Medicinal plant resources within Indo-Burmese mega-biodiversity region

Jiten Sharma
India’s workforce (65% population under 35 years; Average age: 28) at 2020 as per CNBC, TCS and CREDIT SUISSE having greater demographic dividend over China (Average age 37), US (Average age 40) and Japan (Average age 44) needs to maintain good health for global competitiveness. This savvy Indian edge is simultaneously going to supply the global workforce in a much bigger way unprecedented anytime. The economy looks much brighter henceforth, and it’s going to excel China particularly under the strong leadership of Narendra Modi. China’s concealing information on covid-19, world’s anger towards China, US trade sanctions and tariff issues, shifting of manufacturing infrastructures from China to India, Vietnam, Indonesia, etc. during the post-Covid scenario have backfired greatly to Chinese economy, and it is likely to benefit India in an unprecedented manner soon.This scenario, however, will not go on like this after 2050 as the population will grow older and young India shall face an inconvenient truth and become old with increased life-span, better food consumption and perhaps a slower economic growth. This eventually shall impose hefty financial liabilities on the country’s health care expenses. Are these imminent social burdens affordable ? Of course, revival of the Indian system of traditional medicine using herbal drugs/plant extracts will not only answer these challenges but also usher its people in being more Nationalistic than ever before. WHO’s recent approval to open a Global Centre for Traditional Medicine is indeed a significant recognition of our age-old Indian system of traditional medicine.   Inexpensive plant-based drug formulation is the key to salvage this inconvenient truth. For this, the two vast mega-biodiversity regions, viz., Indo-Burmese and Western Ghats need to be very well-protected and conserved. These are the ultimate refuges of the Nation for food, medicine, shelter and economy.
Looming large at our faces is the impending crisis of global warming which is an unequivocal reality going to hard hit India in 2050. Recent UN Report on Food Security vividly depicts decreasing rice, wheat, maize and soybean production threatening India’s food security which is the greatest security facing any Nation. This, in turn, will threaten every aspect of National security in all translational forms. Alternative food as well as non-conventional edible substitutes, therefore, have to be explored more vigorously. Fortunately, we have abundant such alternative foods waiting to be explored in the wild natural habitats such as banana (carbohydrate source) which can sustain global warming as well as non-conventional tree bean (protein source) in the natural forest ecosystems of Manipur within the Indo-Burmese mega-biodiversity ‘hotspot’ region. Besides, a number herbs and shrubs hitherto unknown to the world outside containing rich minerals/ trace elements (biofortified food) are consumed widely in the region. Banana, in fact, has its origin in Manipur where till this day, we have the best diploid seed-bearing fruits which are resistant to various viral, bacterial and fungal pathogens. Besides, we have a variety of Citruses including the best oranges and lemons in the world. Similarly, the indigenous tea plant, Thea manipurensiswhich requires immense investigations has its origin in Tamenglong, Manipur. All these plants have their Vavilonian centre of origin in this rich region. We also have jackfruits and pineapples (‘Queen’ variety) which are perhaps the best in the world in terms of fruit quality.
It is imperative that scientific investigation as well as advanced policy planning, keeping in view the tremendous potentials be initiated at the earliest in Imphal (international medium for peace, harmony and learning) as has been lovingly coined by Prof Robin Willson, Brunel University, London. Alternative strategies for sustainable development as well as utilization of herbal medicinal plants, particularly belonging to two plant families, viz., Solanaceae and Zingiberaceae besides others must be undertaken. Whereas, the drugs/crude extracts from members belonging to Solanaceae are more useful for treatment purposes, the drugs/crude extracts from members belonging to Zingiberaceae are more useful for preventive purposes, and have high potentials in terms of nutraceutical development or initiating herbal drinks where one can make concentrates or cocktails of sorts, and create bio-business boom perhaps even competing Chinese herbal drink bio-industry which touches US$ 5 Billion a year. Plenty of job avenues would be generated by this sector alone, if implemented. Much more still awaits everyone’s attention on agronomic improvement of chillies (‘Umorok’ hottest in the world) which can boost international trade in an unprecedented scale. Manipur’s own Lady’s slipper orchid, blue and red Vandas can outsurpass Thailand’s flori-business revenues. Rightly said the ‘little paradise on earth’ by the mighty Japanese Imperial Army, and ‘Switzerland of the East’ by Jawaharlal Nehru, indeed Manipur shall be a promised land of jewels in the zeitgeist of the great Trans-Asian highway.
Medicinal plants have been the subject of man’s curiosity since times immemorial. Herbs may be used directly as tea or extracts and they may be used in the production of drugs. Use of plants for medicinal purposes is as old as human civilization and continuous efforts are being made to improve medicinal plants or produce their products in large amounts through various technologies. Herbal medicine still flourishes and is getting popularized in both the developing and the developed countries due to its natural origin and lesser side effects. Over 80,000 species of plants are used in herbal medicine throughout the world. Approximately, 80% of the people in the world’s developing countries rely on traditional medicine for their primary health care needs, and about 85% of traditional medicine involves the use of plant extracts. Many plant-derived compounds have been used as drugs, either in their original or semi-synthetic form. Plant secondary metabolites can also serve as drug precursors, drug prototypes and pharmacological probes. Recent developments in drug discovery from plants, including information on approved drugs and compounds now in clinical trials, are widely documented. In future, plant-derived compounds will still be an essential aspect of the therapeutic array of medicines available to the physician. One important aspect in the use of plants and products is to obtain anti-oxidants to combat free radical attacks.
An anti-oxidant has been defined as any substance that, when present in low concentrations compared to that of an oxidizable substrate significantly delays or inhibits oxidation of that substrate. Anti-oxidants are compounds that inhibit or delay the oxidation of other molecules by inhibiting the initiation of propagation of oxidizing chain reactions initiated by free radicals. They can, therefore, prevent biological and chemical substances from oxidative damage induced by free radicals. Free radicals are molecular rogues which exist in nano-to femto-seconds and react with important biomolecules creating havoc in the cellular milieu leading to a number of human ailments. (To be contd)