatives - came together to tackle these questions at the three day International Conference on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants organised by the Swami Ramananda Tirtha Institute of Economic Research and National Integration at the Shilpakala Vedika, fromMarch 15 to 17. The conference was inaugurated by the President of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who stressed on value addition to herbal plants and combining "technology and leadership" for economic prosperity.

He also informed that the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Cabinet on herbal and natural products and floriculture, had identified seven plants, including aloevera, `asvagandha', `brahmi', `periwinkle', and others for development as drug for international economic demands. Around 1500 delegates from various parts of the country and abroad participated in the three-day conference, which deliberated on issues pertaining to the cultivation and propagation of herbal and aromatic plants. Besides scientists and policy makers from the government (including officials from the Forest Department, Institute of Public Administration, National Medicinal Plants Board, and others) the conference had quite a number of farmers all the way from the interiors of Andhra, eager to learn more about herbal farming. There were also a few progressive farmers who have been in the field of herbal and aromatic plant cultivation since a decade and more.

MEDICAL BOON: Brahmi is a much sought after plant.

Also present were the major industrial players in the herbal market, such as Medimix, Dabur, Himalaya, and others. Most discussions at the conference revolved around the current status - trends and patterns - of the herbal products market at the global level. Speaking at the session on `Introduction and Conservation of Medicinal Plants: Past and Present', Darshan Shankar pointed out, for instance, at present India exports 70 per cent in the form of crude drugs (unprocessed plants and extracts) and 30 per cent finished products, and not vice versa; not sufficient to become a global leader. Praful Patel, an investment advisor from London (former activist of the British Labour Party) spoke of the Ayurveda UK Trust, an NGO he has set up to promote what he called "globalisation of Ayurveda", and to act as a pressure group to address the European Union directives that he claimed put Ayurveda "out of reach" in Europe, since it is not included in their list of five herbal systems of medicine. In the AP context, P.S. Rao, advisor on Forestry to the Government of AP, informed that under a UNDP sponsored project, there is plan to bring 0.03 per cent of the forests under medicinal plant cultivation, having identified around 80 species in the forested tracts of AP. But he pointed at some "confusions" regarding the regulation of critically endangered species and the need to protect them from being "over harvested". There were some farmers at the conference who were eager to start cultivating herbal and aromatic plants - but wondering at the same time, if this would lead them out of their economic distress.

For instance, a farmer from coastal Andhra spoke of his crop failure and the urgency to cultivate something that would give him immediate monetary benefit. Looking at some samples of Geranium plant at a stall set up by a rather successful woman entrepreneur, Swarnalatha, this farmer was seen taking notes of the benefits and the limitations. Another farmer (also an Ayurvedic practitioner) from Nellore came with his own small samples of the plant, `Goovula Gunti', and was looking for prospective buyers.

However, for farmers such as these, the conference was not as fruitful as they would have wished. All the sessions were in English and the language constraint was very evident. Nor were there any sessions where the farmers could share their opinions, questions and problems with regard to the cultivation and promotion of herbal and medicinal plants. The conference was for most part, disorganised, to say the least, with programme schedules, souvenirs and other relevant information not forthcoming when needed.

For most part, the conference was more interesting outside of the conference halls than inside. The stalls outside displayed the field level status of medicinal and herbal products and applications by small scale and home industries. For instance, the castor oil alternative for diesel for farming machinery, developed by Shaik Mastan Vali, who demonstrated, with an oil press. According to his experiment, with one litre of castor oil, costing Rs. 30, an engine may run for three hours, in contrast to one hour from one litre of diesel. Patented Unani formulations (such as Meswak herbal tooth powder, kalonji oil, rogane jesu daraz) were also on display. But some stalls did not fit in to the theme and concept of the conference - the AP Tourism, some real estate and jewellery stalls, for instance. People thronged the counter selling Ashvagandha tea, with an alluring smell and reinvigorating taste. In addition, there were Ashvagandha biscuits prepared with 14 herbs as a food supplement.

Although on the face of it, the cultivation of herbal and medicinal plants seems profitable, the constraints came out during some sessions in the seminar.

Madhukar Reddy spoke of the extremely strict regulations on quality for Indian products at the export market, which at times, he said, were biased against our products.

The Asian countries together account for 16 per cent of the global market share (of the total US $62 billion) and the Chinese medicine has taken a large share of the export market, leaving India way behind.

Reddy pointed out that all talk of cultivating herbal and medicinal plants is of no avail if the market question was not tackled.

The plight of the farming community, including some progressive farmers who had ventured into this area, was aptly summarised by G. Raghava Reddy, retired IPS officer and member of the governing board of the Swami Ramananda Tirtha Institute.

He took to task the board for Medicinal Plants, which he said, is non functional. Decent livelihood for every farmer, acting upon the discussions at the conferences, purchase of farmers' produce by some agency for remunerative prices and regularisation of prices were some of the suggestions he put forth.

He urged the National Medicinal Plant Board to take responsibility to identify species according to the regions and situations, and said farmers are promised benefits by the Boards without telling them of the properties of the plants.

Barring Raghava Reddy, however, none of the other progressive farmers got ample time to express their views.

At another level, there seemed to be no connection between the experiments happening at the field level, the current situation and what was being discussed, for most part.

People attending to their stalls displaying some of the practical aspects of cultivation of aromatic and herbal plants, could have shared their opinions and views to bring it closer to reality.

Finally, the valedictory address of Union Minister for Health, Sushma Swaraj on the final day may have given some hope to the practitioners in the field, when she gave assurance of creating a separate Corporation on the lines of the Coir and Coffee Board, for assisting growers in marketing.

This body would also regulate the quality and advise farmers on growing export-oriented varieties of crops.

But it remains to be seen if the farmers would be forced ultimately to grow only for the international market - with insistence on food supplements and cosmetics - to the exclusion and negation of traditionally grown varieties.

What would be the resultant impact and conditions on traditional knowledge and practices is a subject for further pondering.

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