Mumbai: Despite one of the largest repertoires of traditional medicine anywhere in the world, India lags behind key players in the herbal drug industry. Now, the government is trying to change that with a Rs1,000 crore proposal to uplift the sector.
Its strategy rests on doubling the cultivation of medicinal plants by converting existing farmland or offering them as an alternative in the cropping cycle.
Residents in tribal areas also will be trained to collect herbs in forests to ensure herbs still prosper in the wild. Herbal farm clusters are to be set up, alongside more investments into processing facilities for these farms.
These efforts are being spearheaded by the National Medicinal Plants Board (NMPB) and the department of Ayurveda, yoga, Unani, Siddha and homeopathy (Ayush), with inputs from the Ayurvedic and herbal drugs industry; the investment in the sector is expected to be sanctioned in the 11th Plan, the course the government charts every five years.
“The government is very keen to boost the industry’s competitiveness. We are now seen as an industry that needs to make a global footprint,” says Ranjit Puranik, chief executive of herbal drug maker Shree Dhootapapeshwar Ltd and honorary general secretary of the Ayurvedic Drug Manufacturers Association.
It is a great irony in a country where households pass herbal remedies from one generation to another, and one village to the next, that India accounts for just about 2% of the global herbal drugs market, which is valued at about $63 billion (about Rs2.5 billion). More than 8,000 indigenous medicinal plant species can be found here, but just about 1,000 are commonly traded.
Currently, the government supports the cultivation of medicinal plants across more than 90,000 acres. B.S. Sajwan, chief executive of the NMPB, now expects it to put greater emphasis on augmenting the production of herbal drugs. “We hope to significantly increase contract cultivation of medicinal plants from present levels to about 200,000 acres,” he says.
The boon might be felt beyond the herbal market, point out some. “Cultivating medicinal plants is far more lucrative than cultivating foodgrains, so there is a great deal of interest,” says Puranik.
Much of the growth in cultivation could follow a cluster model. “They will help farmers get a better price for their crop, procurement will be easier for the industry and there could be a qualitative improvement in products if processing facilities are set up in the clusters,” says Sajwan.
The board has proposed to the government that this upgrade could be made possible by providing incentives, financial support and processing facilities at farm sites.
The proposed initiatives also endeavour to address another important source of herbs— the forest. “We have to develop schemes to ensure that the biodiversity of the country is sustained,” says Sajwan. The board is working with the ministry of environment and forests to marry the two organizations’ interests.
India has many biodiversity hot spots that need to be conserved, and any efforts to promote herbal farming need to be mindful, says D.C. Katoch, deputy adviser, Ayurveda, department of Ayush.
“The country has almost all of the geo-climatic zones and so it is home to one of the largest varieties of medicinal plant species,” he says. “Unfortunately, due to the lack of knowledge among those who collect them, we are seeing over-mining of these resources.”
Government bodies plan to train Adivasis, or indigenous people, in the correct ways to collect herbs so that premature plants are not harvested. The training will also ensure they are made aware of the importance of conservation.
The medicinal plants board also plans to set up a “gene bank”, which would be a database of medicinal plants in the forests. “The bank will have detailed data on medicinal plants in the wild including the environment. This will give us an understanding of how these plants acquire their medicinal characteristics,” says Sajwan.
The proposals will be implemented through state medicinal plants boards with the help of other agencies such as non-profits, agricultural universities and research institutes.