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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


Medicinal plants in India have been collected from the wild and cultivated for millennia. The Rig veda, written in India between 4800 and 1600 BC is the earliest record (in India) of the use of tree, shrub, herb, and grass combinations for curing ailments. Since then, thousands of books and papers have been written extolling the therapeutic value of Indian medicinal plants. In the Indian commercial market, it is generally accepted that nearly 95 percent of the medicinal plants in use are obtained from the wild. For the rural poor that figure is probably 100 percent.

The Indian Subcontinent contains about 25,000 species of vascular plants, of which at least half are endemic to the region. The 7000 medicinal plants used by the various traditional medical systems account for 28 percent of the region's flora--a very high percentage.

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.

Notable Indian medicinal plants

Jain (1987) has suggested that the bulk of Indian medicinal plants for the pharmaceutical industries come from forest areas. Today, an increasing number are being collected from non-forest ecosystems, as well as disturbed and degraded lands, and roadsides. The following three medicinal plants exemplify the diversity of habitats and use in medicinal preparations.

Neem (Azadirachta indica). The people of India have long revered the neem tree, a broad-leaved evergreen tree that can grow up to 30 m tall with a rounded crown as much as 20 m across. Because products relieve so many different pains, fevers, and infections, and rids households of pests, it is known as the "village pharmacy”. The earliest Sanskrit medicinal writings refer to the benefits of the fruits, seeds, oil, leaves, roots, and bark of the neem. Each of these has long been used in the Ayurveda and Unani medicinal systems.

Neem chemicals can help control more than 200 pest species, including locusts, borers, mites, termites, nematodes, and beetles. Recent results in medical and veterinary studies indicate even wider future uses. Currently, preparations derived from neem are used to treat:

· leaves-malaria, leprosy, cholera, intestinal worms, skin diseases;
· seeds-headaches, antibacterial, peptic/duodenal ulcers, chronic diarrhea;
· roots-amenorrhea (abnormal absence of menstruation);
· stem-gum disease (tooth stick);
· bark-antipyretic (fever reducer), analgesic (pain reliever);
· flower-ophthalmic uses-,
· fruits-laxative; and
· gum-body stimulant, tonic.

In addition to the pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and veterinary products, neem provides many useful and valuable income-generating materials during the life of the tree. For example, its seed oil goes into soaps, waxes, and lubricants, as well as into fuels for lighting and heating. Solid residues are used as fertilizer. Leaves are used as emergency animal fodder. Neem is a member of the mahogany family, and its wood-harvested when the tree is 35 or more years old-is highly valued for cabinetry and construction.

The multipurpose nature of neem means that its products can provide a range of employment opportunities in rural and urban communities. Individual investors and farmers can expect a net income of $155 per hectare per year from raising the neem tree. The collecting and processing of neem products provides employment opportunities from rural to urban levels. Between 1970 and 1993 the price of neem seed has gone up from $9 per ton to between $90 and $120 per ton. 65 However, this increase has turned a free resource into an exorbitantly priced one, with the local user now competing with industry for the seed. The diversion of the seed to industry may undermine the ability of local sources to provide healthcare to those users whose only affordable products are raw plant materials. However, this is a self-correcting situation that is stimulating both economic development and the planting of many more neem trees.

The multipurpose use and value of neem makes it an ideal species for future research and development programs. Because neem can grow well on poor soils, it opens up great possibilities for rehabilitating and stabilizing degraded lands. Intercropping with seasonal food crops would make marginal lands more profitable. Neem cultivation can be even more profitable if the seed is processed locally. It would not only add value to products, but also generate substantial employment and income in rural sectors.

Sarpagandha (Rauvolfia serpentina). Sarpagandha is first mentioned by Sushruta in 600 BC because of its use in numerous Ayurvedic formulations. In rural areas of India, at the first signs of insomnia, melancholia, schizophrenia, or more violent mental disorders, the old women or village physician would soak the roots of sarpagandha in rose water and administer it. In 1952, the alkaloid reserpine was isolated, confirming the plant's value. Since then the alkaloid extract, as well as purified alkaloids of sarpagandha, have become very important in the treatment and control of hypertension.

Following the publication of numerous scientific papers extolling the medicinal powers of the plant, a ruthless search was started all over India, a search that only came to a halt when sarpagandha had disappeared from forest areas. Before 1970, India was a large supplier of roots of sarpagandha to the world market, with exports averaging 40 tons yearly. In 1969, the Indian Government banned the export of roots to help develop a local extraction industry. India's exports of sarpagandha alkaloids have increased considerably since the imposition of the ban; with most going to Japan. While reserpine has been synthesized, sarpagandha-based products are still extensively used for medicinal purposes in India owing to their availability and lower prices. There is considerable opportunity for development by cultivation of high-alkaloid strains of the plant, not only for internal use but also for export to other countries.

Tree turmeric (Coscinium fenestratum). Tree turmeric is a woody climbing shrub whose normal habitat is scrub forests, wastelands, and along water courses, but today is extremely rare. The bark containing a drug that is an important constituent in more than 60 Ayurvedic formulations. It is useful for treating debility, fevers, and certain forms of dyspepsia. It is thought to possess antiseptic properties and is used for dressing wounds and ulcers.

Plant regeneration occurs from stumps of old plants and also through seeds, but the rate of regeneration has been found to be extremely low. On-going studies are seeking to propagate the plant outside of its natural environment. 67 The species distribution is reported to have declined significantly in recent years and is now declared vulnerable.

Government initiatives

While the cultivation of medicinal plants is of great antiquity in India, except for a few species, little attention has been paid to their systematic cultivation. A recent publication by Chadha and Gupta (1995) brings together for the first time a detailed accounting of the agronomic, genetic, chemical composition, and contemporary status of agricultural research on 21 medicinal plants as commercial crops in India.

The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources and the Central Institute for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (CIMAP) are actively involved in R&D on medicinal plants. Yet as far as industry is concerned there is little if any collaboration. For example, of the thirty four medicinal plants being investigated by the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources only four are of interest to industry and the thirty four CIMAP have developed agrotechnology or processing technology for the vast majority are not used for medicinal purposes. The Basic Chemicals, Pharmaceuticals and Cosmetics Export Promotion Council (CHEMEXCIL) set up by the Ministry of Commerce, GOI lists 111 plants in their Selected Medicinal Plants of India. If India is to be part of the tremendous upsurge in herbal usage then government must respond more actively to industry's needs. Both institutions have well established regional field stations and should be able to provide consultative and technical services to industry and farmers for cultivation and training.

As far as day to day procurement, collection, cultivation, sale, purchase, import, and export of medicinal plants is concerned there is no definite procedure and very limited scientific data available in the country. There is no agency or organization with sole responsibility to regulate such an important aspect of the herbal medicines of the Indian Systems of Medicine under one banner. Materials are purchased from drug dealers in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, Hyderabad, Amritsar and many smaller cities by the pharmaceutical industry to manufacture products. The medicinal-plant dealers procure materials from the so-called unknown sources (it forms part of their trade secret). Plants are invariably collected by unskilled laborers not aware of the properties of the derivatives. Adulteration and substitution are a problem, as are the absence of standards relating to the products, storage, transportation, costs, etc. While it would appear a contradiction, large quantities of medicinal plants are known to go to waste because their value is not known to the people of the areas where they occur naturally. The use of local and trade names, without proper correlation to botanical names, further adds to the general confusion and lack of systematic data on trade in medicinal plants.

A recent conservation initiative by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) in collaboration with Wildlife Institute of India and the World Bank seeks to establish a nationwide biodiversity information network. Specific consumers of such biodiversity information include MOEF, CIMAP, the Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI) of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Ministry of Agriculture (MOA), the All India Medical Research Council (AIMRC), MOEF and NGO advocacy groups. Agro-based and pharmaceutical industries are expected to use biodiversity information for commercial or management purposes.

The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Division Act (APEDA) has identified the area related to the export of medicinal and aromatic plants as an "extreme focus sector." In practice, little is actively being done to legitimize exports of medicinal plants. International trade in threatened medicinal plants is regulated by the provisions of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). Only a few medicinal plants have been included in CITES so far. At least forty medicinal plants from countries are listed in CITES. A few CITES-listed medicinal plants from India include:

· eagle wood (Aquilaria malaccensis) - wood. used to control vomiting and diarrhea;

· yew (Taxus baccata) - leaf and fruit to control epilepsy, asthma, and bronchitis; and

· Pterocarpus santalinus-heartwood of this leguminous tree is used as an stringent (to check bleeding) and diaphoretic (to increase perspiration); fruit antidote for dysentery.

On March 30, 1994, the Ministry of Commerce prohibited the export of 46 groups of plants, including their parts and derivatives, most of which are medicinal plants.

Besides the central government, several state governments and some pharmaceutical companies have started their own research and development units and cultivation programs. However, such research programs are invariably restricted to a selected few species of retail value.

During the past four decades, more attention has been focused on the evaluation and standardization of plant-derived drugs. The result has been a broader understanding of such drugs based on their biology and chemistry. However, Indian investigators have cited the rapidity with which, in China, experimental results on plants are passed on to clinical investigators, who provide all support for clinical evaluation of that particular plant. The Indian investigators concluded that such a strategy has paid good dividends in China and could be even more rewarding in India where the infrastructure already exists.

Links to modern medicine

Since independence, India has made sustained efforts, through successive "Five-Year Plans," to develop the Indian traditional medical systems (Ayurveda, Siddha, and Unani) with the aim of improving the delivery of healthcare to the Indian population. The 1982 Health Policy initiated efforts to dovetail the functioning of traditional health practitioners and their health services in the total healthcare system of the country. In most States, for every two allopathic doctors, a third post of traditional medical doctor has been approved in the primary health centers.

Currently there are 460,000 traditional medicine practitioners in the country. Over 271,000 (223,000 Ayurveda, 30,456 Unani and 18,128 Siddha) practitioners are registered under the state boards. In addition to private pharmacies, almost all State Governments have their own pharmacies for production of standard medicines. There also exist separate directories for traditional systems of medicine in all states. There are, in all, 215 hospitals and 14,000 dispensaries in the country devoted to traditional medicine.

There are about 540 important medicinal plants used in different formulation in India by the Ayurveda, Unani, and Siddha healthcare systems. Many plants are common to all three systems. Several plants may be used either alone or in combination in the traditional systems. Whatever the combination, the regulations state that if these medicines are prepared in exactly the same way as recommended in the ancient Indian medical books and texts, and if they are preserved in the same way as described therein, then such medicines do not require approval or registration. Whenever a different manner of preparation is proposed the medicine is considered a "new" medicine. This will be treated as any new drug before it is released in the market for use either in the traditional system of medicine or the modem system of medicine. There is nothing in the regulations to indicate that the requirements before the release of such "new" but old herbal medicines are in any way less demanding than for synthetic medicines

With the introduction of traditional medical systems for primary healthcare at the level of primary health centers, guidelines and manuals are being prepared that identify the number and type of drugs to be used for primary healthcare. Lists of such drugs for each of the Indian systems of medicine have been prepared by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The delay experienced in reaching these objectives can, in part, be attributed to a lack of cooperation between botanists, chemists, agronomists, physicians, and traditional healthcare practitioners to integrate the best features of traditional and modem medicine. This both defines the problem and specifies the answer.

It is well-recognized that there is considerable valuable knowledge about the medicinal uses of plants among the many tribal societies, especially those living in remote areas where the intrusion of modem society has been minimal. The Government does not exercise any regulatory control over the use of such "home remedies," which are used by a majority of the Indian population. The reports of new successes and confirmations of old remedies has stimulated research among government and university institutions.

Links to agriculture

India has no central agency responsible for cultivation, procurement and regeneration of medicinal plants or to provide data on export and import status of these plant drugs. An immediate need is to establish collaboration between the Central and State Ministries of Agriculture and other relevant Ministries and departments. This would allow those medicinal plants most in demand to be identified and brought into cultivation if necessary. At the same time, potentially useful biotechnology developed for food crops could be considered for enhancing the active constituents of medicinal plants.

Over the long-term Indian agriculture has evolved a dynamic network of cropping systems that have continually incorporated new crop varieties to boost production, food security and income. Land under rainfed agriculture has not benefited to the same extent as irrigated agriculture, although efforts are being made to develop environmentally tolerant crop varieties for marginal farmers. Pareek and Gupta (1993) report that the introduction of medicinal plants has produced significant changes in the economies of cultivation due to the increasing demand for raw materials in the country and also for export. For example, higher yields of periwinkle, henbane, licorice, isabgol, and sarpagandha have been achieved on marginal lands with the addition of fertilizer. India, with its vast network of public and private research institutions has a great deal to offer other developing countries with respect to establishing and integrating medicinal plant cultivation with food crop production where appropriate. The activity should generate interest of agronomists and plant geneticists to include in-depth studies of medicinal plants vis-is existing cropping systems, especially on remote, marginal, and degraded lands.

Links to forestry

Forest timber products contribute about 35 percent of the total forest revenue of the country and exported timber is estimated to be in excess of $100 million annually. Although it is increasingly recognized that non-wood forest products (including medicinal plants) constitute a large, often overwhelming, source of forest revenues from State forests, these resources continue to be undervalued, and not given due consideration in the development of forest management plans. Currently surveys do not generally consider non-timber species, particularly herbaceous species which constitute the majority of Indian medicinal plants. Since the State forests contain a large percentage of the medicinal-plant wealth, given their good condition and degree of protection, their value should not be underestimated. The Forest Departments in India have an important role to play, they are organized to manage large forest areas, and given the requisite reorientation of their management objectives they are probably the agencies best equipped to help conserve and manage the forest medicinal-plant resources of the country.

Much of the non-timber forest produce is removed by local people free or at nominal concession rates. The gross value of medicinal-plant products can only be estimated. Apart from their monetary value, they are of enormous economic and cultural value to the country in general, and to communities residing in or near to forests. Medicinal plants growing in forest ecosystems meet many of the healthcare needs and requirements of the Indian populace. For example, of the 2000 drug items recorded in the Indian Materia Medica, 1800 are of plant origin. About 80 percent of the raw materials required in the manufacture of drugs are forest-based. At present, these are collected in an unorganized manner and in many cases through private traders. Eight State Governments have established Forest Corporations to deal with the procurement, sale and distribution of various forest products. These corporations should, as part of their functions, organize their activities to procure medicinal plants from within their own areas and arrange sales inside and outside their own State. The corporations would be well served by having representatives of ISM, NGOs and local communities on their board of directors.

Links to veterinary medicine

Veterinary medicinal has a long tradition in India, with many references first appearing in the Rig veda. A number of Indian plants have proven helpful in treating dirresis, calculosis and other urinary disorders in bulls and rams. They include: varuna (Crateva nurvala), gokhru (Tribulus terrestris), gadahpurna (Boerhaavia diffusa) and yavani (Hyoscyamus niger). To control helminths in livestock farmers use palas (Butea frondosa), and kuda (Holarrhena antidysenterica). All these plants are included in Selected Medicinal Plants of India, a monograph of identity, safety and human clinical usage.

Protecting medicinal-plant biodiversity

In 1970, the Indian Government banned the export of wild-growing sarpagandha. because of over-exploitation. This ban still holds except when special government permission is obtained. Further additions to the list can be made based on the purchases and marketing of medicinal plants by the indigenous pharmaceutical industry. Since a very large proportion of plants used by these industries are collected from the wild, high consumption, especially in a manner that is destructive, is considered a reasonably accurate indicator of the threat to their survival in the wild. This threat is higher wherever the collecting is destructive (i.e. whole plant, root, stem, and bark.).

Furthermore, many medicinal plants are threatened because of the alarming rate of habitat loss and degradation of natural ecosystems. The traditional healthcare systems (Ayurveda, Unani, and Siddha) are conscious of the decline in raw materials and the need to establish cultivation centers to maintain supply. Many of the pharmaceutical companies have not yet accepted the decline in supply as serious.

Many papers have been published on threatened plants of individual States of India. Jain (1987) identifies 120 medicinal plants that can be classified as endangered or rare. A total of 30 plant species known for their medical usage in South India are considered in the "rare and threatened" priority category. Many other species are threatened because of the alarming rate of habitat loss and degradation of natural habitats, including:

· aconite (Aconitum heterophyllum) - root used for fever, cholera, rheumatism, and fevers;

· Saussurea lappa - root used for chronic skin disorders;

· agar (Aquillaria agallocha) - wood used for reducing vomiting and diarrhea, and as a stimulant;

· lesser yam (Dioscorea deltoides) - tuber rich in diosgenin (from which steroidal drugs can be made); it is also used for rheumatic and ophthalmic diseases;

· Justicia beddomei - whole plant;

· Myristica malabarica - seed used for ulcers;

· Coptis teeta - rhizome for bacillary dysentery;

· Dendrobium pauciflorum - whole plant, leaf; and

· Podophyllum emodii.

The Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT) has assembled a priority list of 285 medicinal-plant species of South India. They list 34 species classified as weeds. Many of these weeds are well-known medicinal plants of indigenous healthcare systems. Because of unregulated and large-scale destructive collecting, many of the "weeds" could become threatened. Due to a lack of information on distribution, harvesting intensities, and population structure of wild medicinal plants the FRHLT has used the available secondary data to set its conservation priorities. The data base is being enlarged by adding data on threatened status recorded in the WCMC's database and also assessments of experts on the rarity of the species.

Preserving Wild Genes. There is a central government sector initiative for the development of medicinal and aromatic plants currently in operation (1992-1997). It is being implemented through 16 state agricultural universities, state horticulture and agriculture departments, regional research laboratories, and one international agricultural research center. The scheme is controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture and involves establishment of herbal gardens, nursery centers, and demonstration seed production centers. Over the years under the auspices of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research many research and teaching projects have been funded and carried out by Central Agricultural Institutes, State Agricultural Universities, and the National Research Centre.

The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources initiated an All India Coordinated Research Project on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants in 1972. The project carries out integrated multidisciplinary research studies on 12 mandatory crops (senna, periwinkle, licorice, asgandh, jasmine, opium poppy, palamarosa, lemongrass, vetiver, rose geranium, patchouli, and isabgol); 10 exotic crops including henbane, chamomile, melissa and anise; and 11 native species for domestication (swertia, safedmusli, aloe, babchi, mucuna, pipalanool, satavari, valerian, guggal, galangol and ciloe). Of the thirty four plants being researched only 4 are considered of importance by industry. There is obviously a need for greater collaboration if the needs of both and the nation are to be better served in the future.

An important source of information for creating a list of threatened medicinal plants is the Red Data Book of Indian Plants. It lists more than 600 plant species, which have been categorized as extinct, endangered, rare, or vulnerable. Gupta and Chadha (1995) list 35 important endangered species amongst the medicinal and aromatic plants of India. They suggest the species need detailed studies on their population structure, breeding behavior and habitat protection. Building on this base FRLHT is establishing a chain of medicinalplant conservation wilderness reserve areas in the western and eastern Ghats. This nongovernmental initiative is seen as the first measure of its kind aimed at conserving medicinal-plant genetic resources in India.

The Indian Medicinal Plants Distribution Databases Network, brings together the collective data of nine nodal agencies which collect, preserve, propagate, and use more than 8000 medicinal-plant species, in a chain of 48 in-situ and ex-situ conservation areas. The agencies include: the Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow for pharmacology; CIMAP, Lucknow for agro-technology; Regional Research Laboratory, Jammu for phytochemistry; Publication and Information Directorate, New Delhi for bibliography; Botanical Survey of India, Dehra Dun for taxonomy; Lok Swasthaya Parampara Samvardhan Samiti, Coirnbatore for traditional medicine; National Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute, Trivandrum for traditional medicine; and Ayurvedic Research Institute, Trivandrum for pharmacognosy. The Indian Medicinal Plants Distribution Databases Network newsletter disseminates information on the data each agency possesses as well as other information on medicinal-plant databases in India and abroad.

The Indira Gandhi Conservation Monitoring Center was established by the WWF India in 1994 with the full support of the national government. The Centre will provide information support to government and non-government programs for environmental conservation in the country. The Indira Gandhi Conservation Monitoring Center will also provide information to assist in the implementation of the Biodiversity Convention. In 1995, WCMC had documentation on 137 Indian medicinal-plant species in 63 Families with 165 references.

In-Situ Conservation. There are no separate policies or regulations for conserving medicinal plants in India. Their conservation is generally covered under existing laws, such as the Forest Act and Wild Life Protection Act (1972), which are enforced by the State Forest Departments and the Indian government's Directorate of Wildlife Preservation. Furthermore, there is no designated national agency or department with a clear mandate for the conservation of medicinal plants. Consequently, there has been no conscious or systematic effort to date at the government level, to conserve medicinal plants in-situ. However, the Ministry of Health, has recently started to promote the establishment of small herbal gardens in educational institutions as a means of furthering traditional medicine. The Indian Medicinal Plants Genetic Resources Network is expected to expand in later years to include conservation areas all over India.

An important recent decision by the Government of India gives an indigenous Indian tribe the intellectual property rights to the active ingredient of a plant long known and used by the tribe to combat stress (see Box 6).

Box 6: ‘Indian Ginseng' Brings Royalties for Tribe

New Delhi. An indigenous Indian tribe has been awarded the intellectual property rights to the active ingredient of a plant long known to it as helping to combat stress, in a move that the government hopes will help end the 'piracy' of tribal knowledge by both Indian and foreign drug companies.

The drug jeevani, which is based on this ingredient and is said also to provide an instant source of energy, has been developed from the plant Trichopus zeylanicus by the government-owned Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI) in Trivandrum, Kerala. Researchers noticed that the tribe members habitually ate its raw seeds before undertaking strenuous work.

Arya Vaidhya Pharmacy (AVP), a large manufacturer of Ayurvedic drugs paid $50,000 for manufacturing rights plans to market jeevani internationally as a rival to ginseng. The Kani tribe of the Agasthiyar hills in Kerala will receive half of the know-how fee, and will also receive a share of a two percent royalty on any future drug sales. This money will go towards 2,500 families of the Kani tribe who will cultivate and supply the plants to AVP at a price agreed with the TBGRI.

Source: K.S. Jayarama, Nature. Vol. 381: 16 May 1996.

To strengthen the in-situ conservation of the medicinal-plant resource base in South India, FRLHT is coordinating a major medicinal-plant conservation initiative. The core activities are to establish a network of 30 in-situ centers in the three states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala during 19931997. FRLHT's conservation research strategy departs from the conventional approach. Their goals include:

· inventory medicinal plants used both in tribal medicine and the codified traditional systems of medicine (earlier efforts looked at only the economically important medicinal plants);

· document natural distribution of medicinal plants and identify sites for in-situ and ex-situ conservation;

· document and contribute to the revitalization of local health traditions associated with the biodiversity of medicinal plants; and

· design in-situ and ex-situ conservation programs that are people oriented and not merely industry-oriented. FRLHT is a pioneer in in-situ conservation and has expanded the scope of ex-situ conservation and cultivation.

Ex-Situ Conservation and Cultivation. In earlier times, medicinal-plant cultivation was confined to private gardens while plants for general use were collected from forest and village lands. Systematic cultivation was introduced by the East India Company in 1787. In 1930, the government established a program for the development of medicinal and aromatic plants on a proper scientific basis. Among species cultivated in Kashmir under the Medicinal and Food Poisons Enquiry Committee of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research were:

· pyrethrum. (Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium), insecticide

· foxglove (Digitalis lanata), leaf used as cardiac stimulant

· henbane (Hyoscyamus sp.), leaf and stem used as sedative (narcotic) belladonna (Atropa belladonna), root and leaf used as diuretic (increases urine), sedative (lessens excitement, nervousness, tension), and anodyne (pain killer).

After independence in 1948, the Indian government set up various organizations for utilizing and cultivating the vast unexplored resources of medicinal and aromatic plants. Presently this work is being handled by the Central Institute for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, Regional Research Laboratories of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, various agricultural universities, and state horticultural and agricultural departments.

Research over the last four decades has focused on approximately 60 selected commercial species for industrial use, of which 40 are medicinal plants. Raychaudhuri and Ahmad (1992) have identified 144 species of medicinal plant that they believe are suitable for cultivation, 63 of which can be successfully grown in north India. Considering that 7000 species are reportedly in medical use by Indian Medical System and folk practitioners, current research efforts can only be considered minimal. However, medicinal-plant research does not want to go the way of agricultural crops. For instance, it has been estimated that 50 years ago, Indian farmers were growing some 30,000 varieties of rice; however, Maheshwari (1987) predicts that the number of varieties grown will have been reduced to no more than 50 by the year 2000 as a result of agricultural modernization.

Renewed interest in the medicinal properties and potential low cost of cultivation of sarpagandha, has given added impetus to conserving the remaining wild variant populations in the forests of the Himalayan foothills and coastal peninsula. Two distinct subspecies, that grow in different environments have been recognized in sarpagandha. Various stocks from Dehra Dun (Himalayas) and Kerala, Karnataka and Goa (western Ghats) are being cultivated for reserpine and related alkaloids at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi. The plant is usually propagated from seeds, although stem and root cuttings can also be used. Seeds are grown in nursery beds and transplanted during the rainy season. Irrigation is usually required during the year. The roots are harvested during winter. Cultivars; may be harvested at 18 months and may be intercropped with onion and garlic in the first year profitably. Its demand for fertilizer and irrigation is low, and it grows well on marginal soils.

FRLHF is promoting ex-situ conservation of medicinal plants to conserve rare, endangered and vulnerable species which are threatened in their natural habitats. They have established 15 ex-situ centers in the States of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. This work is being supervised by environmental and health NGOs in the region. Each center has a nursery for propagation, a herbal garden, and a gene bank. In addition, each center is responsible for creating awareness and encouraging the use of locally available medicinal-plant products in primary healthcare and encouraging farmers to grow such species of medicinal plant for which there is an industry demand.

In 1991 the Tropical Forest Research Institute at Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh established a medicinalplant germplasm collection with 550 species of medicinal plants found in the dry deciduous forests of Satpura, Maikal, Vindhya, and the eastern Ghat Mountain ranges. These regions contain the largest number of medicinal plants used in the Ayurveda. Surveys classify plants as common, threatened, endangered, and rare. Collections of seeds, rhizomes, roots, and cuttings are taken for cultivation in the Institute's experimental nursery as part of a non-wood forest produce program. The intent is to return plants back to their original habitat for in-situ conservation in collaboration with State Forestry Departments, as well as provide local farmers and pharmaceutical industries with high quality breeding stock.

The Arya Vaidya Sala at Kottakal, Kerala combines the multiple facets of the traditional medicine sector-a family based, hereditary knowledge tradition, hospital and teaching facilities, manufacturing and research and development work. Based on its own usage statistics and experiences with declining availability of plant materials, the Arya Vaidya Sala has identified 10 priority species in collaboration with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada. They are engaged in a comprehensive program of mapping the ten natural stocks, developing ex-situ and farmer-based cultivation strategies and investigating the therapeutic action of these species (see Table 11).

In addition, IDRC initiated in 1994 a Medicinal Plant Research Network operating out of its New Delhi office. The network has adopted a proactive, user-based biodiversity conservation strategy and efforts are targeted at undertaking research partnerships with existing users of the resource baselocal communities and indigenous industry. Focal areas of research include folk traditions and knowledge, in-situ conservation, developing appropriate harvesting and cultivation techniques, improving quality control, storage and processing techniques.

Table 11: Species in Ayurvedic Medicines and Quantities Used


No. Ayurvedic Medicines

Kg. Used

Baliospermum montanum (root)



Celastrus paniculatus (root, leaf)



Coscinium fenestratrum (bark, root)



Cratavea nurvala (root, stem bark)



Embelia ribes (fruit)



Hemidesmus indicus (root, leaf, stem bark)



Holostemma ada-kodien (root)



Rubia cordifolia (root leaf, stem)



Saraca asoca (bark, flower, seed)



Trichosanthes lobata (root, flower, leaf, seed)



Source: Bajal and Williams. 1995.

A number of other Indian government institutions and private agencies are actively engaged in medicinal-plant cultivation and conservation programs. They include: Indian

Institute of Horticultural Research, National Research Centre, Central Council of Research in Indian Systems of Medicine, State Ministry's of Agriculture and Forest, State Agricultural Universities, and the Lalbagh, Calcutta, Ootacamund and Lucknow Botanic Gardens.

It is recognized that with an expanding medicinal-plant cultivation program high density plantings, especially if monocropped, are likely to require pesticides to control insect pests, pathogens and weeds. Furthermore, it is well-established that a number of agrochernicals have created health hazards in their application to crops and toxic effects of cultivated foods. When and where such products might be used on medicinal plants in the future, Parikh (1993) recommends readily biodegradable plant-based agroproducts be used to control insect pests. India has a very effective biocide in the common neem tree mentioned above. Active compounds act mainly as hormone blockers that send insect lifecycles down dead-end trails so the populations crash. They can be easily prepared by users and applied at minimal cost.