Ahmedabad, India based ethnobotanist Dr. Deepak Acharya (All photos courtesy of Dr. Acharya)
Ethnobotanist Deepak Acharya has the heart of an indigenous tribesman and mind of a highly trained scientist. As a passionate popularizer of millennia-old herbal medicinal system, Dr. Acharya spends a much of his time scouring through the heart of India’s tribal lands in the three states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Over the past 18 years his seemingly vagabond sojourns in to the tribal regions of Patalkot in Madhya Pradesh, the Dangs in Gujarat and the Aravallis in Rajasthan have led him to amass 30,000 medicinal formulations. Deepak is not a wide-eyed and unsuspecting advocate of traditional medicine but believes in systematic authentication and validation through detailed scientific analysis of the vast tribal knowledge in order to transform India’s health sector.
Although he runs his own herbal health company Abhumka Herbal Private Limited, which he cofounded, but is acutely aware that in order to scale up the country’s traditional knowledge India needs a massive national effort.
“Indian medicinal plant flora counts around 17600 plant species. Out of which, Ayurveda system of medicine uses around 900 plant species in its formulations whereas Unani uses 700 species, Siddha 600 species, Amchi 250 species and the modern medicine (Allopathy) uses around 30 species respectively. Interestingly, the tribal or rural folk medicine system uses 8000 species. The knowledge is yet to be documented and validated extensively,” he says.
Deepak, whose Facebook page bursts with colors of herbal plants, has in recent years gain considerable traction as someone who offers remedies for a variety of ailments based on traditional tribal cures. He is a widely read newspaper columnist even though his primary calling remains creating a scientific data base of India’s traditional herbal knowledge.
He answered some of my questions. Excerpts:
MC: Neem and turmeric have become emblematic of the popular understanding of herbal/ traditional/ alternative form of medicinal/ health formulations. The reality is, of course, much deeper. Can you describe based on your extensive work how sizable the traditional knowledge base is in India?
DA: According to herbal healers in Dangs (Gujarat), “there is not a single herb that is useless”. It is indeed true; there has not been a single civilization on earth that has not included herbs as medicines in its historical record. Herbs have been an integral part in the development of the modern civilization.
The traditional storage of ethnobotanical knowledge in memory and practices has a long history and must go back to the beginning of human existence. One of the most important sources is the Rig Veda (1200-900 BC), which has been useful in the attempt to identify the source of the traditional medicine system, also known as ‘Ayurveda’. Application of such herbal remedies has also been mentioned in the Atharva Veda (around 3,000 to 2,000 BC). It was in the 19th century when scientists started focusing on the active components found in herbs that gave a way to the research on molecular level.
The indigenous Indian tribal people have accrued considerable knowledge in this field of potential interest and they very well identify the plants which could be utilized at potential source of medicine for human, animal and agri-health. The tribal people have their own cultures, customs, cults, religious rites, taboos, totems, legends and myths, folk tales and songs, witchcrafts, medical practices etc. They are the repository of accumulated experience and knowledge of indigenous vegetation that has not been properly utilized for the economic development.
Around 560 indigenous groups can be distinguished by linguistic and cultural differences and by geographical separation in India. Over 90% of tribal population in India; depend on traditional medical practices for day-to-day health care.
MC: India abounds in tribes which in various stages of transition because of the onslaught of modern/urban economic development. What in your estimation might be the reserve of herbal formulations across India?
DA: Indian medicinal plant flora counts around 17600 plant species. Out of which, Ayurveda system of medicine uses around 900 plant species in its formulations whereas Unani uses 700 species, Siddha 600 species, Amchi 250 species and the modern medicine (Allopathy) uses around 30 species respectively. Interestingly, the tribal or rural folk medicine system uses 8000 species. The knowledge is yet to be documented and validated extensively.
Traditional herbal knowledge can be the major source of new pharmaceuticals. In the 20th century, however, advances in molecular biology and pharmacology led to a precipitous decline in the importance of ethnobotany in drug discovery programs but the pendulum is slowly swinging back. It is possible to accomplish in a few minutes what once took months to analyze in the lab by making TMP (Traditional Medicinal Practices) a source of information. Indeed, it is an age old, tried, tested and trusted practice. As a result, in the recent times, products purely based on indigenous knowledge are in demand in the market. Now an extensive validation and value addition to the herbal knowledge is highly needed so that we bring more indigenous knowledge based products in market.
MC: You have amassed some 30,000 formulations yourself. Can you describe the range of these formulations and what they do to improve human health?
DA: We have documented these formulations from three remote tribal pockets in India-- Patalkot (Madhya Pradesh), the Dangs (Gujarat) and the Aravallis (Rajasthan). The formulations are documented on the basis of firsthand information, cross verification with the patients those who visit herbal healers and these validated by our volunteers working in the field. We have digitized it and we are planning further to create a huge repository of digitized traditional knowledge, which otherwise was available only on oral domain, floated from generations to generations.
We have a wide range of documented formulations for curing cough to treating cancer, though scientific validation and value addition is yet to be done for thousands of formulation due to the lack of infrastructure and our own expertise in many fields. Frankly speaking, we cannot do all this, as we are a very small enterprise. We are always open for any sort of collaboration that helps us in new drug development program. The documented formulations cater solutions for around 150 disorders that mainly include: cough & cold, arthritis, diabetes, kidney stone, hemorrhoids, blood pressure, obesity, brain disorders, anemia, depression, life style disorders, cancer, gynecological problems, vitality issues, and many others. We have formulations for veterinary and agri-health care also.
MC: There are many foundations working in the area of local health traditions. Do you believe India has a significant national program to preserve its enormously rich local health traditions?
DA :As of now, there is no concrete action taken by the agencies so far. Though there is an AYUSH ministry, several Universities and other private and non-government organizations working collectively to uplift the local health tradition system but the current approach is insufficient to preserve, document, validate and value addition to it. There has to be a systematic protocol in the place but sadly, it lacks.
MC: You have extensively traveled and chronicle India’s tribal areas over the years. Which are the most important challenges that tribes people face when it comes to not just preserving their generational knowledge but ensuring that it crosses over into the mainstream?
DA: Tribal herbal healers, deficient a printed lingo, rely on oral traditions to transmit their olden times and gathered knowledge from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, in Gujarat and other remote tribal pockets in India, young generation of these tribal groups is merely interested in knowing the secrets of medicinal plants. They are now influenced by the modern world and think that they can earn more money by doing labor work for others.
Indeed, it is true that herbal healers are not paid enough for the creative and curative services they do for the society. They are deprived of recognition and credit. The new generation does not know the potential of knowledge of their elderly. Healers too are also not much interested in sharing their knowledge with the new generation. They want to transfer this knowledge to safe hands so that it is safeguarded and used for the welfare of the society.
It is, in fact, a need of the hour to establish a Traditional Medicine Centers in the tribal dominated areas as to monitor and promote the collection of herbs from the healers through the research agencies/ companies or other institutions. In an attempt to safeguard traditional medicine knowledge, it is necessary that inventories of plants with therapeutic value are carried out, and the knowledge related to their use is documented in systematic studies. These studies can have other values for society besides conserving traditional knowledge, such as, to identify plants with market potential that can help generate incomes for local communities.
As a backward integration, tribal people should be encouraged to cultivate of medicinal plants. For instance, a company comes up with an indigenous knowledge based product; they would require raw herbal material in large quantity. For this, tribal groups or Mandali can be formed and encouraged for the cultivation of such needed material. This will provide them with an open market of herbs and also this ex situ conservation of medicinal plant will support forest and medicinal herb conservational activities.
Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) of the grassroots knowledge holders should be respected and rewarded. It is indeed necessary to provide them a sense of security.
We must consider seriously the importance of medicinal plants in the developing countries. In many cases, these countries simply cannot afford to spend millions of dollars on imported medicines, which they could produce or extract from their tropical forest plants. Indigenous medicines are relatively inexpensive; they are locally available and are usually readily accepted by the people. The ideal situation would be the establishment of local pharmaceutical firms that would create jobs, reduce unemployment, reduce import expenditures, generate foreign exchange, encourage documentation of traditional ethno medicinal lore, and be based on the conservation and sustainable use of the tropical forests.
MC: One of the most heard complaints/observations about traditional medicine is that the lack of testing and empirical data. Do you think that is a valid point and if so what can be done to give it the kind of scientific underpinnings that can help it emerge as a truly universal alternative way?
DA: To authenticate, validate and make scientific sense, there has to be a scientific background to disseminate the knowledge about herbs and their role. It is quite wrongly claimed that herbs have no side effects or counter action. Many herbs are toxic in nature; there has been a confined dosage of intake of the herbs, without any knowledge of scientific study i.e. toxicity, these herbs should not be included in any formulations.
MC: You are known to offer many remedies for everyday health problems based on your work. Is there a way for you to institutionalize it and make it into a consolidated enterprise?
DA: There is a greater need to set up enterprises like Abhumka Herbal (cofounded by me) that is deeply engrossed in scouting and documentation of age old tried-tested- trusted knowledge. We are translating this knowledge into finished products using tools of modern science. Also, to involve more and more people in this mission, we have created a common platform called “Swadeshi Gyan Abhiyan” (Campaign for Indigenous Knowledge). This campaign not only ensures a regular income to the volunteers known as “Swadesh Sainiks” but also creates a pool of indigenous healthcare innovation and knowledge.
MC: How do you think tribal people view the way India has changed over the decades, especially in the last quarter century of economic reform and the way it has impacted them?
DA: If you talk about urban-connected tribal region, there has been a big change seen in tribal life, obviously due to the influence of urban life. A major impact can be seen among the young generations. They seem to be more aware and advanced today. They carry mobile handsets, they have sports bikes, branded clothes and they play DVDs and DJ’s in their marriages. Somewhere in the midst of this so-called modernization, they have lost touch with their own age-old traditions, rituals and also they are not interested in learning traditional herbal knowledge.
MC: Do you think an important reason why despite poor public health infrastructure if a vast population of underprivileged Indians have managed to address their health issues is because of the traditional knowledge base?
DA: Yes, cent per cent agree.
MC: Do you as an advocate of traditional medicine encounter serious skepticism and even cynicism from ordinary people as well as the medical establishment? How do you get around that to make it available more widely?
There has been a great deal of suspicion, secrecy and hostilities existing between traditional healers and modern doctors. To achieve these objectives and those of health for all by the year 2016 and thereafter, open heart dialogue between the two disciplines of medicines is a must. For neither allopathic nor traditional medicine alone can adequately meet the health needs of our nation. We need to strengthen training and research on traditional medicine, and start with the most readily feasible herbal remedies. We should boost our national economies by joining forces in preventive, community, and productive health care for our people.
MC: How long has it taken for you to create 30,000 formulations?
DA: Almost 18 years
MC: What percentage of your formulations can be scaled up commercially?
DA: Just imagine, we have a pool of 30000 practices and so far, we could develop only 18 formulations commercially. There is a huge opportunity to scale up the remaining formulations.