S&T Interventions in Medicinal and Aromatic Plants for Rural Development in North East India

The North East region of India is unique in many ways. Apart from its endless beauty and rich ethnicity, it is also rich in vegetation and natural resources. The Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region functions as the nodal Department of the Central Government to deal with matters related to the socio-economic development of the eight states of Northeast India: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim.

Science and technology, a significant driver of development, plays a vital role in the development of the North East region. There are a few research institutes in the North East region. The oldest is CSIR's North East Institute of Science and Technology (CSIR-NEIST). Set up in 1961 as the Regional Research Laboratory, Jorhat, the laboratory was rechristened as CSIR-NEIST in 2007. Celebrating its Golden Jubilee this year, CSIR-NEIST has played a pivotal role in developing the North East region through S&T interventions, especially concerning medicinal and aromatic plants.

Among the plethora of natural resources, the North East region is very rich in biodiversity. Cultivating medicinal and aromatic plants and producing plant-based medicines and aromatic compounds hold immense potential for the region.

CSIR-NEIST is working since its inception on conservation, tissue culture, captive cultivation, multiplication, development of superior variety, and phytochemical analysis and scientific validation related to medicinal and aromatic plants. The Institute maintains the germplasm of 450 ginger species belonging to the Zingiberaceae family.

In 1972, CSIR-NEIST (then RRL, Jorhat) adopted the hilly Yaongyimchen Village in Nagaland, where the people were involved in jhum or shifting cultivation. The practice was to clear pieces of land, especially near jungles, and cultivate some seasonal crops. Once the harvest was over, they moved to another area and cleared the wild vegetation and cultivated crops. The CSIR-NEIST scientists introduced lemongrass or citronella, an excellent cash crop in the village. The villagers stopped the tedious and inefficient shifting cultivation and took to cultivating citronella. CSIR-NEIST set up a field station in the village with scientists and technical officers handholding the villagers to extend the much-needed support during the initial years.

In time, citronella cultivation was gradually extended on a massive scale in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland with the involvement of State departments and NGOs.

CSIR-NEIST also developed and introduced a high yielding variety with 0.7 per cent oil. Called the C2 variety, it was introduced in other states of the North-Eastern region. Another success story that stands out is that of Pengeri Village of upper Assam.

The Pengeri village, surrounded by jungles, had herds of wild elephants. The villagers found it difficult to cultivate food crops like paddy, which the elephants damaged extensively. CSIR-NEIST introduced the high yielding variety of citronella in the Pengeri village. The elephants steered clear of citronella fields, and gradually, the entire village began citronella cultivation. CSIR-NEIST also assisted in setting up ten citronella oil distillation units in Pengeri village, and further, the Institute also mediated linkages with the market. The villagers' income grew manifold, and soon enough, Pengeri village came to be known as the oil village.

Besides providing agro-technologies and basic market information CSIR-NEIST Jorhat provides extensive training to growers. During 2000-2009 special training programmes were conducted by CSIR-NEIST for 1158 beneficiaries from 8 districts of Assam, 607 beneficiaries from 18 districts of Arunachal Pradesh and 82 from 2 districts of Nagaland.

Today, India has a CSIR-lead nationwide Aroma Mission that focuses on aromatic and medicinal plant cultivation and processing of extracts. Under this mission, in recent times, CSIR-NEIST has developed two unique varieties of citronella called 'Jor Lab L-8' that has more than 1% essential oil and 'Jor Lab C-5' that has more than 1.2% oil. This variety is the highest essential oil yielding varieties in India, where a farmer can obtain almost double the income from a plot of land from earlier.

Beginning from 1971, CSIR-NEIST's S&T interventions in the medicinal and aromatic plant cultivation, processing and extraction, developing products, etc., have initiated and catalyzed this important bio-economy of the region.

In the last three years, with CSIR-NEIST's efforts, more than 1000 hectares of additional crop area has been brought under cultivation with high yielding varieties of aroma crops. The Institute has developed six superior varieties of medicinal and aromatic plants, evolved 12 agrotechnologies for various crops, installed 15 fuel-efficient improved distillation units, and ten more are underway. The Institute has organized 250 awareness and training programmes and has developed eight value-added essential oil-based products. So far, 3000 farmers have been benefitted and most importantly, the average income of the farmers has doubled from Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 70,000 per hectare per year.

CSIR-NEIST also has developed several healthcare and vector control products based on medicinal and aromatic plants. In particular, the anti-arthritis products have been an enormous success, as has been anti-fungal ointments for humans and animals.

A nature oriented economy is most suited for the sustainable and economic development of the North East region. This potential can be unlocked with suitable science and technology interventions, which is a mission of CSIR-NEIST.