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We must protect medicinal plants

Your recent spotlight has highlighted the promise of, and challenges to, integrating modern and traditional medicine in the developing world.

Certainly, the potential for integration is great in India. Traditional medicine is widely understood and greatly respected.Walk down an Indian street and you will see stalls set up as mini traditional hospitals where many poor people consult Ayurvedic doctors. At the same time, modern drugs are also widely used, particularly in urban areas.

Not only are we great practitioners of modern and traditional medicine, we also host a rich source of raw materials for both. Medicinal plants abound in the subcontinent, particularly in the Himalayan regions in Kashmir, the Western Ghats and Pakistan's North-West Frontier. We have huge reserves of herbal plants and remedies, many of which remain unknown to modern science.

There are already efforts to try and tap these reserves — many pharmaceutical companies in India are screening wild herbs for medicinal usesand are making medicines with both modern and traditional components.

Such research and development efforts would benefit from involving tribal people, who are often experts in local herbal remedies.

The government too is already engaged in supporting traditional medicine — the Unani system of medicine in India, for example, is government sponsored. The country's Central Council for Research in Unani Medicine (CCRUM) has a network of 22 research institutes and eight regional centres. Many states, such as Karnataka, also support Unani medicine hospitals and colleges.

But if the potential for integrating traditional medicine is great, so too are the challenges. The lack of awareness about medicinal plants and widespread deforestation of areas rich in biodiversity poses an enormous threat. Human activity has put much pressure on the subcontinent's wild flora and many plants have become rare, and precious information lost.

In particular, many medicinal plants now stand on the brink of extinction because of development in tribal areas that have historically provided most of these precious resources. Wild tuberous plants in Rajasthan, for example, are under severe threat from environmental pollution.

Protecting these resources and integrating them into modern medical practice would bring enormous benefits. Not only could we develop new drugs but we would also provide much needed job opportunities — from researchers and medical professionals to field workers and farmers — in a country suffering an unemployment crisis.