Rakesh Aggarwal, proprietor of the National Herbs Company, explains the pulse of the medicinal plants market to Vibha Varshney
You would have built up a wide network of suppliers in the 25 years you have been in this trade...
Oh yes. We procure medicinal plants through a network of traders, cultivators and other local sources. For example, we procure cultivated ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) from Madhya Pradesh and chob chini (Smilax china) collected from the wild in the Northeast. Plants like guggul (Commiphora mukul) come from Pakistan, while mulethi (Glycyrrhize glabra) is procured from Afghanistan and Iran.
And do practitioners of traditional medicines (TM) buy these materials from you?
No. Practitioners buy from retailers. They require a large variety of herbs in small quantities. It is not possible for us to handle these orders. A large part of our supplies are to companies that process the material for value addition, and then export it. We also sell medicinal plants to small traders, who further sell it to the manufacturers of herbal products or to practitioners.
So practitioners rely on small traders for supplies to make their medicines...
Well, yes. But then the practice of tm, like ayurveda, is different today. Most practitioners prefer not to make their own medicines. Often, they do not have the manufacturing capabilities required to make the medicines. In fact, even those who seem to manufacture their own medicines are known to just remove the packaging of the medicine and dispense it.
Would you say that your sales figures provide a clue to the kind of diseases prevalent in India today?
No, it is very difficult for traders to put a finger on this trend. In ayurveda, a single herb is used for a large number of medicines. Of course, there are some standard medicines that always sell -- cough, stomach disorders, liver problems, arthritis, and for increasing 'vigour and vitality'. Even the sale of these medicines do not show which diseases are most prevalent today. They are at best an indicator of the current 'fashion'. So one knows that tm is currently favoured in the cure of these diseases. These 'fashions' also affect the export market. For example, a new research in Japan had shown that gymnema is an anti-diabetic herb. Vilaiti imli (Garcinia cambogia) was also hugely in demand for use in weight loss programmes. But people did not find it effective, and the demand has gone down. There have been times when there is a sudden demand for a plant. But even before we can procure it, the fashion dies.
In your experience, is ayurveda as it is practised today effective?
The problem is not with ayurveda, but the practice of it. The main problem today is the lack of standardisation.
How feasible is standardisation of ayurvedic medicines?
See, the manufacturer has to make practical compromises with quality, because material is in short supply. Even the claims of large companies, who say they have quality checks in place, are doubtful. A manufacturer asked us to provide two samples of a herb they wanted. We had just one sample, so we divided it into two and gave it to them. One sample was passed, the other was not.
Manufacturers ask traders to get chemical verification of their material. We don't have infrastructure and depend on visual examination. More often than not, chemical examination only proves our assessment of the product.
Do you think cultivation of medicinal plants could be the way to quality enhancement?
Cultivation of medicinal plants is a risky business. Especially in a situation where there is no clear appraisal of the demand for various plants. A cultivator could find that demand for the plant s/he has cultivated dried up due to some reason.
It is also not not feasible for manufacturers to grow their own plants in keeping with the demand. A plant must be cultivated in its own natural environment for good quality yield. Therefore, the manufacturer would need to maintain lands in many different environments and areas all over.
What is your appraisal of the herbal drug industry?
The industry is certainly not as large as it seems. Even big companies make products like herbal candies!
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