Published: Saturday 31 March 2001

Greed and destruction

Medicinal forest plants are being plundered by agents of ayurvedic pharmaceutical companies and private agents. Tribals are caught in a debt trap where they reap the herbs but are paid a pittance for it. Now the agents are also bringing in their own unskilled labourers who are not adept at removing herbs without damaging the plants. The rate of destruction is accelerating as people get greedier.

The government, forest officers and smugglers are hand in glove and the tribals are being gypped out of a resource which should have been available to them forever but will be gone soon because of increasing plunder.

What can a concerned consumer do? He could try to grow whatever he can for direct use, send mails to big ayurvedic companies to ask what they are doing about these problems. The companies ought to set up herb gardens all over as a top priority. They certainly have the money to do so. Like any other multinational, they will behave fairly to the last line of labour and to the environment only if forced to. And consumers could try to buy more stuff that is locally grown and produced, has a short shelf life rather than the export oriented stuff and support local producers, local vaidya s and knowledge systems.

There should be further legislation for sustainable, careful and very limited collecting of herbs from forests to meet commercial needs. The ones which will not grow in gardens are those we should continue sourcing from tribals collecting from forests, at really "wild" prices. That will itself help to regulate the quantity of such herbs that are sourced from the wild. As for growing herbs, there are more than enough farmers who desperately need some new ways to earn a decent living, and who don't have any skills or resources besides farming....

Baseless and misleading

This is with reference to your cover story on the medicinal plants highlighting various issues relating to its collection, trade, conservation and cultivation. However, research and development in medicinal plants and the status of its utilisation were not presented by your reporter in the right perspective. Some of the statements related to Central Institute of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (cimap) are baseless and misleading. Even my name has been misquoted in the context of the intellectual property right.

We, at cimap, always share the research results with the farmers and entrepreneurs through various available means and media such as training programmes, awareness camps, exhibitions, publications and press notes after taking appropriate precautions in terms of intellectual property right protection. cimap has standardised the agrotechniques of about 50 economically important medicinal and aromatic plants which are being made available to the interested growers through the training-cum-demonstration programmes. The fruits of research have started reaching the farmers. This fact can be ascertained from thousands of satisfied beneficiaries of cimap technologies spread all over the country. It is not correct to say that only theoretical researches are being carried out in this institute as alleged by the vaidya s.

The prioritisation of areas of research on the various aspects of medicinal and aromatic plants is done under the guidance of a research council of scientists, industry representatives and government representatives. Moreover, the plants for research are selected after consideration of their demand and consultations with industry leaders and practitioners....

Our correspondent replies:

Your comments on the story on medicinal plants further emphasises that while you are more than happy to talk about the techniques that you have already developed, you are not so open about the ones you are working on. This secrecy does not allow you to involve the end users in the process of identifying the plants that need to be worked on and which would benefit them. Sushil Kumar, director, cimap , in his letter dated October 23, 2000 had mentioned that the plants to be worked on are finalised through consultations with Dabur, Zandu and Baidyanath and experts like D B A Narayana (Dabur), Rajendra Gupta (Zandu) and S K Sharma (advisor, ayurveda, Department of Indian Systems of Medicine &Homeopathy). None of these people are practising vaidya s. I could have included this in the story, only to further emphasise that cimap 's research is catering only to profit making organisations who are in fact, creating a shortage for the vaidya s who work in the community.

I had visited your organisation on October 12, 2000 and you had talked about how it was not possible to tell people about the research being carried out due to the "problems with Intellectual Property Rights". You have also said the same in your letter dated February 2, 2000. The letters dated October 12, 2000 and November 13, 2000 from Sushil Kumar also failed to provide any information on what the institute is working on....

Distorted facts

First of all I would thank you very much for publishing an analysis on medicinal plant industry and its problems. But many facts are distorted and not presented in the right perspective.

You write: "... but instead of providing practical knowledge about medicinal plants to the farmers, the institutes are content on carrying out theoretical research". Before making such statements you should have taken care to verify them.

Indian Council of Agricultural Research ( icar), with the help of state agricultural universities, has released 25 high yielding improved varieties of 14 medicinal plants and seven improved varieties of six aromatic plants species. These varieties have high demand among the farmers. You cannot cite a single example of theoretical research being done in either icar or state argicultural universities. The mandate of these two institutions is to carry out applied research in the field of agriculture.

Besides, your reporter should know a little more about our functioning. The icar, in addition to its own research programme, also has outreach programme which are popularly known as All India Coordinated Research Project on various crops where state agricultural universities are the partners.

Before releasing any variety, improved genotypes are tested across the locations for number of years and thereafter the varieties are recommended for release on the basis of their performance and stability to yield. This system has paid dividends to the country. And in such endeavour, it may seem to the less knowledgeable that research is being repeated or duplicated. But result of such efforts are far reaching. Our country has gained immensely out of this activity. Therefore, such silly statements misguide the readers which is not expected from a reputed magazine like yours....

Our correspondent replies:

It is mentioned clearly in the story that the statement "but instead of providing practical knowledge about medicinal plants to the farmers, the institutes are content on carrying out theoretical research" is what the end users feel and is not a figment of my imagination or ignorance. At the time when the country is facing an acute shortage of medicinal plants, spending decades on research on a single plant is not practical. Please appreciate the problem that the practitioners of Indian systems of medicine are facing and evaluate whether your research is helping them. Shouldn't an institution like National Research Centre on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants take care of their requirements? Is a traditional practitioner ever involved in the process of identifying plants that need to be worked upon? Is there any relevance of your work to them?

While I can understand the need to validate the cultivation technique in the different climatic conditions, is there actually a need for the research to be carried at all the centers? I believe that scientists are capable of providing some information regarding how a variety will behave in a different situation. Validation should be carried out to justify the expected results. Haryana, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, where work on mulethi is being carried out, all belong to temperate zone and should not be requiring any drastic difference in technique.

I would also take this opportunity to ask you whether the poor farmers are able to buy the agritechnique or the planting material from you? How much emphasis does your organisation give to the extension work and to what extent is it successful?...

Unprocessed data

In the lead article Open to Plunder information from traffic -India's ongoing study on trade in medicinal plants in India has been used. Please note that we had not authorised your correspondent to use this data which is at best tentative as our report on the market survey has not yet been finalised and published. I wish your correspondent had observed enough professional decency to seek our permission before using our data....

Our correspondent replies:

The data was taken from a preliminary report presented by traffic at the medicinal plant stakeholders meeting held on November 6 and 7, 2000 at Worldwide Fund for Nature, New Delhi. Down To Earth had been invited to the meeting and there was no mention during the meeting or the presentation of the data that publishing the material would require prior permission from traffic .

However, it is surprising that an organisation which had the confidence of going ahead and presenting the study report to the stakeholders of medicinal plants is now shying away from the results. But the reaction is understandable. It was clear during the presentation that the statistics that were gathered through interviews with traders and field reviews did not go down well even with the traders who were very much a part of the entire exercise. It is sad that people who had ventured into an area which has been traditionally ignored are themselves unsure....

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.