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Harnessing healing traditions for public health
Published on 10 Aug. 2009 1:38 AM IST
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Ravaged by chronic renal failure, Radha Gulale looked more like a bloated 60 kg woman than the 10-year-old she was. Doctors had given her only a few months to live when her distressed parents approached a tribal healer in Gujarat, who gave her the proverbial new lease of life in what experts say is an affirmation of the healing tradition. Sharebroker R.K. Patel, 47, has a similar tale. He spent hundreds of thousands of rupees for treatment of his 18-year problem of piles but it was not until he went to a tribal healer in Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh, that he was cured. It took six doses of a herbal concoction for the cure he terms "miraculous". The two examples are some of the many documented by Ahmedabad-based microbiologist and ethno-botanist Deepak Acharya to highlight the efficacy of India's amazing healing traditions perfected by tribal healers for practically every known illness and infection through centuries of observation and experimentation and rooted in a thorough grasp of plant lore. What they have nurtured and preserved through oral tradition, making India a global repository of such trusted remedies, is in very real danger of perishing with the present generation shying away from the calling. Acharya, 34, who has also been featured on the covers of The Wall Street Journal, hopes to make a difference with his company, Abhumka Herbals, founded here in 2007 with a modest capital of Rs.40 lakh (Rs.4 million). It is based on an entrepreneurial model of tribal cooperation and empowerment, besides profit sharing. He is launching a limited number of formulations this year with his business partner, Manish Singh. One of them is DudhNahar, a cattle-feed synthesised from 16 natural herbs, that is already in the market. After critical evaluation by ISO 9001: 2000 certified labs, it has been found to boost milk output by 20 to 25 percent in a month. "The formulation has also been certified to be free of steroids, side-effects, toxicity and hormones and completely safe for cattle, as compared to synthetic products to force more milk out of cattle artificially," Acharya told IANS. Next in line are four kinds of candies. One of them, for kids and lactating women, acts as a preventive medication for digestive problems, mouth infections, teeth and gum related problems. The second controls blood pressure and the last two are for male and among the biggest repositories of tried, tested and trusted remedies. Interestingly, Acharya's first brush with a tribal healer was as a critically ill eight-year-old. Acharya's father, an impoverished government servant, could neither afford expensive surgery nor medical treatment. The tribal healer saved the child from certain death and triggered in him an insatiable curiosity about their practices and formulations. It took the young scientist over 10 years to identify, document and build a data base of thousands of traditional remedies, while pursuing his masters and doctoral studies. For this pioneering contribution, he bagged the Young Scientist Award in 2003. Acharya, a PhD in botany from Sagar University in Madhya Pradesh, pointed out that developing a single drug costs $1.5 billion (Rs.7,000 crore) and takes 15 to 20 years. Why not involve the healers in creating such formulations, at a tiny fraction of the cost and time, reasoned Acharya, making them accessible to millions. "One way of doing it was by co-opting bhumkas and bhagats (traditional healers) through reverse integration, to cultivate raw material required for product formulation, so that they develop a stake in protecting our forests and biodiversity and preserving their knowledge base," Acharya told IANS. The result was Abhumka Herbals. He is optimistic about the future of Abhumka Herbals and is hoping his start-up - the first of its kind in India-achieves its projected turnover of Rs.100 crore within the next three years. The world herbal medicine market is worth a staggering $70 billion today, of which China's share alone is 13 percent while India accounts for a measly 2.5 percent, with our tribal medicines being nowhere in the picture yet, said Acharya. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of the global population, including rural India, relies on traditional medicines because of easy accessibility.

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