The man behind the neem

THE CREDIT for spreading the message of the wondrous properties of the neem goes to Chandrashekhar Mahadeo Ketkar, whose interest in the tree was piqued when he visited the quality control laboratory in Pune of the All India Non-edible Oil Industry Association to get some soil samples analysed.

Association secretary Savitriben Madan told Ketkar of the neem soap they were manufacturing and the problem they were facing in disposing of the residual neem-cake. She asked him to take up the work of finding a solution as a challenge and he accepted, marking his entry into the world of the neem.

Ketkar, associated since 1968 with the Directorate of Non-edible Oils and Soap Industry of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) in Pune, began collecting all the available information on neem and found that as far back as 1908 neem-cake was being used as a manure in Muzaffarpur, UP. With KVIC backing, he conducted extensive trials of neem-cake as a manure and found when urea is blended with neem-cake, it slows down the release of nitrogen.

Ketkar prepared a report in 1977 on the "Utilisation of Neem and its By-products" and distributed 500 copies in India and abroad. He also prepared a list of oil-mills and of the uses of neem. Since 1983, his Neem Mission has supplied neem products and materials to 600 groups in 45 countries.

Ketkar does not believe in doing research himself, preferring instead to work on propagating the qualities of neem so that others are attracted to do more research on it. Even so, his name has become synonymous with neem not only in India but also abroad. German scientist Hubertus Kleeburg recently developed two neem insecticides and has approached Ketkar to pass on the know-how to Indian manufacturers through his Neem Mission. Ketkar wrote to 750 Indian companies about the Kleeberg offer and 88 responded. Ketkar says a contract is being finalised now between one of the Indian companies and Kleeburg's firm, Trifolio-M.

Ketkar says there is an increasing awareness now of neem and more people are realising its potential and diverse uses. Although several institutions have been researching various aspects of neem since the turn of the century, Ketkar deplores the lack of coordination between industry, research organisations, extension agencies and actual users. This can be overcome, he suggests, by setting up a Neem Board on the lines of the tea and coffee boards, which can then pursue the task of exporting neem extracts to earn foreign exchange.