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Old medicine, new patents

There has been a steady rise in the number of applications filed with the Indian Patent Office by companies seeking patents in Ayurvedic and Unani medicines, a top a government official said.

business Updated: Aug 07, 2009 21:21 IST
Gaurav Choudhury

Slowly, but surely, India Inc is waking up to the virtues of traditional wisdom.

There has been a steady rise in the number of applications filed with the Indian Patent Office by companies seeking patents in Ayurvedic and Unani medicines, a top a government official said.

Besides, the government is developing a Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) database, which includes codified knowledge of traditional medicine systems such as Ayurveda and Unani, which has its origins in the Greek and Arab worlds. “This is done in five international languages — English, German, French, Spanish and Japanese to prevent patenting of inventions which are mere traditional knowledge,” minister of state for commerce and industry Jyotiraditya Scindia told Parliament this week.

The current size of the world market for natural products is about $ 62 billion and growing at over 10 per cent.

India’s share of the world herbal trade is less than 1 per cent. This makes the need for patents crucial. Multinational firms are also waking up to the potential in traditional systems.

“A major research and development (R&D) emphasis for us in recent times has been in the area of naturals and ayurveda,” said a spokesperson of Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), the country’s largest fast moving consumer goods company, which is a unit of Anglo-Dutch Unilever Group.

Bangalore-based Himalaya Drug Company, one of the largest manufacturers of Ayurvedic drugs, said it has filed for 42 patent applications of which four has already been granted.

India possesses the distinction of being called the botanical garden of the world with more than 40,000 species and 16 eco-climatic zones.

A senior government official said the TKDL has effectively licensed 200,000 local treatments as “public property” free for anyone to use. This rules out firms and companies from selling these as “brands”.

TKDL gives legitimacy to the existing traditional knowledge and protects its unethical patenting by fly-by-night inventors. It also codifies the details for international patent offices.

A recent Commerce Ministry study observed that US and UK colleges were now offering courses in Ayurveda. The study said there are more than 200 Ayurvedic physicians from India who are regularly lecturing in the United States as well as Europe.