Health-giving herbs

Ramesh Savalia and Suman Rathod

Our school was one of the 10 Post Basic schools (PBS) selected to be part of the Sanjeevani project. The curriculum of PBS has topics on agriculture, which includes identification of medicinal plants. Most of this is done through descriptions and pictures in the textbooks. Even as teachers we were not very familiar with the plants we were teaching about, or with their uses. The project provided teachers as well as students with the chance to see and learn through the direct experience of setting up and maintaining medicinal plant gardens and interacting with local farmers and vaids (traditional healers). Our role was to facilitate the development of a medicinal plant garden, and understanding of the medicinal values of different plants, their cultivation and care. The project provided us with a new methodology and resource for our teaching.

Understanding our surroundings
The first step was for both the teachers and the students to become familiar with the status of the biodiversity in the area around the school. We started with a one-day programme of exploring our surroundings for medicinal plants. Groups were formed of students, a teacher, local villagers, traditional healers and an expert. Each group was assigned a local ecological zone, viz., forest area, ravine area, wasteland, hillock, school campus, cultivable area, rural habitat, grassland area, etc., to explore. During the exploration, whenever a group found new medicinal plants, they had detailed discussions with the experienced and expert persons in their group. The discussion mainly was about the plant’s local name, the identification key, its medicinal uses, the parts used, the planting season, etc.


Setting up and maintaining the gardens
The school management gave us some land to set up the garden. The site selected was a space that students could frequent, and where parents could also visit. We planned our garden in such a way that once the trees grew, students could study in their shade. The intention was also that the students could use the plants for treating common ailments.

The selection of Medicinal Plants (MPs) was crucial. A one-day consultation was held for each of the two selected regions – Saurashtra and South Gujarat (see box: Engaging with their roots) – including the vaids (traditional healers), Ayurveda scientists, botanists, school teachers, students and the local community to develop an exhaustive list of MPs suitable for the area. At the end of the consultations there was a list of 300 possible MPs based on their use in common and chronic diseases prevalent in the schools, on the soil and climate, and the availability of saplings. The list included details such as local name, identification key, planting time, cultivation practices, seeding time, medicinal uses, precaution in use, etc. This suggested list of medicinal plants became the base for each school to select a minimum of 50 medicinal plants for their Biodiversity Conservation Resource Areas (BCRA).

The saplings were procured from the nearby forest department nursery; from areas surrounding the school; from special medicinal plant nurseries, and also through special requests to medicinal plant research nurseries. The most important source turned out to be the students themselves. After the awareness programme and identification training, when the schools closed for a short festival vacation, each student was given the prepared list of MPs to take home and asked to come back with at least two saplings from the list, from their village. When the students came back after the vacation most of the schools got more than 100 different varieties of saplings of MPs. These saplings were then planted by those students in the BCRA.

The BCRA was the most important and integral part of whole project. We discussed how to make the BCRA more than just a classic botanical garden, and to make it an Open Nature School. With support from a professional architect firm, right from the design to the actual construction there was complete involvement not only of the students and teachers, but also of the community members. Students were involved at every step, such as the layout, soil-water analysis, species identification sourcing quality saplings, preparing plantation beds, plantation, nurturing, bio-pest controls, preparing the signage, seating arrangements, activity areas and so on. As students were involved in the structural work they had the opportunity to learn the technical aspects related to low cost and sturdy structure design and masonry skills. At the same time, they became more sensitive towards workers and learnt dignity of labour. This hands-on approach throughout the process generated a sense of ownership among all those who were part of it.

How Sanjeevani changed teaching and learning
It is difficult to describe the kind of interest and engagement the children had in every aspect of the programme to someone who was not part of the process. They were involved in identification of medicinal plants, collection, discussion with agriculture and health experts, in the health camps, and of course in the physical creation of the BCRA.

The students’ creativity and joy was evident as they actively immersed themselves in planning and setting up sanjeevani exhibitions, rallies, village awareness campaigns. They created sanjeevani slogans, games, seed bank, literature and clipping compilations. They learnt how to use the plants to treat simple ailments that were common in the hostel like cough, cold, fever, sore throat, boils, constipation, etc. When someone had a headache or a cut or wound, students would run to the medicinal garden and ask, “Sir, which plant shall we use?” We ourselves were amazed at how effective these were in most cases. By the end of the 3-year project, students had also passed on this experience to their families who also started using remedies such as decoction of ardusi for cough and colds, consuming tulsi leaves regularly etc.

Students learnt to tackle challenges. Maintaining a garden in a water scarce area was one challenge. One plant was allotted to each student for watering. Students were advised to wash their hands and utensils (avoiding soap or other chemicals) near their plant. A drip irrigation system was installed with the help of experts. Also, during vacation when the hostellers went home, the nearby village children took up the responsibility to water the garden.

Before the project, most of us teachers were teaching forestry and medicinal plant chapters out of textbooks. But after the development of the BCRA, this became a nature laboratory and educational tool for teaching not just these topics, but also botany, nursery raising, mathematics, soil science and many more. The BCRA also became a lab for project work; to observe, experiment, and monitor various aspects of plant growth, understanding taxonomy, soil science, water conservation, and so on.

Initially, we were also a bit unsure about how we could handle the new responsibility, especially as we felt that we did not have either adequate knowledge or experience in running such an activity based project. The experience and involvement in the project not only gave us the opportunity to learn a lot about biodiversity, it also gave us a new identity as resource persons within the teacher community. As facilitators we had to learn different aspects of project management, and the experience enabled a more professional approach to our work.

Through Sanjeevani we understood that learning is not confined to a classroom; indeed, true learning takes place when students feel one with the surroundings – social and natural. Similarly, students as well as teachers have also realized that a lot of knowledge lies with farmers and traditional healers, and have started respecting their wisdom.

Some important medicinal plants planted in BCRA

Medicinal plants Medicinal use
Ardusi (Adhatoda vasica) The leaves, flowers, fruits and roots are extensively used for treating cold, cough, whooping-cough, chronic bronchitis and asthma.
Galo (Tinospora cordifolia) The stem is used to treat general debility, dyspepsia, fevers and urinary diseases. The plant is used to improve the immune system and the body’s resistance against infections.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) It is used to treat asthma and as a uterine sedative.
Madhunashini (Gymnema sylvestre) It has anti-diabetic properties. It has an inhibitory effect on plasma glucose and serum insulin in humans.
Karayatu (Andrographis paniculata) It is used as a bitter tonic and febrifuge. The decoction of the juice is blood purifying.
Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) It is useful to treat tumors, inflammation, diseases of blood and eye, throat complaints, tuberculosis, leprosy, epilepsy, night blindness and kidney troubles.
Bilipatra (Aegle marmelos) It is useful to treat diarrhoea, dysentery, dyspepsia, stomachalgia, cardiopalmus, seminal weakness, vomiting, intermittent fever and swellings.

Engaging with their roots

‘Sanjeevani’ in Gujarati as well as in Sanskrit means ‘a plant that has the power to revitalize, regenerate life’. The Sanjeevani project facilitated by the Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad aimed to integrate the knowledge of biodiversity and medicinal plants with school programmes, and to develop a system for their cultivation on the school campuses while creating awareness of, and respect for traditional wisdom, among students and teachers.

The three-year pilot programme from 2008 to 2010 involved 10 Post Basic Schools of Gujarat. These are residential secondary education institutes in Gujarat, which are based on the Gandhian philosophy of providing to the rural poor experiential education that integrates the 3Hs (Heart, Head and Hand) through correlation with nature, society and one’s own self. Five Post Basic Schools were selected from the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, an ecologically fragile drought-prone area with little or no natural resources. Another five schools were selected from South Gujarat, a tribal belt – hilly, rich in forest and biodiversity. Through the schools, the project involved other stakeholders as well – especially women, farmers, traditional healers, parents, senior citizens, local NGOs, Ayurvedic universities and research institutes. The most extensive as well as educative process of the project was the development of the ‘Biodiversity Conservation Resource Areas’ (BCRAs) as an “Open Nature School” for teachers. It also became an in -situ conservation area for Medicinal Plants (MPs.)

At the end of the project, each of the partnering schools developed a 2000m2 BCRA on their campus. Each BCRA includes a Sanjeevani Garden (medicinal plants garden) with more than 150 varieties of local medicinal plants including some threatened species. These BCRAs are also resource centres which serve as integrated nature learning facilities for the community as well as the school. Through its BCRA, each school runs various community awareness programmes, such as exhibitions, demonstrations, seasonal herbal health camps and free health drink distribution, etc. During the project period, through the BCRAs, the schools participated in 14 community events reaching out to more than 9,000 people. Awareness-extension activities in neighbouring villages covered a population of more than 31,000.
Through its bottom-up, participatory and inclusive approach the project created an environment conducive for young students to learn to live in harmony and reconnect with their roots, culture, environment, lives and livelihoods. Thus, essentially, the project evolved a replicable model of community oriented action project for schools that can provide the much needed real life association and holistic learning opportunities for students, teachers and the surrounding community.

The authors work with the Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad. You can reach them at ramesh.savalia@ceeindia.org. The article has inputs from Post Basic Schools of Vangadhra, Ambardi, Tatam, Choravira, Sapar, Hindala, Siletvel, Vedachchi, Kanjod, and Tokarava.