4 July 2002
INDIA'S DIGITAL LIBRARY AIDS BIOPIRATES
''There are patent applications pending before the USPTO, for instance, which run into 1,000 pages. It has already been said that a complete examination of such patent applications will take decades,'' he said. Sharma points to the patent granted to the use of aloe vera (known as 'kumari' in Ayurveda) to treat dry eyes. In the patent application, the only novelty added to the original formula was the use of chlorinated water rather than the 'clean' water prescribed in the Ayurvedic text.
...well-known conservationist Pandurang Hegde, who spent decades fighting wanton deforestation in his native southern Karnataka state, said: ''It is frightening to imagine the way the developed world is appropriating our knowledge.''
India's Digital Library Aids Biopirates - Activists
By Ranjit Devraj
NEW DELHI, Jul 4 (IPS) - Far from protecting biodiversity and traditional knowledge, India's new Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) may be just the thing that biopirates have been looking for in navigating through the country's vast ocean of ancient literature on indigenous herbs and their uses, critics say.
The library is the brainchild of India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a conglomerate of 40 government laboratories with 25,000 people that has gained notoriety as a place where scientists grow old and die without ever producing a single worthwhile innovation.
However, the same cannot be said about its director general Ragunath Mashelkar, an internationally known polymer scientist and Fellow of the Royal Society, who has been at pains to alert rapidly liberalising India on the need to get its patent act together.
''Innovation is the key for the production of knowledge as well as the processing of knowledge and a nation's ability to convert knowledge into wealth and social good through the process of innovation will determine its future,'' said Mashelkar.
It was Mashelkar who led India's challenge to the patenting of turmeric, which succeeded in getting the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to invalidate it in 1997 on the grounds that there was no novel invention as claimed by the patentees. To do that, Mashelkar and his colleagues laboriously trawled through ancient Sanskrit texts from Ayurveda, India's ancient system of medicine, to show that turmeric (a deep-yellow, ginger-like root) and its products have long been used in this country to treat wounds and cure stomach disorders.
While Mashelkar's team proved that it was possible to challenge patents taken out on turmeric and such biopirated items as anti-fungal sprays taken from the neem tree, they also discovered that this can be a time-consuming and expensive affair.
That was how the TKDL, which will record every known traditional treatment and thus pre-empt its patenting as a novel idea, was conceived. ''Soon, India would no longer have to seek the re-examination of patents for indigenous products like turmeric and basmati,'' said Mashelkar at the digital library's launch last month.
Ayurvedic experts were invited to collaborate with a task force set up by Mashelkar to research international patent databases and come up with a traditional knowledge resource classification for 4,500 medicinal plants that went into a web site containing 35,000 Ayurvedic slokas (rhymed formulae). All very well except that biotechnology experts like Devinder Sharma of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security pointed out that this database would only make the job of biopirates, supported by laws on processing and innovation, that much easier.Said Sharma: ''We have seen how at the height of the so-called 'Green Revolution' in the 60s and 70s , developing countries were duped into parting with their genetic wealth which is now in the custody of private gene banks in the United States and serving the interests of seed transnational corporations.''
According to Sharma, it is now the turn of traditional knowledge, which has so far been protected by language and cultural barriers and resistance from alert voluntary groups. ''So what better way to do it than to make the developing countries themselves do the research and documentation and hand it all over on a readily-accessible digital platter?''
''All it takes is a little tinkering with the original medicinal remedy and a little cosmetic covering to get an all too willing USPTO to accept its as a novel product that was not previously known,'' he said.
The TKDL task force was itself astounded to learn that of 4,896 references on 90 medicinal plants in the USPTO database, 80 percent pertained to just seven medicinal plants of Indian origin.
That means that some 4,000 patents or patent applications were based on medicinal properties of plants that were already known, and that 360 of the 762 patents on medicinal plants granted by the USPTO could readily be categorised as traditional. Activists say that should not be too surprising. India is not only one of the world's seven biodiversity hotspots, but possesses an abundant storehouse of traditional knowledge on its use, much of it readily documented in the ancient texts.
Combined with a bumbling or even venal bureaucracy, the situation is irresistible to the biopirate, critics say.Reacting to the TKDL, well-known conservationist Pandurang Hegde, who spent decades fighting wanton deforestation in his native southern Karnataka state, said: ''It is frightening to imagine the way the developed world is appropriating our knowledge.'' Hegde, who leads the 'Appiko movement' that has inspired volunteers to physically block the timber lobby, said he had serious doubts about the real motives behind the attempt to document biodiversity in this country.
''Why are we spending time and energy to document biodiversity when it is not going to help us in the present World Trade Organisation (WTO) regime?'' he asked.
According to Sharma, the USPTO is not going to be bound by the TKDL for the simple reason that Ayurvedic slokas are just that and not scientific decoded language on medicinal properties of plants of the type that stands up to legal stress.
''There are patent applications pending before the USPTO, for instance, which run into 1,000 pages. It has already been said that a complete examination of such patent applications will take decades,'' he said.Sharma points to the patent granted to the use of aloe vera (known as 'kumari' in Ayurveda) to treat dry eyes. In the patent application, the only novelty added to the original formula was the use of chlorinated water rather than the 'clean' water prescribed in the Ayurvedic text.
He expects biopirates to bank on the fact that it is prohibitively expensive to make legal challenges at the USPTO, as India and Pakistan have been discovering in the case of 'basmati', the fragrant rice variety grown only in these two countries but has been patented by U.S. rice trading firm.
''What is happening is that well-known donor agencies including the United Nations Development Programme and the British DfID have got the scientific community and even civil society to play the game of facilitating biopiracy,'' he said
The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) has endorsed India's initiative, and according to a member of Mashelkar's task force, efforts are underway to link the massive database to the International Patent Classification (IPC) system.
Calling this ''pure folly'', Sharma suggests that India follow the example of its giant neighbour China which, between 1992 and 2000 revised its patent laws twice and drew a total of 12,000 patents to ensure that it retains control over its equally unique and ancient system of medicine.
''If China does not need anything like a TKDL why do we?'' he asked.
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