Herbs to the rescue of farmers

Ayurveda employs thousands of herbs and plants in the preparation of medicines and cosmetics. And India has always been a fertile land for some of the world’s rarest and most valuable medicinal plants. Among the over 17,000 species of flowering plants identified in India, over 6,000 are estimated to be of medicinal value and are used in preparations such as drugs and cosmetics; and they form a major resource base for medicinal and herbal industries. Ayurveda has intense knowledge about the immense medicinal potentialities of plants like turmeric, tulsi, and sandal for the care of skin and hair, and of such plants as ‘hing’ and jeera to cure stomach upsets.

What with scientific research continually throwing up unsettling discoveries about the harmful effects of chemical and synthetic drugs and cosmetic preparations, more and more people approach the world of plants for their survival. This underlines the need for a concerted effort to ensure that we have a source for the steady supply of such herbs.

Not everybody need be aware of the story behind medicinal plants— the steps involved in their cultivation, care and right use. Hence the National Medicinal Plants Board (NMPB), working under the Department of AYUSH, is mandated with coordinating all matters related to medicinal plants and support policies and programmes for the growth of trade, export, conservation and cultivation of the plants. The major functions of the Board are:

• Providing guidance in the formulation of proposals, schemes, programmes, etc. to be taken up by agencies having access to land for cultivation and infrastructure for collection, storage and transportation of medicinal plants.

• Identification, inventorisation and quantification of medicinal plants.

• Promotion of co-operative efforts among collectors and growers and assisting them to store, transport and market their produce effectively.

• To look into all matters relating to import/export of raw material, as well as value-added products either as medicine, food supplements or as herbal cosmetics including adoption of better techniques for marketing of products to increase their reputation for quality and reliability in the country and abroad. Under the guidance of the Guggal Nursery at Mandvi-Kachch NMPB, the local population has successfully taken up the cultivation of two medicinal plants of very high demand in the Kutch region of Gujarat and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The Andaman project

From right: Dr D R Singh, Principal Investigator, in a farmer’s field along with the farmer and Director, CARI, Port Blair.

From right: Dr D R Singh, Principal Investigator, in a farmer’s field along with the farmer and Director, CARI, Port Blair.

Morinda citrifolia, commonly known as noni, is a tree in the coffee family, Rubiacea. Originally a native of Southeast Asia, noni grows extensively in India too. It favours shady forests and open rocky or sandy shores, and is tolerant of saline soils. With its large, simple dark-green leaves, noni flowers and produces fruits all year round. The fruit is known to be rich in a number of macro and micro nutrients and vitamins. Noni is believed to be imbued with several medicinal properties and has been employed in treating a variety of ailments such as cold and chronic pains, asthma, high blood pressure, hypertension and arthritis. Recently, noni also turned a lifesaver for the tsunamiwrecked islands of Andaman and Nicobar.

Life for the native people of the islands was devastated by the terrible tsunami of 26 December 2004. Along with extreme damage to human lives, crops and livestock, almost 16 per cent of the total agricultural land was destroyed. The agricultural sector, never very strong, was dealt a heavy blow and the future looked bleak for farmers. It was then that a ray of hope peeped in with the timely identification of the noni plant found to be growing in abundance in these islands. This was done by a team headed by Dr D R Singh of the Division of Horticulture & Forestry, Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI), Port Blair. The team identified, collected and conserved the germplasm from different parts of the islands and selected the genotypes suitable for saline-affected land, shady land and waste land for multiplication and distribution for intervention in farmers’ fields. The technological package from production to marketing was developed by the CARI, Port Blair, and contract farming was introduced.

CARI also facilitated and mediated the signing of a tripartite agreement between Health India Laboratories (HIL), Chennai, farmers of these Islands and the A & N Administration. On 17 October 2006 contract farming of noni was launched for the first time in the island’s history. To get financial assistance for disseminating the technology for livelihood security of Island farmers, a NMPB -funded project on “Morinda citrifolia” was successfully launched on 18 April, 2008 at CARI, Port Blair. Under the tripartite agreement, farmers are growing noni. CARI, Port Blair, is providing technical guidance, quality planting materials and HIL, Chennai, is purchasing these fruits at Port Blair at the rate of Rs 10 per kg .This will be continued for the next ten years. On humanitarian grounds, the rate offered to the Island farmers was double that offered to their mainland counterparts. Through this programme, a total area of 100 acres has been covered under noni cultivation, involving more than 300 farmers. Since the implementation of contract farming, about 4.5 tonnes of noni fruit has been successfully exported from these islands.

The Guggal story

Distribution of tripartite agreement to a farmer by Director, CARI in the presence of Chairman, HIL, Chennai, at launching of Contract Farming

Distribution of tripartite agreement to a farmer by Director, CARI in the presence of Chairman, HIL, Chennai, at launching of Contract Farming

Commiphora wightii (Guggal, Guggul or Mukul myrrh tree) is a flowering plant in the family Burseraceae. Common in northern India, it favours arid to semi-arid climates and tolerates poor soil. Guggal has been a key component in ancient Ayurveda, and is widely used in modern medicine for the treatment of heart ailments. However, of late, it has become scarce because of its overuse in two of its habitats in India— the desert States of Rajasthan and Gujarat. The Guggal project is thus a timely remedial measure. A project on the conservation and development of guggal in Gujarat was launched on 8 January 2008 at Bhuj-Kutch. At present, eight plantation units, each with an area varying from 250 to 500 hectares , have been developed as part of the project. The units are both in forest as well as farmer’s fields. They are Tapkeswari forests, Dhinodhar, Chhapariya rakhal, Badargarh forests, Bela forests, Kurboi-Nabhoi rakhal, Tharavada and Mathal. A total of 9.55 lakh seedlings have been distributed among the farmers. At present, most of the farmers have planted the seedlings on field bunds and efforts are on to persuade the farmers to go on for Guggul plantation in their rainfed farms also.
The department also held 12 farmer trainings and one field interactive workshop with Guggal industries.

Interview

We aim for self-sufficiency

The National Medicinal Plant Board conducts extensive market study before choosing herbs for different regions, B S Sajwan, Chief Executive Officer, National medicinal Plant Board, told Benny Thomas, Editor, Ayurevda and Health Tourism in an interview.

How do you select the plants for different regions?

We undertook a study on the demand- supply gap and the suitability of various medicinal plants with the help of the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions and found that about 960 plants are traded in India for medicinal purposes. We also found that among them, 178 are in short supply, and that more than 100 of them are used in excess of 100 tonne a year. Guggulu, for example, has a demand for more than 1000 tonne as it is used in more than 200 Ayurvedic preparations. We used to import up to 90 per cent of our requirement from countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. We also found that people in India no longer cultivate it, and hence we decided to focus on it. At present, we are cultivating it in more than 2000 hectares in Gujarat and Rajasthan. We are also studying the scope of massive plantation of Saraka Asoka, a medicine used in Ayurvedic gynaecological treatment.

We decide on the variety based on three parameters: they should be easily cultivable, should have a vibrant market and they bring a quick return to the farmer.

How do you help farmers take up the cultivation?

We provide them with seeds/ seedlings and extend them help in their rearing. Joint Forest Management Committees are set up for the management of all the related activities such as cleaning, drying, grading, preserving, classifying and marketing of the herbs. In certain cases, we also extend financial help in the form of subsidies also.

What is your larger plan for the sector?

We plan to bring an area between 80,000 and one lakh hectares under medicinal plant cultivation in the 11th plan period (2007-2012) so that we can attain self-sufficiency in most medicinal herbs.

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