Cover Image
close this bookMedicinal Plants: Rescuing a Global Heritage (WB, 1997, 80 p.)
close this folder3. India
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentProduction and trade
View the documentNotable Indian medicinal plants
View the documentGovernment initiatives
View the documentLinks to modern medicine
View the documentLinks to agriculture
View the documentLinks to forestry
View the documentLinks to veterinary medicine
View the documentProtecting medicinal-plant biodiversity

Production and trade

India has a special position in the world today because it is one of the few countries that is capable of producing most of the important plants used both in modem as well as traditional systems of medicine-a result of its vast area with a wide variation in climate, soil, altitude, and latitude. India is a major exporter of raw medicinal-plant materials and processed plant-based drugs. Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Japan, and the United States are major importers of Indian medicinal plants, accounting for 75 percent of total exports. Germany is the lead importer, which translate into $1.1 billion over the counter phytomedicine retail sales. Although India ranks as one of the major suppliers of medicinal plants to the world, its export of derivatives (chemical substances derived from medicinal plants) is insignificant when compared with those from developed countries.

At present the marketing and distribution of medicinal-plant raw materials is not well organized or documented. Middlemen are contracted by the pharmaceutical companies to provide raw materials. They in turn contract collectors in the rural areas to provide the plant materials. Few reliable data are available regarding total demand of individual plant materials (roots, bark, leaves, fruit, seed, etc.), their prevailing prices or localized availability in the country. Of increasing concern to industry is the adulteration of plant materials. For example, Aconitum heterophyllum is an important constituent of a number of Ayurvedic formulations. Companies utilizing this species find that deliveries invariably include three other Aconitum spp. that have to be removed, with an added cost to processing. To counter such problems, a number of companies have established their own R&D stations and are pursuing cultivation studies on the more vulnerable species used in formulations.

Demand and supply estimates by the Ministry of Health were used by Jain (1987) as an indication of the inability of one region, the North West Himalaya, to satisfy demand in 1986 (see Table 8). The supply/demand ratio is likely to be even worse in 1996, resulting in even greater demand on wild medicinal-plant sources and consequent increased threat to species survival. Another reason for companies to establish cultivation programs.

Table 8: Medicinal Plants: Demand and Supply in North West Himalaya

Botanical Name

Demand (tons)

Supply (tons)

Orchis latifolia

more than 5000

less than 100

Rauvolfia serpentina







Gentiana kurroo







Aconitum heterphyllum







Plumbago zeylanica







Onosma bracteatum







Picrorhiza kurroo







Dioscorea deltoides







Source: Ministry of Health, New Delhi. in Jain, 1987.

The pharmaceutical industries, large and small, are a powerful socioeconomic force in India. Very recent statistics (see Table 9) for the export of medicinal plants from India reveal that between 198586 and 1994-95 the export value of crude drugs increased 2.76 times to a value of $53.2 million. Important crude drugs included: Plantago ovata (psyllium), Panax spp. (ginseng), Cassia spp. (senna), Catharanthus roseus (periwinkle), and numerous Ayurvedic and Unani herbs. Essential oils included: Santalum album (sandalwood), Mentha arvensis (peppermint), and Cymbopogon flexuosus (lemongrass). The major destinations were: United States, Japan, Germany, France, Spain, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. An important fact is these statistics do not account for the huge volume of the undocumented, illegal medicinal-plant trade. In addition, the values quoted are the returns to India only. In reality, the plants would sell in foreign markets at significantly higher prices. If processed in India the financial returns from such exports would be considerably greater. However, these figures must pale beside the value of the formal internal market.

Table 9: Export of Crude Drugs and Essential Oils from India between 1985-1995 ($ million)


Crude Drugs

Essential Oils

Total Revenue









































Total Revenue




Source: CHEMEXCIL, Bombay. 1996

While India is not self-sufficient in pharmaceutical production, the majority of medicines used in the Indian Medical System (IMS) are manufactured by the private sector. Traditional Indian Ayurveda medicine has a 70 percent share of the formal medicine market in India. i.e. it provides for the needs of more than 600,000 million people. However, there are no estimates of the value of the informal market. Both these economically important internal markets must place a heavy demand on wild medicinalplant species procured from wild sources in forests, plains, fields, and remote lands. Data for medicinal plant sources, number of workers employed, and income generated (see Table 10) have been provided by Dr. Nambiar, Arya Vaidya Sala, Kottakal, Kerala and are estimates for a typical year.

As of 1987, there were 3349 units licensed to manufacture plant-based pharmaceuticals, but their contribution to the total production was considered only marginal. The machinery for the collection, production and marketing of plant-based products is not centrally regulated. A legal quality control mechanism exists, but is only partially implementable due to the absence of pharmacopoeial quality and industrial manufacturing standards. Important steps in future development include the publication of the Ayurvedic Formulary of India (Part 1), a list of drugs of plant origin currently imported, suggested for domestic cultivation, and medicinal plants approved for export. A sub-group on indigenous systems of medicine has been established within the Working Group of the National Drugs and Pharmaceutical Development Council to consider the evolution of plant-based pharmaceuticals in India.

Table 10: Resource Use Patterns, Income, Employment and Healthcare Coverage Arya Vaida Sala, Kottakal, Kerala, India.

Plants "imported" from northern states


Approximately 550


500 tons (dry-weight)


25 percent


Calcutta, Orissa, Assam, Maharashtra, Delhi Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Kashmir

market value

approx. Rs 5.2 crore (approx $1.6m)

costs for collecting/transporting

2-3 percent

Plants cultivated in Kerala


Approximately 150


400 tons

percentage roots/rhizomes

40 percent

approx market value

Rs 4 crores (approx $1.35m)

number of people employed


income generated

Rs 6 crores (approx $2m)

Medicinal-plant processing in Kerala

number of people employed


approx market sales value

Rs 8 crores (approx $2.65m)

tons stored annually

540 tons

estimated tonnage lost in storage

0.25 tons


number of staff


number of patients

inpatients, 1395; outpatients, 6650

income generated per annum

Rs 79,000 (approx $263,000)

Source: Bajaj and Williams, 1995.

Today traditional practitioners of the Indian systems of medicine - Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha - are providing prescriptions in the form of manufactured products rather than their own prescriptions. The demands of the pharmaceutical industry have outpaced the existing supply, and one of the major difficulties being experienced by the Indian systems of medicine is that of obtaining sufficient quantities of medicinal plants for the manufacture of genuine remedies. No sources reporting internal production and interstate trade figures were located at this time.

Box 5: A Poor Return on a Natural Resource

The most recent medicinal plant to come under threat is tetu lakda (Nothatodytes foetida), a small tree found in the rainforests of southern India and Sri Lanka. Extracts from the wood are used in cancer-fighting drugs in Europe. Twigs are available in India for only U.S. $0.26 (Rs. 9) per kg, whereas the extract after processing is sold by pharmaceutical companies for U.S. $15,000 per kg on the world market. Vast quantities of the tree are being cut, pulverized, and exported in powder form with the result that increasing tracts of forest are being laid to waste.

This plant is not included in the Ayurveda pharmacopoeia which partly explains its abundance until recently. However, at the rate it is being exploited it will soon become another threatened Indian medicinal plant species.

Source: A.B. Damania, per com.