Mumbai: Like many tribals, Kashinath Budha Pardhi, the local vaid (healer) and medicinal herb-seller living in a lonely street in Trimbakeshwar, is used to thinking of the forests as an extension of his home, as a provider of all the things—trees, grass, bark, animals and herbs—he needs to sustain his work.

“I hire many local tribals from nearby villages, teach them (about) five herbs and how to find them. They go into the jungle for me and bring them back. I pay them by the kilo," said Pardhi.

Healing touch: (Clockwise from top left) A person checks out herbs at New Delhi’s Khari Baoli mandi. Pradeep Gaur/ Mint; Kashinath Budha Pardhi, a tribal who earns his living by collecting herbs; a self-taught Ayurvedic practitioner at his ashram near Nashik, Maharashtra.

Pardhi and the tribals he employs are the starting point of the long supply chain that provides nearly 80% of the raw materials needed by Ayurvedic medicine manufacturers to make their tablets and powders, bhasmas and churnas. But their work—indeed, the supply chain itself—has begun to come under enormous pressure, due to urbanization and ineffective governance.

Chiefly, in the absence of a policy on medicinal herbs, Ayurvedic pharmaceutical firms have been unable to track the source of the herbs they use, and thus are unable to guarantee the exact amount of active ingredients in their drugs. This inability has pushed the industry into a shaky, distrusted niche; it contributes only $2 billion (Rs 9,020 crore) to a global $62 billion industry of herbal products.

Ranjit Puranik, chief executive of Shree Dhootapapeshwar Ltd, one of the oldest Ayurvedic pharmacies in India, wants this to change, and he is pushing for a regulatory framework and database that track the origins of all Ayurvedic drugs. “We have 5,000 years of safe, effective usage, but no data to back things up," he says. “And I am really tired of being discredited. We need to fix this gap in data. It is not that difficult." Part of the problem lies in the unorganized collection of herbs by people like Pardhi, who, when he gives money, pays just 5-10 per kg of herbs—not exactly a lucrative trade.

Living off the jungle

Families regularly prowl the forests, sometimes paid by government-appointed contractors, sometimes “stealing" on their own initiative. They forage for over 960 varieties of roots, herbs, leaves, barks and plants that are regularly used in Ayurvedic medicines. These tribals, who know and understand herbs, who put in the most physical labour to procure them, are paid the least for their work. Others may not even see the money. “Sometimes we‘re given a sack of onions or a set of clothes in exchange for the herbs we bring," says Ramdas Paidia, an occasional herb collector. Paidia seems oblivious to the fact that he need not barter the herbs, and that he can claim payment for them.

Even the National Medicinal Plants Board (NMPB)—charged with safeguarding herbs and reducing dependence on dwindling forests—laments, on its website, the complexity of medicinal plant trade in India.

Many collectors, processors and handlers, commission agents and carriers get involved. The channel that begins with tribals and villagers proceeds next to local traders—thekedars—who deliver the herbs to various centres. The material collected at these centres is then carried to the regional wholesale market, and then on to bigger towns and cities. From here, the herbs go either to small shopkeepers or to processing units.

Casual surveys by NMPB indicate that a drug’s price depends upon the quality and extent of adulteration; the ratio of demand and supply; the status and reputation of the trader or buyer; the mode of payment, whether cash or credit; and the quantity ordered.

D.B.A. Narayana, chairman of the herbal product committee and member of scientific body, Indian Pharmacopoeia Commission—an autonomous institution under the ministry of health and family welfare for setting standards of drugs, pharmaceuticals and healthcare devices—says “minimum quality standards" have been implemented for 89 herbs and products in Indian pharmacopoeia.

Putting a system in place

“So there is a lot of work that has gone into this. But one of our problems is that there aren’t enough vaids, enough experts to do plant identification. There are only a handful of people across the country doing this work, and we need more...scientists and scientific institutions, monitor[ed] at the national level to avoid duplication of effort, and standard operating procedures for the process to become faster."

Until this is done, consensus has it, Ayurvedic drug firms cannot guarantee the quality of their products, and so cannot compete in a market where information is key, and where all companies must provide details of the herb on the back flaps of their packaging.

For instance, even though different European countries have different labelling norms, firms are required to identify the active ingredient in their products.

But in India, “sometimes traders sell a completely different plant in the name of another", he says. “If you go to buy nagkesar, a medicinal herb with anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties, the fellow might sell you something that looks like nagkesar but is not."

Puranik, who sources 20% of his medicinal produce from contract farmers and herb gardens, concurs. “There are times when we think we have procured 10kg of, say, ashwagandha (a herb with aphrodisiac properties). Then we discover, that beneath the first layer, the sack is filled with rubbish leaves, dirt and stones," he says.

‘Absolute disclosure’

Shailaja Chandra, a bureaucrat who is compiling a report for the government on the state of Ayurveda ahead of the next Five-year Plan, says: “It has become imperative to standardize Ayurvedic drugs to whatever extent it is possible. We cannot have a spectrum so vast where there are companies with fantastic set-ups...and herb mandis such as New Delhi’s Khari Baoli existing side by side, all providing medicines to the industry. The consumer must have absolute disclosure. All contents of the medicine, where they come from, what their composition is—these are all necessary disclosures."

This effort at standardization is mirrored in the US as well. In a strategy paper, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the US—which has been allocated $128.8 million to pursue “scientific research on the diverse medical and healthcare systems, practices, and products that are not generally considered part of conventional medicine"—addresses the need to qualitatively and quantitatively capture chemical diversity of medicinal plants.

Chandra says since the allopathic system functions differently, “you cannot superimpose due processes from there into Ayurveda. It needs to be due process created for this health system". She is thinking of recommending that the government should train people in herb and plant identification... Even in the industry, stakeholders believe it is time to create a database that will track the source of all herbs used to manufacture the medicines.

At a conference in Mumbai, the industry, academia and government officials discussed how to make it happen. Puranik, who is lobbying for this database, said: “Right now, we maintain inventory [and] catalogue all our products. The new database will cover ingredients in products manufactured by (a) company and eventually we will have a complete document of the kind of use of all Ayurvedic formulations. It’s not that difficult. We just need to apply ourselves."