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JAGARAN is a non-government organisation working on reviving the dying art of herbal healing in an impoverished tribal belt in Udaipur district. But its efforts have provoked a backlash among local allopaths and Karu Ram, a guni as herbalists are called, explains why: "Because we provide effective and free treatment to our community, which is trapped by illiteracy and cannot afford expensive allopathic medicines, government doctors and compounders in village clinics see us as a threat." Ram Kumar, a compounder, came to Karu Ram's village of Dewada Talab with a local police officer and reportedly tried to disrupt a health awareness camp.
The Bhil and Garasia tribes in this region have a well-developed system of traditional herbal medicines, more effective in treating multiple fractures, asthma and eczema. But, with the government resolved to induct the so-called "backward" tribals into modern medicine, allopathic clinics were opened in some of the selected villages. The consequence, says Ganesh Purohit of Jagaran, is that, "because allopathy provides quick relief, the tribals ignored their own system and became increasingly dependent on these clinics. As a result, the herbal system almost faded out."
But the erratic functioning of private medical practitioners is flourishing. "Even compounders," says a Jagaran ayurved, "had an independent practice extorting from illiterate tribals."
Jagaran was born during a 1989 malaria crisis in Mithodi panchayat after villagers tried unsuccessfully to get medical help from local authorities. In the first three days, recalls Purohit, eight children died and the villagers finally hit upon mobilising local herbalists who began treating the sick and in four days set 1,400 persons on the road to recovery.
Their success encouraged the herbalists to continue treating the villagers who not only learnt to respect their own system but also made it available in Salumber, Girwa and Sarada blocks. "Now," says another Jagaran aide, Jaya Lal, "16 gunis, of whom two are women, work in different villages and have their own clinics equipped with guni ka khazana (medical kits)." Each receives Rs 250 monthly from Jagaran to provide free treatment to the villagers.
Uday Singh Rajput, a 45-year-old guni from Vali village, learnt about local medicines from his father. "I treat more than 500 patients a month and I specialise in treating asthma, piles and skin disorders," he says. "Sometimes even Udaipur-based patients come to me with problems such as migraine."
Bhagwati Devi says her year-old son was cured of a week-long earache after Laxmi Bai (See box) put something in his ears. She was also cured of her eczema within a month.
But gunis report the sharp increase in their patients have made herb-collecting difficult. Compounding this problem is the fact that hills in that area have been denuded of vegetation. "To overcome this problem," says Bhanwar Baghai, a Jagaran activist, "we recently introduced the concept of a herbs nursery and a seed bank."
Livestock forms the hub of the local tribal economy, and Puja Lal, a guni veterinarian of Chenpura village, says he treats more than 200 cattle a month with herbs from a nursery in the backyard of his 2-ha farm. Puja Lal says he is so busy with his veterinary work that "we need to hire a labourer during the peak days of harvesting".
Purohit says Jagaran recently organised a camp for gunis at which herbalists from various states helped local gunis learn to treat diseases they had never treated before. "Such camps are to become a regular Jagaran feature," he disclosed. Jagaran is also trying to revive the guru-shishya (teacher-pupil) tradition in exchanging tribal medical lore among gunis and also document their knowledge of medical herbs and cures.