Treasure House of Herbs

Today we need judicious and sustainable use of our biodiversity
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Shabir Sarwar Malik

If seen in totality one finds an interesting interplay of mineral world, vegetable kingdom and animal kingdom. Man depends heavily on nature for food, medicine, fodder, fuel and construction material, but his meddlesomeness-that is visible in every sphere, doesn’t always generate good omens.

Ever since the Neolithic Age, man graduated from Food-Gatherer-Stage to Cultivation and Mesolithic culture; saw evolution of cultivation practices that ensured a dependable supply of food grains and vegetables. Permanent settlements called for replenishment of over-used land with fertilizers and organised farm pattern brought to surface a number of social and communal ramifications. Skills and techniques were scaled up, whereby comfort registered an increase as the Wheel of Civilization began to roll. Bio-world saw upward march of various species and that included the present species of humans, animals and plants. Selective domestication and transgenic techniques, genetically modified organisms were possible with speed, unimagined before; and genomics made some writers to surmise whether the DNA spiral strands can be equated with individual’s ‘Loh-e-Mehfooz’.

During infancy stage speed of change was slow. Presently the speed is mind–boggling. Bio-technology is a subject with so much scope, that too, capable of yielding astounding results. But in today’s write-up I will dwell only on The World Of Herbs, highlighting their importance as valuable resources of this land of ours. The past century not only changed the condescending attitude but found that east too has a worth in the world, dominated presently by the west. Traditional medical knowledge came to be named with respect as ‘old wisdom’.

Himalayas are repositories of rich diversity and J&K has been bestowed with a fair share of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (MAP). Forest system of J&K is believed to hold 50% of the drug-plants listed in British Pharmacopoeia, including the prized essential oil and oleoresin-bearing plants that hold promise of a better tomorrow, as it is said to be a core area of our strength.

In Jan 2003 A.P.J.A Kalam said that ‘in the emerging society of 21st century, knowledge is the primary-production-resource, instead of capital and labor’, thereby pointing to a promising new road ahead. Although, after his bidding, almost all states worked on ‘Vision Document 2020’ and J&K too did the exercise with eyes on investors but it is a million-dollar question, whether we achieved even 50% of the target in over one dozen core areas that were show-cased twenty years back. Anyway let me go back to my world of herbs. Links among Agriculture, Biodiversity and Biotechnology is not inconsequential as genes can be transferred to improve crop yield and on the basis of rich diversity, technological advancement; including ‘cutting edge technologies, and huge manpower resources, India can emerge as ‘export leader’ in the field of biotech products; and as a big consumer too. Talking about the strides made in bio-prospecting (exploring the ecosystem to discover commercially valuable biological resources), biosynthesis, combinatorial bio-chemistry, molecule prospecting etc., has little meaning if nothing concrete is visible on ground, even after two decades have passed since the ’Vision Exercise’ was done. Names like ICMR, ICAR and DST, and various documents and blue prints if prepared by the concerned departments in J&K, can give us false-hope, unless dreams are translated into reality. Indian pharmaceutical market may be enjoying top rank. Nice it is to hear that J&K has RRL, KU, SKAUST, Medicinal Board etc., and that work on MAP; micro-propagation protocols, standardization & extraction procedures, data base driven websites & publications, and about four dozen medicinal plants can be named with high pitch. But the real question is whether in past twenty years we succeeded in the arena of ‘vocationalisation’? Whether we have created success stories among disadvantaged people due to training under societal program?

Among the top-fifteen M.A Plants that are said to have the potential of emerging as Agro-based-eco-friendly-industry in J&K, the following twelve are said to be listed:

1) Dioscorea deltoidea (life-saving-steroids), 2) Echinacea augustifolia (immune system stimulants), 3) Hypericum perforatum (anti depressant), 4) Withonia somnifera (nervous disorders), 5) Aconitum hetrophyllum (astringent/anti-diabetic), 6) Pyrethrum (insecticide), 7) Atropa bellodona (anti spasmodic), 8) Podophylium (anti cancer), 9) Rosa Damascana bulgaris (fragrance), 10) Levendula officinalis (aroma), 11) Salvia sclarea (perfumery) and 12) Cymbopogn/Lemon grass (aromatic).

Molecular chemistry, domestication and agronomic practices for industrial-scale cultivation need to be focused upon with utmost care. Government intervention should be mainly promotional, and traditional knowledge base must be brought closer to Advanced Research and Technologies. A to Z technology and market for both, semi- finished (that is, after part value-addition) and ready–product, processing technology, Buy-Back Arrangements with established pharmaceuticals; the human resource utilisation and employment potential in this sphere need our attention. Inviting outside investors is a possibility but participation of local entrepreneurs and a leading bank should be preferred. It holds good even today that judicious and sustainable use of our biodiversity demands that cultivation of chosen MAP on ‘Waste-lands” should receive adequate attention. But as witnessed in past two decades not even a dozen of name-worthy industries have come up, in this sector on ground, in J&K, in this ‘area of strength’. If my information is wrong the concerned HODs of the related departments may please give the citizens concrete evidence by publishing success stories in print-media. That can motivate new entrepreneurs.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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