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Diversifying into herbs

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

India is recognised as one of the world's largest repositories of medicinal herbs and herbal drugs. Yet the country accounts for a meagre 2 per cent of the world's organised herbal drugs market, which is reckoned to be as much as $ 63 billion and growing annually by 7 per cent. The country's share in the global exports of herbal medicines is also low, at around 10 per cent, and takes place largely in the form of herbs or their extracts and not as value-added products. As a result, the herbal drugs sector, including the 'nutraceutical' sector, remains a poor cousin of the thriving pharmaceutical industry. This state of affairs prevails notwithstanding the documentation of nearly one lakh plant-based medicinal formulations in the country's 'traditional knowledge digital library', created to provide intellectual property protection to this valuable wealth. It is evident that most of the formulations developed under the ancient medicinal systems of Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani, and described in classical texts, remain outside the purview of the organised drug manufacturing sector.
If one looks for the reasons for this state of affairs, the starting point is that, against some 5,000 species of herbs traded globally, no more than 800 or so are actively traded in India. Most of these grow in the wild and not on dedicated farms. Much of the vast herbal wealth is also handled by tribal people and other local communities, and is utilised by Vaids and other practitioners of conventional systems of medicines using crude methods of drug formulation. Such dependence on the natural growth of herbs has led predictably to over-exploitation of these resources, pushing some of them towards extinction. Also, the herbs are picked up from the forests by people who are unaware of the Good Collection Practices prescribed by the for this purpose. Thus, there is every danger that the ecological and socio-economic purposes served by the country's natural herbal resources may soon be in jeopardy. Equally worrisome is the apathy of the herbal pharmaceutical sector to standardisation of the quality of herbs and herbal formulations as also to standardised methods of preparing these drugs to ensure their efficacy. It is no wonder then that Indian herbal exports often face rejection on the grounds of high heavy metal content and the presence of other unwanted ingredients.
This is the context in which to view the move by the National Medicinal Plants Board (NMPB) to promote the cultivation of herbs as commercial crops on farmland, as part of the diversification of agriculture. The nearly four-fold hike in the outlay for the development of alternative medicines in the 11th Plan should come in handy for this purpose. On the anvil is the setting up of herbal farm clusters with supportive facilities, including processing units. Though the proposals include training tribals in collecting herbs in a sustainable manner, this is likely to be an uphill task, considering how widely dispersed this activity is.

First Published: Thu, November 01 2007. 00:00 IST