"Forests are the main source of herbs"

Meghalaya's abundant flora is the basis of its traditional healthcare system. Now, rapid urbanisation and breakdown of the community structure are disturbing the balance. JOHN F KHARSHIING, Chairperson, Khasi School of Medicine in Shillong, talks to VIBHA VARSHNEY about the problem

Published: Sunday 31 August 2003

Is traditional medicine the answer to the healthcare needs of the state?
In rural areas, traditional medicine is the major healthcare option. It is well respected, as western medicine system is non-existent in far-flung places. Even otherwise, traditional and modern practitioners participate equally in providing healthcare.

Our medicines are highly effective in curing diseases of the nervous system, skin ailment, strokes and paralysis, burns, paralysis, piles, rheumatism, cerebral palsy, asthma, snake bites and high blood pressure. We get patients from other parts of India and abroad.

The system is also a source of income for many. There are around 300 practitioners in the state. Big practitioners sometimes employ more than 20 people to collect the herbs and prepare the medicines.

It is being used. So why do you say the system is falling apart?
The environment, the most important component of the system, is threatened. The knowledge of traditional medicine is based on experience people gain from observing birds and animals in the area. For example when a baby bird falls out of the nest and gets hurt, the mother bird knows exactly which plant should be used to treat this. The traditional practitioner follows the bird to find out what herb she is using. This knowledge is then perfected through trial and error. Change in environment is reducing the number of plants and animals in the area.

Even available plants seem to have undergone changes. For example we use roots of a tree Soh krot to treat stomach disorders. While earlier the bright red, ripe fruits of this tree were a common sight, we do not get to see many ripe fruits. We think this is because the forest cover has declined. Again, pure honey is a very important component and can heal even deep wounds. Now, cement factories in the area give out huge amounts of dust-laden smoke, which settles on the beehives. We have observed that the queen bee does not enter its own hive after this dust has settled on it. This creates a conflict situation amongst the bees, resulting less as well as worse honey produced.

Is the shift from the traditional system of governance a factor?
Forests are the main source of herbs. This includes the sacred groves and the village forests. Traditionally, it was the responsibility of the community to protect these forests.

But this has changed. We have had instances of army and paramilitary forces, ignorant of such sacred forests, entering and felling trees for firewood. The control of the forests was given to district councils when Meghalaya became a part of India. But it seems that vested interests then appropriated the rights of the people and led to huge tracts of forests being cut. This led to the Supreme Court order in 1997, which banned timber felling. This at once made 500,000 people jobless. As there was no ban on taking dead wood out of the forests, these people resorted to stripping the bark off the trees so that it died and so could be taken out legally.

New threats keep coming up For example, the state is rich in uranium ore and is being pressurised into allowing mining. Our fear is that the state may directly approach the people and get permission for mining a small region and in progress affect even the surrounding areas. Along with this, the area is also rich in limestone and coal, which are constantly being mined.

Would maintaining the community traditions promote healthcare?
Yes. We are trying to seek constitutional recognition for traditional institutions. We are trying to get the district councils abolished so that the power remains with the people. Councils have miserably failed to meet the aspiration of the people. They have enacted legislation, in direct confrontation with customary laws and practices.

Non-involvement of the community in decision-making has been instrumental in reducing availability of herbs.

So, what are you doing to promote traditional medicines in the state?
The first thing is to safeguard the source of the raw material. The Khasi School of Medicine is currently involved in mapping the sacred groves in the area at the village level. We are coordinating the efforts of herbal practitioners, farmers and head of traditional institutions. We intend to create awareness among the clans and individuals who own forests on the need to promote bio-diversity.

We are also creating awareness amongst the practitioners that their knowledge is worth imparting to their children. This is important; very few young people get involved in this science. One of our aims is to promote health care tourism. For this we plan to have herbal hospitals and clinics in the state.

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