Tough trial

Can Indian traditional medicines transfer their ancient efficacy to the modern era?

By Albert Chominot
Published: Friday 31 January 2003

-- To the Western observer in India, it is clear that the Indian Systems of Medicine (ism) offer great potential for worldwide growth. Currently, Indian exports are a modest us $50 million annually; a mere drop in the us $60 billion global market. The National Health Policy on ism envisages national production to the tune of us $700 million in the next five years, with a 25 per cent annual incremental increase in export earnings. Is this target achievable?
Alternative appeal The West is increasingly becoming interested in alternative medicines as they are considered to have little adverse side-effects. There is growing awareness that allopathic medicines though effective in curing ailments, can affect the body in other ways, especially if consumed in large doses. Alternative systems offer simpler and gentler cures to the physical ailments arising from the sedentary urban lifestyle practised by most Westerners.

A recent visit to Gujarat provided me the chance to assess the traditional medicine activity in the state, which may well be applicable across India. The industry structure here consists of three tiers. At the base is the family, where traditional practice has been handed from father to son for several generations.

Then come cooperatives, which collect raw materials from tribals and wholesale markets to produce speciality medicines. At the top, are the highly industrialised units such as the Zandu Group, with sales extending to North America and Europe.

The industrialised units need to ensure proper quality control to crack foreign markets. Quality control should be quantitative as well as qualitative, the former to satisfy modern industrial requisites and the latter by adhering to ism principles and methods. At Zandu there is systematic observation, feedback and analysis of raw materials, intermediate products and end products.

Practice of quality control may well lead to innovation. Jark Pharma in Gujarat markets a speciality product called Acidon powder, based on three medicinal plants with specific Ayurvedic properties. This drug is reputed to cure hyperacidity. Even though its formula was not derived from ancient books, modern lab analysis has helped create an effective remedy through the observation and recording of herbal products and properties.

Since 90 per cent of the plants used in herbal medicines still come from the wild, available resources are declining because of over-collecting, shrinking forests and the destruction of habitats. In addition, poorly paid collectors not only harvest too much but also employ wrong methods. They harvest at the wrong time, often plucking non-useful parts as well. In their eagerness to protect their meagre revenues, they destroy as much as they gather.

Cultivation of medicinal plants is therefore crucial to meet the rising demand as well as to reduce depletion of natural resources. But a few creases have to be smoothed before such cultivation becomes a viable option. Foremost is the regulation of the medicinal plants market. This would reduce the power of middlemen in lowering prices.

Indian laws forbid cultivation of medicinal plants in forests. Therefore herbal plants have to compete with traditional food crops for scarce land. To make economic sense, farmers could form a cooperative to market their produce at a profitable price. Contract farming would ensure steady sales for farmers and guaranteed supply of quality medicinal plants for industries.
Cracking the EU Herbal drugs have been placed under intense scrutiny in Europe. Recent eu directives stipulate that manufacturers will have to specify all the ingredients of the drugs, which have to be purely herbal. The eu norms also state that clinical data of the drug trials are required to make the medicines eligible for sale.

For Indian manufacturers the message is clear: export only quality herbal products. Effective communication and marketing are also required. ism is almost unknown outside the country. Instead of merely gloating about the ancient history of Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani, Indian marketers should also explain their modern relevance to potential consumers abroad.

Albert Chominot is Emeritus Professor at the National Institute of Agriculture; Associate Researcher at CIRAD/ECOPOL, Paris, France

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