Herbal Wars

Kuttimathan Kani's predicament

An anti-fatigue drug produced from a herb has failed to benefit the tribals who discovered its properties, writes KA SHAJI

KUTTIMATHAN KANI, who lives in the dense forests of the Agasthya Hills, in the Western Ghats, has reasons to believe that the forest gods have stopped smiling. His wife and two of his four daughters are seriously unwell.Kuttimathan has no money for their treatment. Only the state government’s free rations and the wild roots he gathers to eat, stand between his family and death.

Kuttimathan, however, is no ordinary tribal. He is the man who introduced to the world the wonder herb trichopus zeylanicus, known locally as aarogyapacha. This led to the development of a commercially successful drug, Jeevani, which has won worldwide recognition. Jeevani has been found to have anti-fatigue, anti-tumour, antioxidant, antiallergic, aphrodisiac, immunomodulatory and hepatoprotective actions.

Known as the ‘ginseng of the Kani tribes’, aarogyapacha won the attention of the UN and the WTO. Kuttimathan won the UN Equator Initiative Prize in 2002 and appeared on the cover of TIME magazine.

In 1987, Kuttimathan and his friend Mallan Kani introduced aarogyapacha to scientists from Kerala’s Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI), who were on a study tour of the Agasthya Hills. As their guide, Kuttimathan revealed the many secrets of the herb. The TBGRI started research on the herb and developed Jeevani from it.

In November 1995, TBGRI licensed the formula for Jeevani to the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy (AVP) of Coimbatore for seven years for Rs 10 lakh. The license fee and the two percent royalty on the profits from Jeevani were to be shared equally between the TBGRI and the Kani tribe. A trust for the Kanis was formed and it was agreed that the pharmacy would buy the herbs from them. The patent on Jeevani’s formulation has expired and AVP and 11 others are producing it. While the drug increases in popularity and is sold at Rs 160 for a 75gm jar, the tribals are cut off from the benefits. The welfare trust is dysfunctional.

The previous governing body of the trust took a loan to buy a van, using Rs 5 lakh from the corpus as security. The remaining Rs 5 lakh was used in the construction of the trust office. “The interest on Rs 5 lakh which the trust used to receive every month was utilised for day-to-day activities. Now, the bank is taking this amount to adjust against the vehicle loan,’’ says Rajendran Kani, president of the trust. The trust members have no clue about the agreement between them and the TBGRI. “There are no records with us. We don’t have a copy of the agreement,” says trust secretary Narayanan.

“Barring Rs 5 lakh in the account, there is no record showing that the trust received money afterwards,’’ said Rajendran. “The scientists exploited our ignorance. We have reasons to believe that they made a lot of profit. Right from the beginning, they kept us in the dark,’’ says Kuttimathan.

“Kuttimathan is a drunkard and that is why he is in such a pathetic situation,’’ said Dr Pushpangathan, ex-director of the TBGRI and the scientist who shared the Equator Initiative Prize, when contacted by TEHELKA. He also blames lack of education for the failure of the Kani tribals to benefit from the demand for aarogyapacha. He believes it is the government’s duty to ensure that the tribals get the benefits, and retorts, “It is because of TBGRI that the tribals got at least Rs 10 lakh.”