What next for Jammu and Kashmir’s medicinal plants, as pharmaceutical companies move in?

Concern and cautious optimism as pharmaceutical companies set up in the biodiverse Himalayan region.

Use of medicinal plants is critical to local and indigenous communities. However, researchers have found that overharvesting and a modern education system are leading to the loss of both traditional plants and traditional knowledge. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Indigenous people and environmental activists have expressed confusion and concern about the growth of the pharmaceutical industry in Jammu and Kashmir, and whether this will lead to increased exploitation of the region’s many endemic and endangered medicinal plants.

With much resting on the part of the regulatory system that gives communities a say in how resources are allocated, The Third Pole is told that many of these important committees exist “only on paper”.

Researchers have catalogued 1,123 plant species with established medicinal uses in Jammu and Kashmir, which are also an important element of the Himalayan region’s rich biodiversity.

Used in traditional medicine for centuries, the components of some of these plants are found in mainstream medicine. High demand has led to smuggling and overextraction, putting stress on numerous species and their ecosystems, even as many plants’ potential therapeutical uses are yet to be fully explored by scientists.

Use of medicinal plants is critical to local and indigenous communities. However, researchers have found that overharvesting and a modern education system are leading to the loss of both traditional plants and traditional knowledge.

Nadeem Qadri, a prominent environmental lawyer in Jammu and Kashmir, says: “Since medicinal plants are already under stress and many are on the verge of extinction, the [entry of] pharmaceutical companies – if not regulated properly – can be challenging.”

Since the scrapping of Article 370 in 2019 and ending of Jammu and Kashmir’s partial autonomy, it has become easier for outside companies to buy land and set up in the region. The biotechnology sector has emerged as a priority since J&K’s 2021 Industrial Developmental Scheme was announced, which aims to attract investment and development. As of July 2022, the J&K government said it had received 338 proposals associated with the biotech sector. It is also striving to boost its aromatherapy and alternative medicine sectors.

Anoo Malhotra, director-general of the Industries and Commerce department for Jammu, tells The Third Pole that over the past couple of years the government has allotted land to more than 50 pharmaceutical companies in the Jammu division – one of the two administrative divisions of Jammu and Kashmir. She says she is not aware of whether the land has been used yet – either for research and development, or for manufacturing existing products. But Malhotra says that no pharmaceutical companies have applied for land in the Kashmir division of the Union Territory yet.

If it will be sustainably done, properly monitored and executed, it will be an advantage but imagine if those things aren’t followed – your forest will be devoid of any natural medicinal plant.

Nadeem Qadri, environmental lawyer, Wildlife Conservation Fund

The latest available data shows that 45 pharmaceutical companies are listed as operating in the Union Territory.

Given researchers in 2018 identified “increasing demand for raw plant material from the pharmaceutical industry” as resulting in “further overharvesting of wild medicinal plant species” in the Himalayas, the form this expansion will take in Jammu and Kashmir is crucial for the preservation of the region’s natural resources.

Government assurances

According to the government, the growth of the pharmaceutical industry will boost the economy in the region’s rural and tribal areas, with more jobs and better regulation of the plant trade. Indeed, officials, researchers and conservationists have been saying for years that a formal market for medicinal plants and nurseries needs to be established to slow the smuggling trade.

The government is working on a strategy for the commercialisation of medicinal plants and says that steps are being taken to make sure plants will not be over-extracted.

In September 2020, a 10-member Biodiversity Council was formed for J&K. Headed by the principal chief conservator of forests of J&K, it has five government officials as ex-officio members, and five independent experts as non-official members. The Council is to advise the government on the conservation of biodiversity, sustainable use of biological resources and equitable sharing of these benefits.

The authorities have also set up medicinal plant nurseries, and are currently developing sites in north Kashmir’s Gurez and Bhaderwah, Doda and Tapyal Samba of Jammu division – parts of the region passed through by indigenous pastoral Gujjar and Bakarwals communities.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official from the Jammu and Kashmir Forest Department said that in December 2022 the government introduced changes to the policy on Non Timber Forest Produce (NTFP), which includes medicinal plants. He described this as a landmark reform towards the conservation, sustainable collection and use of some important forest resources while enhancing the livelihood opportunities of forest-dependent communities.

How medicinal plants are regulated in Jammu and Kashmir

Under India’s 2002 Biological Diversity Act, states set up biodiversity boards. The Act was not automatically applicable in Jammu and Kashmir until after it was accepted by the state’s elected Legislative Assembly, due to J&K’s autonomy. It took until 2015 for it to be accepted and a Biodiversity Board set up. In 2020 the board was replaced by the Biodiversity Council.

Asaf Mehmood Sagar, J&K’s principal chief conservator of forests and director of the Jammu and Kashmir Forest Research Institute, tells The Third Pole that foreign biotechnology companies need permission from the National Biodiversity Authority to access biological resources in India. Local companies need to secure the permission of the state Biodiversity Council in a Union Territory or a Biodiversity Board in states.

“The Biodiversity Council/Board will take comments from the Biodiversity Management Committees first and then they will allow the company to go in the particular area. The BMCs can monitor the activities of the company,” Sagar says, adding: “The Biodiversity Council will get their royalty from the products extracted by any companies, who will then share it with BMCs.”

Biodiversity Management Committee (BMCs) were established after 2020 in Jammu and Kashmir at the village panchayat, municipality and district level – a legal requirement under the 2004 Biological Diversity Rules. In theory, these are an important component of the regulatory system that give a voice to communities over who can access biological resources. They are committees of seven members, including a chair, two women and a member of a Scheduled Caste. Panchayat-level BMCs work under the gram sabha (village council). At the district level they report to the District Development Council.

Sagar, who is also the member secretary of Jammu and Kashmir’s Biodiversity Council, says that BMCs have a five-year tenure and that the new committees will be formed by the new panchayats.

The BMCs maintain a People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR), a document with comprehensive information on the availability of local biological resources and their medicinal or other uses, which is developed in consultation with the local population of a village or area.

The BMCs also regulate access to natural resources. Syed Tariq, who leads the J&K Biodiversity Council, says that people and companies from outside a district need to obtain the BMC’s permission to use and extract medicinal plants. If any rules are violated, Sagar says the committees report this to the authorities, who are responsible for taking action.

The December 2022 NTFP policy states that the Biological Diversity Act empowers the BMCs to levy charges on those who collect any biological resource for commercial purposes from areas that fall within their territorial jurisdiction.

Environmental lawyer Qadri says that if there is complete transparency in the “collection system” of the pharmaceutical companies, this will enhance the finances of the BMCs, and thereby the local panchayats (elected village councils).

The last panchayat elections in the Kashmir Valley were in 2018, and 61 per cent of panchayat positions were still empty by 2019, raising questions as to the establishment and effectiveness of the BMCs.

An official from the Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir office, told The Third Pole that the panchayat elections will be held this year and all the vacant seats will be filled.

“But we need to think about the conservation of medicinal plants, especially endangered species first, so that they aren’t under threat,” Qadri adds.

He says a conservation and action plan needs to be drawn up before companies are allowed to extract forest produce at scale.

“If it will be sustainably done, properly monitored and executed, it will be an advantage but imagine if those things aren’t followed – your forest will be devoid of any natural medicinal plant,” he says, adding that “It needs to be seen how things will shape.”

Biodiversity Management Committees have power on paper only

Mohammad Mudaser Yatoo runs a small business in Budgam, a district in central Kashmir. Two years ago, the 33-year-old was nominated as one of the seven members of the district Biodiversity Management Committee (BMC).

However, since then Yatoo says he has not received any information about his role and responsibilities.

“It apparently looks like the BMCs were constituted just for the namesake as the committee remained only on papers,” says Yatoo.

Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a prominent environmental activist from the region, stresses that under the law biotechnology companies must have the permission of the relevant BMC to obtain biological resources for research or commercial purposes.

“But that will only happen when the empowered BMCs are aware of their role,” says Bhat, who is also chair of the BMC for Budgam district.

He adds that if the biotech companies are not regulated, the Kashmir Valley will lose its medicinal resources.

While the government has formed BMCs at the district, municipality and village level, “Except for one conference in 2022, the government hasn’t done anything to inform and aware the committee members how to carry out the job,” Bhat says.

Syed Bari Andrabi, who is the chair of the BMC for Pulwama district in southern Kashmir, attended the 2022 conference. It was during the conference, he tells The Third Pole, that he realised how important BMCs are.

“The programme should have reached to the village and panchayat level, which is not happening,” Andrabi says.

Bhat says that the government should keep the BMCs in the loop whenever it intends to sign a deal for the extraction of medicinal plants in the region. “Otherwise, this will violate the Biological Diversity Act,” he says.

In response, Tariq, from the J&K Biodiversity Council, says an awareness campaign to train BMCs has started in Jammu and will imminently start in Kashmir.

“In Kashmir we were carrying out the process of People’s Biodiversity Registers and the same has been printed. We will start the awareness campaigns now,” Tariq says.

He adds: “We will check the status of those plants in the People’s Biodiversity Registers: if the plant is endangered, we will deny permission [for commercial use or extraction]. However, if the plant species is sufficient, we will allow them.

“The government is providing livelihood support to the people residing in and around forests. The BMCs will get their royalty and people will be benefitted,” Tariq says, adding that “everything [will go] through the process and the trade will be legalised”.

Waheed-ul-Hassan, technical officer at the J&K Medicinal Plants Board, which is responsible for developing education, research and propagation of traditional medicine systems, tells The Third Pole that the board together with the J&K Forest Department has over the past year grown 230,000 endangered medicinal plants in plant nurseries in Marwah forest division of Jammu to cater to high demand without further exploiting the region’s forests. The vulnerable species being cultivated include kuthkutki and mushkbala. Hassan says the Medicinal Plants Board plans to employ farmers in these nurseries.

CSIR-Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, a government institute based in Jammu that works to improve the cultivation and study of medicinal plants, states on its website that “pharmaceutical companies have to use cultivated plants instead of the plants harvested from the wild” as extraction methods and contamination with microorganisms, pesticides and heavy metals can “interfere with the quality, safety and efficacy of herbal drugs”.

However, lawyer Qadri asserts that many medicinal plants can only grow in their natural habitat.

“Why has the government not been able to grow [medicinal plants]?” he asks. While “they may have nurseries for demonstration purposes”, he asks “where are the outside forest area nurseries for these plants… [so the government can] cater to the larger requirements?” He worries that it will take a decade to perfect techniques for growing plants outside their natural habitat, and in the meantime, companies may pay people to take produce from forests.

Environmental activists such as Bhat argue that biotechnology companies will further push commercialisation and use of endangered medicinal plants, and will boost illegal trade.

Meanwhile, many of those who may be most affected by the industry’s expansion are in the dark. Qadeer Doe, 66, a member of Kashmir’s nomadic Gujjar community, says that his tribe isn’t aware of the government’s plans.

In theory, communities like Doe’s are allowed to harvest the region’s medicinal plants. A notice on the J&K Biodiversity Council’s Facebook page – its website does not work – dated 16 November 2021, states that the provisions limiting the use of such plants without permission by the Council does not apply to “local people and communities of the area”.

During the summers Doe takes his livestock to Yusmarg in Kashmir, known for a variety of medicinal plants. “The government doesn’t allow us to extract the medicinal plants saying they are endangered but if others will come and take our resources, why would they [the government] stop us?” says Doe.

Whether the people most affected by the policies relating to medicinal plants will be empowered to manage these natural resources remains to be seen.

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