A moosli mafia is at work

It has put paid to the authenticity of a wonder herb

Published: Friday 15 April 2005

A moosli mafia is at work

-- India has a huge wealth of medicinal plants, most of which have been used in the Ayurvedic and Unani systems of medicines, and by tribal healers. Safed moosli (Chlorophytum borivilianum) is amongst them. These herbs are used in more than 100 traditional drug formulations and safed moosli has acquired a huge demand in Indian and international markets. Indian forests are in fact, quite rich in safed moosli, but this recent swell of demand has put them under acute duress.

Many scientists and researchers advocate commercial cultivation of safed moosli to circumvent this. And in fact, many innovative farmers have already started commercial cultivation to take advantage of the demand glut. Initially, the herb was farmed organically -- moosli multiplies five times in a year through this procedure; the process ensures good crop quality and is endorsed, scientifically.

But very soon the demand glut exerted its effect: farmers eager to cash in paid short shrift to quality and resorted to chemical fertilisers. Safed moosli multiplies 7-8 times annually through their use. Many plant material suppliers also started mixing their moosli crops with wild varieties of the herb. Such adulteration was initially limited to few areas but it is very common now.

Unscrupulous dealers Rampant extraction has led to a sharp decline in wild safed moosli species in an entire stretch of the country spanning Vidarbha to Central India. Moreover, very few new growers have the acumen to identify adulteration. And when they realise that they have been cheated, it is already late. They then sell off their adulterated stuff to new growers without disclosing this perfidy. Recently, a grower in Siliguri, West Bengal purchased the planting material in bulk at very cheap rates. But his joy was short-lived. He approached experts once he found great variation in plant types during cultivation. Of course, he was cheated. But it was too late before he realised.

Cultivators such as the one in Siliguri have very little choice. Only a handful of suppliers dominate the moosli crazy market. And their inferior stuff proliferates all over the market.

In the early days, commercial cultivation of moosli was limited to rich farmers. But the smaller ones also cultivate the herb now. Attracted by high returns in less time, such farmers are eager to buy the herb at any cost -- even by selling off their holdings. The suppliers are always at hand to drive home the advantage. Consequently, the price of the herbs range from Rs 70 per kg to Rs 700 per kg.

Why this absurd range? This is because on the one hand, proliferation of inferior moosli has led to a steep fall in rates of the herbs in Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. On the other hand, rich suppliers now have their eyes on non- moosli growing areas such as Punjab, Haryana, Uttaranchal and the northeast. The farmers in these states should learn from their counterparts in the moosli growing states, but they have barely any communication with the latter.

Are the golden days of the safed moosli over? The answer is unfortunately, yes. Ironically, this when the cultivable area under the herb is on the rise. India might well develop a monopoly in the moosli market but this is hardly an achievement, with inferior products the stock-in-trade of the market. The Delhi-based National Medicinal Plant Board does promote the cultivation of moosli and offers subsidies to farmers; but this organisation has not published even a simple brochure to inform people about rampant cheating. The moosli mafia is active in all government bodiesfrom the state medicinal plant board to banks. The farmers who are today attracted by the lucrative market and by subsidies are quiet likely to get caught in the quicksand of debt. It is very important to take action before these agriculturists commit suicide like the cotton growers of Andhra Pradesh.

Pankaj Oudhia is a herb expert and the convener of Society for Parthenium Management

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