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India banks on patent power

India has set up the world’s first Traditional Knowledge Digital Library database and signed an agreement with the European Patent Office to establish a mechanism to stop bio-piracy, reports Sanchita Sharma.

india Updated: Feb 10, 2009 00:20 IST
Sanchita Sharma

It seems the long-drawn battles over neem and turmeric patent claims in other countries have dawned upon India the urgency to stop bio-piracy. India has finally set up the world’s first Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) database and signed an agreement with the European Patent Office (EPO) to establish a mechanism to stop the piracy.

The Rs 7-crore TKDL project — completed in partnership with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) — took nine years to enlist 2,00,000 formulations from Auyurveda, Unani and Siddha schools of medicine.

“India has signed an Access Agreement with the EPO to establish a mechanism to protect India’s traditional medicinal knowledge from bio-piracy. The Patent Examiners at the European Patent Office (EPO) have been given access to the TKDL from February 2 so that no patents are granted if there is existing documentation in the database,” said S. Jalaja, secretary, AYUSH,a department of Indian systems of medicine in the ministry of health and family welfare.

In the past, the EPO, with 34 member states, granted patents on the use of 285 plants used in traditional Indian medicines — such as papaya, Indian long pepper, hoary basil (kali tulsi), ginger, aloe, psyll_ium, Indian gooseberry, cumin, tomato, almond, walnut, and soyabean.

About 2,000 patents on Indian systems of medicine are granted each year, mainly because traditional medicinal knowledge exists in many languages — Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, Urdu and Tamil, to name a few — that are not understood by patent examiners. The TDKL makes the information available in five international languages like English, Japanese, French, German and Spanish, said project leader Dr V. K. Gupta, head, information technology division, CSIR.

“We’ve learned from the past, where the government spent crores of rupees in fighting wrong patents granted for the wound-healing properties of turmeric and the anti-fungal properties of neem. Fighting each patents costs Rs 2 to Rs 3 crore. But setting up the database will help ensure traditional knowledge is not wrongfully taken away from India,” said CSIR director general Samir K. Brahmachari.

India has taken up the issue in the World Health Assembly, an inter-governmental committee at the World Intellectual Property Organisation and TRIPS council at the World Trade Organisation, but no consensus has been reached.

“Getting global recognition for this tool is a beginning. We’ve also reached agreements on most issues with the US Patent and Trademark Office. We expect results soon,” said Dr Gupta.