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More than just basmati

More than just basmati

Author: R A Mashelkar
Publication: The Times of India
Date: January 14, 2007

The world has woken up to India's traditional knowledge base that offers valuable advice in terms of complete health and wellness. But we need to create awareness of our intellectual property rights. I did my best as director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), when I fought to secure our legitimate right over products and processes that we had developed.

The case I fought against the American attempt to patent turmeric in 1996 was historic because it was the first time the developing world had challenged the bid to usurp its knowledge base. Some people even refer to it as the second battle of Haldighati.

The seed of this battle was sown in my mind by a report I read in The Times of India. An article by N Suresh reported that an American company was planning to patent turmeric for its healing properties. I stopped in my tracks and wondered how this could happen, given this traditional knowledge was passed down from my grandmother to my mother. It's wisdom we Indians have cultivated in the laboratory of life.

The same evening, I announced my decision to contest the patent at a meeting of scientists. I have a tendency to think from the heart, not the head - forgetting for a moment that the director general of the CSIR is the secretary to the government of India. Still, we were allowed to go ahead and when we won our case, the governor of West Bengal, G K Gandhi, compared it with the salt march of Dandi.

Fighting to secure the turmeric patent in 1996 was a question of principle. The heavens would not have fallen had the US won, for we could still continue to use turmeric to heal, the way we did before. However, the subsequent attempt to patent Basmati rice in 2003 could have had tragic consequences for us. A company based in Texas had sought a patent on usage of the term 'Basmati', because it had produced a long grain rice with attributes similar to our own. Had we lost that battle, we would not be allowed to produce, market or sell Basmati rice anywhere in the world. Exports worth hundreds of crores of rupees were in jeopardy. So, again we fought and we won.

My faith in the patent system stems from the fact that it is a fair process. The Patent Office needs to see evidence before it can judge how worthy a claim is. Therefore, the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) that we at CSIR devised, has brought a paradigm shift in presenting, protecting and privatising our ancient wisdom.

We have codified 10 million pages of Sanskrit shlokas, the Ayurveda, Siddha and Unani forms of medicine, and yoga, in five languages. This database is directly accessible to the US Patent Office in Washington. The patent examiner can avoid awarding a wrong patent by simply referring to TKDL. In fact, 21 other nations have sought our guidance in replicating this system in their own countries.

- The writer is president of Global Research Alliance and former director general of CSIR. (As told to Bella Jaisinghani)

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