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Meghalaya village Quinine Nongladew latches on to its past in search for COVID-19 cure

File photo: Cinchona or quinine tree is a genus of about 40 species in the family of rubiaceae. They grow 15-20 meters in height and produce white, pink or yellow flowers. They are medicinal plants and known source for quinine and other components.   | Photo Credit: R. Ragu

Hydroxychloroquine may not be the answer to SARS-CoV-2 or the COVID-19 pandemic. But quinine, its most primitive antimalarial avatar, has made a village in Meghalaya latch on to its past for a curative future.

Welcome to Quinine Nongladew, a village named after the alkaloid quinine extracted from the bark of cinchona, a plant belonging to the Rubiaceae family and classified as either a large shrub or a small tree.

The village, about 70 km south of Guwahati, is on the highway to Meghalaya capital Shillong.

Meghalaya’s Forests and Environment Department has no records on the Quinine Garden. The villagers are clueless too.

“I was a boy when our parents settled here from other parts of Meghalaya about 50 years ago. There was no village before us and the place was called Quinine because of the plantation. We added Nongdalew later,” said Bhastar Lyngdoh Tongkhar, the headman of the village of about 400 people.

Badhok Nongmalieh, an entrepreneur who documents local histories, said the cinchona nursery was raised in the 19th century, probably around 1874, when Shillong became the British administrative headquarters for Assam Province.

“Large swathes of Meghalaya used to be, and still are, malaria-prone. The British had the foresight to start the plantation to combat malaria and other diseases caused by mosquitoes,” Mr. Nongmalieh said from Mawtnum village near Quinine Nongladew.

The nursery on an unknown area fell into disuse by the mid-1950s, Mr. Nongmalieh added.

One of the reasons is that the Forest Department has no control over the area where a few cinchonas grow uncared for.

According to the Indian State of Forest Report 2019, Meghalaya has a forest cover of 76.32% of its geographical area. But the department lords over only 1,113 sq km forest area while the remaining 16,005.79 sq km is under community and private ownership.

“We have no jurisdiction over Quinine Garden or whatever is left of it. But our predecessors said the plantation was not much of a success at it involved an exotic species brought from South America,” B.S. Kharmawphlang, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Research and Training), told The Hindu from Shillong.

The villagers, however, said people in the olden days collected the bark of the plant and ground it to administer to malaria patients.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has generated interest among locals in the cinchona tree. The government should enlighten us about the curative properties of this tree and guide us on how to preserve it,” Mr. Tongkhar said.

The villagers also sniff commercial gain if quinine goes on to become a source of cure for the disease, which is incurable for now.

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 10:02:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/meghalaya-village-quinine-nongladew-latches-on-to-its-past-in-search-for-covid-19-cure/article31590008.ece

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