Dying practice

Lack of medicinal plants forces village doctors out of trade

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Thursday 31 October 2002

Dying practice

Plants are available in far-away places; women can't collect them. So we don't teach them our medicines.
Gania, Medak, Andhra Pradesh

Our generation will have to learn cultivation techniques from experience. There is nothing to go by.
Chaturbhuj, Dudu, Rajasthan

Plants that were available near the house now have to be taken from the forest.
Abdul Samad, Jamoi, Bihar

Gunis -- traditional medical practitioners -- provide most villages in India with the only assured medical help. Unlike practitioners of ayurvedic, unani or siddha medicines, gunis receive no formal training. Their expertise is learnt from parents, who in turn picked it up from their parents. The process has resulted in medicines so finely tuned to the problems they address that most gunis unhesitatingly call their medicines 'hundred per cent effective'. Gunis concentrate on problems most common in rural areas, such as broken bones, snakebites, malaria and diabetes.

The traditional guni way of functioning is to identify a patient's problem, and then collect the necessary herbs from the forests to prepare the medicine. Fresh herbs are, therefore, essential to the practice of their skills.

Unfortunately, though, the dependence of gunis on wild growth (as opposed to cultivation) for raw materials is now threatening their existence. Destruction of the natural habitat of medicinal plants and overexploitation of whatever remains has made it very difficult for gunis to manufacture their medicine. Earlier, making medicines would take up only a few hours of the gunis' time. Now they spend entire days searching for the right herbs. This is particularly worrisome because gunis charge no fees for their services. Naturally, they need an alternate occupation for sustenance.

At the recently-concluded 'Rashtriya Guni Sammelan (national guni conference)' held at New Delhi, the decreased availability of medicinal plants was the foremost concern. Satpal Sharma of Behal, district Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh says that forests are still the primary source of herbs, although cultivation has been helping as well. Man Singh of Simalta, district Almora, Uttaranchal adds, "The practitioner should not have to buy the material from the market. This puts a price on the medicine."

Cultivation is a possible solution to the shortage of medicinal plants. The choice of which plants need to be cultivated depends on the skills of the guni.

Devaji of Bansavari in Rajasthan, for example, is an expert bonesetter and even has a license from his village to practice the trade. He grows anwala (Emblica officinalis), safed musli (Chlorophytum borivlianum) and gwar patha (Aloe vera) on his land, and uses them in his treatment. Gania, also a bonesetter, uses varieties like andagu (Boswellia serrata). These are trees, and he cannot grow them himself. He has instead decided to protect some from being cut down for firewood and furniture. He is also collecting seeds from the forest, and is trying to grow them near his house.

Kishto Das, Devghar, Jharkhand, says, "I cultivate a few plants, like ashwagandha, bidhara, safed musli and tulsi. The forest is too far off. Besides, seeds for plants like reetha and chatban are not available, making even cultivation difficult."

Perhaps, cultivation of medicinal plants is not the perfect solution. Because of the fact that gunis treat free of charge, it is impractical for them to devote large areas of their land to cultivation of medicinal plants.

Bhartendu Prakash, director, Vigyan Shiksha Kendra, Tindwari, Banda, Uttar Pradesh, speaks of another factor. " Gunis have no idea how to go about cultivation of these plants, because they were available abundantly in the wild." An option would be cultivation of these plants as cash crops, Prakash believes. While most of the land would be used for generating revenue, the needs of the guni would also be met.

The Jagran Jan Vikas Samiti (jjvs), Udaipur, Rajasthan, is promoting cultivation of medicinal plants on a small portion of agricultural land. Ganesh Purohit, founder of jjvs, believes that this is the most practical solution. Only a small part of the land is used up, and this will meet at least some part of the practitioner's needs.

But while, gunis are doing their bit, government agencies seem oblivious to their problems. Sunil Kumar, coordinator, Jan Swasthya Parampara Manch, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, says, "The government focus is on plants that can be exported. There are no schemes aimed at protecting the gunis' knowledge."

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