Business Standard | 2010-08-27 02:40:00
After successfully contesting a patent dispute with China earlier this year — regarding formulations based on “pudina” (mint) and “kalamegha” (Andrographis) — India last week won another legal battle in Malaysia against the use of “ponni” rice as trademark. Like basmati, ponni is also a speciality rice grown exclusively in southern states and has a niche market abroad. These and other victories concerning patenting of products like neem (Azadirachta indica) and haldi (turmeric) may be significant in their own right, but the trend of going through protracted and costly litigation abroad for such matters is worrisome. India, being not only rich in native biodiversity but also home to well-developed indigenous systems for gainful utilisation of these biological resources, is a heaven for bio-pirates. In fact, much of its biological wealth has already been pilfered. It is, therefore, imperative to strengthen the legal framework for intellectual property protection. India has joined international conventions that help safeguard the country’s sovereign bio-resources and intellectual property. Legal instruments like the Biodiversity Act, the plant varieties protection Act, the geographic indications Act, and an innovative traditional knowledge digital library (TKDL) are already in place. Much of this vast intellectual property and bio-resource remains unguarded. Though the geographical indications statute for conferring patent-like protection to an exclusive product of a particular region was enacted in 1999, no more than 120-odd products have so far been registered under it. Had the ponni rice been given the geographic indications status, litigation in Malaysia against this trademark might not have been necessary.
Similarly, the setting up of the TKDL is a very significant anti-bio-piracy move since it aims at documenting the information related to indigenous wisdom in digitised format in five international languages — English, German, French, Japanese and Spanish. The patent offices in the US and the European Union have been provided free access to this database so that they could consult it before granting patents. But this compendium so far has entries largely on the formulations used in Ayurveda, and, to some extent, other traditional systems of medicines like Unani and Siddha. Worse still, only the information contained in the ancient texts has been uploaded. This leaves out enormous knowledge on gainful applications of indigenous bio-resources for health and other purposes, and stored in other forms such as hand-written manuscripts and inscriptions on leaves, stones and metals, besides the knowledge passed on from one generation to another through oral word. Protection of traditional knowledge and resources does not mean disallowing their commercial utilisation, at home or abroad. Internationally acceptable norms are needed for this. The global Convention on Biological Diversity has provisions for access and benefit-sharing, but the parties to this treaty have only been discussing the ways and means of doing so for the past eight years without making much headway. It is time they sealed a pact.