Cultivating an aromatic industry

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Kashmir has huge potential to produce aromatic oils used in medicines and cosmetics. By tapping into the sector, Kashmir can have an eco-friendly path towards economic prosperity. Haroon Mirani reports.

With a geography and climate suitable for production of aromatic oils, efforts are underway to introduce and develop large scale cultivation of these plants to tap into the five billion dollar aromatic oils industry.
Srinagar based Indian Institute of Integrative medicine (IIIM) has been getting such plants from outside to acclimatize these besides developing processing technology for several of these essential oil bearing plants.

“Kashmir is a geographically unqiue place suitable for growing aromatic plants,” said Dr. A S Shawl, head of the Srinagar branch of IIIM at Sanatnagar (formerly Regional research Laboratory). “Of the ten essential oils sold worldwide eight can be easily produced in Kashmir.”

These eight constitute a major chunk of five billion dollar annual trade worldwide in aromatic oils. Shawl is hopeful that if taken up as a separate industry this eco-friendly sector will be the next big thing for Kashmir.

IIIM Srinagar has developed agro and processing technology for several of these essential oil bearing plants along with quality profiles based on international standards. These include Lavender, Rose, Clarysage, Peppermint, Rosemary,  Artemisia annua, Tagetes minuta and Geranium oil.

An oil is “essential” in the sense that it carries a distinctive scent, or essence, of the plant.

The essential oils produced from these aromatic plants are odoriferous, volatile constituents obtained by distillation or supercritical carbon dioxide extraction. They form the backbone of perfumery, flavour and cosmetic industry.

They also have a substantial use in aromatherapy and other traditional system of medicines. In view of the resurgence in the use of natural flavours, essential oils and aroma chemicals derived thereof have become prominent sectors of agro trade in both developed and developing countries.

Production of essential oils is estimated at over one lakh tons with India standing at third place garnering a share of 16-17 percent.

Kashmir has a long history of producing essential oils. The export of these oils particularly rose oils would earn more than one Lakh rupees in Mughal era. Walter Lawrence also mentions names of various essential oils, including Saussurea Lappa, Salex Capria and Rose, which earned it a good amount under Dogra rule. The sector was neglected over the years as the emphasis shifted towards growing more food.
But now the things are changing, though slowly.

Dr Shawl says that Kashmir can become a hub of aromatherapy. “It can even boost medical tourism here with its specialised treatment,” says Shawl, “Besides we can create parks of these aromatic plants and charge fee from tourists to breathe in the fragrance as is the norm in France.”

Aromatherapy is a form of alternative medicine, which ascribes healing through the aromatic compounds in essential oils and other plant extracts. The scents and aromas soothe and heal the bodies. It began with the Egyptians extracting oils from different aromatic plants for cosmetic and medicinal purposes.

“There are other ways to get more from the aromatic plants, like we can make items like lavender lunch and other eatables for tourists,” said Shawl.

The institute is constantly working on developing new and cost effective technologies in aroma sector.

Aromatic plants are the best crops for sustainable agriculture and appropriate industrial utilisation. Shawl says, “For an industry to survive, it needs abundant raw material and low energy need, and aroma plants in Kashmir provide you all that.”

The aroma plants also have a very high cost to returns ratio. According to Shawl it is more than Saffron. “A farmer earns a handsome amount of Rs 1.25 lakh rupees of net profit per hectare in case he grows Lavender,” said Shawl. “For other essential oils it gets even better.”

The worldwide demand for lavender oil is 3000 tonnes. At present Kashmir produces 4-5 tonnes of lavender oil with a potential for much more.  “We can flood national and international markets with high quality lavender oil,” said Shawl. Rose oil is costly with a kilogram costing Rs three to four lakh.

The industry is growing at a fast pace as the world is moving towards organic farming and green products.

Shawl seems content with the work at IIIM even as he feels more has to be done. “Despite so many hiccups we have helped in creating at least eight industrial houses which cultivate these aromatic plants with our technology.”

Shawl ascribes it to the public private partnership (PPP) model adopted by the institute.

“Those who are interested in this sector can avail complete end to end facilities from us, without having to go anywhere else,” said Shawl.

They are presently working on building a brand image of Kashmir based aromatic plants. “Branding is an important aspect and we have achieved a good deal of success in promoting Kashmir Lavender,” said Shawl.

Besides aromatic plants, IIIM Srinagar is also engaged in research and development of medicinal plants, leather, mushroom cultivation and low cost technology of white mushroom.

 “We undertake number of projects aimed at sustainable development for the valley in tune with its fragile environment,” said Shawl.

A research project regarding isolation of bioactive molecules from mushrooms is also underway. “Mushroom has lot of medicinal properties and these molecules would ultimately be used in creating new drugs for life threatening diseases like cancer,” said Shawl.

Kashmir valley is the biggest resource of high altitude medicinal plants numbering more than 500. “World over the trade in medicinal plants is in excess of 80 billion dollars and imagine how much can be earned by getting just a fraction of the trade,” said Shawl.

Leather is another big thing which IIIM is working on. “Annually we export 4 million animal hides and we can earn a lot if we add some value to the hides before exporting,” said Shawl. “We are developing locally relevant technologies for it and have had some success.”

There are at-least 15 PhD scholars working at IIIM on various projects.

The institute also provides training to entrepreneurs, students, womenfolk and takes courses for skill upgradation.

About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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