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Chanting the patent mantra - The Sunday Pioneer

Posted By Krishnakant Udavant (kkant@bom2.vsnl.net.in)
June 7, 1998

Title: Chanting the patent mantra
Publication: The Anuradha Raman
Publication: The Sunday Pioneer
Date: June 7, 1998

It doesn't come as a surprise when colleagues refer to Raghunath
Anant Mashelkar as the Patent Man. The sobriquet, earned
following his pitched battles with the Americans to protect the
intellectual property rights of India, has almost acquired the
role of a surname today: Prof Mashelkar Patent.

The buzz in scientific circles is that the Americans have come to
fear and respect him. Either way, the self-confessedly ool'
scientist remains unrelenting in his war against the poachers of
Indian past. To win it, he freely borrows jargons from the trendy
American lexicon. To emerge triumphant, he is willing to play by
the rules framed by his rivals.

My appointment is fixed, rather thoughtfully, by the genial
professor at an early 9.30 am in the blistering summer. The
temperature at Anusandhan Bhavan, which houses the Council of
Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), is a cool 25 degrees
in the shade. Magazines, Medical and Aromatic Plant Abstracts and
Avishkar, lie neatly stacked at the reception. The entire
atmosphere is sanitised and clean.

Mashelkar's secretary, a friendly bespectacled man, shoots off
polite enquiries, after spotting my notepad and pen. "Have you
come to discuss rice or haldi. Or is it neem?" he asks, obviously
used to nosy reporters quizzing the professor on patents.

Neither, I mutter before I am ushered in the huge room which is
the seat of Mashelkar, the CSIR's current Director-General. I
banish earlier visions of the professor as an activist
brandishing turmeric. Instead, I encounter a tall scientist,
greying a little at the temples, who is proud to wear the mantle
of Fellow of the Royal Society of London. "The society has
honoured very few engineers and it makes me doubly proud. It is
hard for engineers to join the illustrious group. I am the second
engineer in this century to be included in the list of fellows,"
he says.

"The competition to be included in this list is so immense that
scientists from all over the world are shortlisted for
recognition," says Mashelkar.

The Royal Society, established in 1660 is the oldest and the most
prestigious scientific society in the world and since its
inception, only 35 scientists of Indian origin have been elected
to its rolls.

While he is only too happy to furnish his mile-long impressive
curriculum-vitae listing achievements and awards which have come
his way, Professor Mashelkar visibly glows when you whisper the
word, patent. It is enough to set him on a patent over-drive as
he exclaims about the rampant patent illiteracy currently
stalking the country. "We still stick to the culture of publish
and perish instead of patent and flourish," he opines, vowing to
start a campaign to dispel any doubts about protecting national
wealth and heritage. "When I took over as director National
Chemical Laboratories (NCL) and floated the idea of spreading
patent knowledge, it had very few takers."

In the early days of his directorship, the dollar earning from
exporting national wisdom was zero. That was in the early '90s.
When Mashelkar, then director of NCL, floated the idea of
converting wealth into money, there were few takers. Overriding
the skeptical wave, Mashelkar went ahead with the idea. Soon he
had managed to convert the cynics to his point of view. "True
patenting is a work of art. You have to possess the ability to
not only think of ideas but also be able to write and read
patents in such a way that you can bypass the fortress that the
West sometimes manages to build," says Mashelkar.

The professor traces the self-effacing attitude of Indians to
colonial rule. "It is time we broke with the past and
acknowledged the reality around us," he says. It is this reality
that the professor wants to fight, set right and make everyone
see that everyone one is equipped to tackle the laws after
carefully understanding them.

Left to him, he would love to convert all Indian knowledge into
wealth, at the same time take enough precautions to protect
indigenous knowledge. "Isn't it surprising that China has
patented nearly 100,000 products while we have managed to patent
just 2,000 which reflects on the lack of innovation among
Indians," exclaims Mashelkar.

The man who launched the second Battle of Haldighati to protect
the humble turmeric being patented by the West is fighting
another battle with Basmati robbers, slightly tougher than the
haldi battle. A Californian company has already staked its claim
to Basmati. "But once you crack the impenetrable fortress that
multi-nationals build around themselves, the game is yours," he

That's the way he took on the turmeric stealers. Armed with
smritis and ancient texts, the professor won the round with
haldi. hile fighting for the protection of haldi we fought on
the grounds that the root belonged to India traditionally and
there was no question of anyone patenting it," he says. And thus
the second battle of Haldighati was fought on the American soil
and won on the basis of rules. "To patent a product, essentially
it has to fulfill three conditions: Novelty, utility and non-
obviousness. In the case of haldi, it was patently obvious that
it did not fulfill the conditions laid down for patenting." Game
and battle to the Indian professor, claimed the Americans.
Mashelkar says his victory was possible because of the well-laid
out rules for patents.

A swadeshi scientist who hates being a passive recipient of
Western knowledge, Mashelkar would like to stem the trend and see
India emerging as an export house for knowledge. "Why should we
specialise in reverse engineering alone? We can definitely create
new ideas and concepts on our own," he argues passionately.

In the last few years that he has come to occupy the chair of
director general, CSIR, Mashelkar has acquired the reputation of
an able administrator, a title he is not particularly fond of.
Even the Prime Minister called him that. "I would rather be
known and remembered as a scientist," he says, reinforcing his
claim by stating that it is research that soothes his nerves.
"Some people listen to music. I just have to go back to my
research," he says.

After all, it is for his achievements as a research scientist
that has fetched him a fellowship from the Royal Society, London.
"I am looking forward to signing the old register, where
scientists like Newton have penned their signatures," says
Mashelkar' with childlike glee. After July 17, Mashelkar joins an
exalted group of scientists to have been elected fellows by the
Royal Society.

After he returns, sometime next month, he will be back to
chanting the patent mantra: "In a paradoxical way, patents
provide you with the incentive to innovate and make money," he
says. Surely, that is not difficult to understand. It will just
take some time before everyone chants the mantra.

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