Millennium Post

Patent warfare treads on pickled turf

Why, and how, can someone seek a patent on a tried-and-tested pickle recipe? Here’s the shocker: the patent for Andhra’s gongura pickle had been sought by none other than a group of scientists of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR)- all of them working at the National Research Centre on Meat (NRCM) in Hyderabad.

The lead scientist in the group of six who claims to have developed ‘a process for preparation of chicken gongura pickle and chicken soup from deboned chicken frames’ is B M Naveena, who has also been awarded the Lal Bahadur Shastri Outstanding Young Scientist Award-2013 in July this year. In his application for the award, Naveena had claimed to have four published patents to his credit, one being for the ubiquitous chicken gongura pickle.

Reacting to Naveena’s claim, a well-known patent expert had noted that the combination of chicken and gongura was ‘a mere aggregation’ and cannot be the basis for a patent claim.

The fudging is in the use of ‘published patents’ by NRCM and Naveena. In their dictionary, it appears to mean that the patent office has published their claim. As Naveena told Down To Earth: ‘I have four published patents… The novelty and merit of these patents can be challenged by anyone once they go for examination.’ ICAR, on the other hand, assumes- just as we all do- that these patents have been awarded to Naveena. Its citation states that the NRCM senior scientist’s ‘patented work’ has ‘huge demand’ and that ‘many of these technologies (more on these later) have been commercialised to small- and medium-scale entrepreneurs with great success’.

ICAR’s tendency to confer its most prestigious awards to scientists with a lively imagination- and secure patronage- is well known. A few years ago, ICAR awarded its top prize, the prestigious Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award, for outstanding research in agricultural science to K C Bansal based on his imaginary claim that he had ‘filed three patents for novel gene discovery’. It turned out that Bansal, a senior scientist of the Indian Agriculture Research Institute, India’s premier institute for research and education, who at the time was heading a crucial project on transgenic crops at the National Research Centre (NRC) on Plant Biotechnology, had done nothing of the kind.

Sadder still is the cronyism and unethical practices that are undermining ICAR’s attempt to tone up the working of its close to 100 institutes. In recent years, it has launched a concerted drive to commercialise the research of 4,800 scientists in its institutes through a policy of rewarding intellectual property rights (IPRs). Not only does ICAR fund the tedious and expensive process of seeking patents by its scientists, it always awards marks (2-3) to those scientists who hold patents or have been able to commercialise their work. This is a major incentive when prized research projects are being handed out and more so when appointments to plum posts are considered.

In the 11th Plan, a separate fund of Rs 49 crore was earmarked to promote IPRs and ICAR has been passing this on to its top institutes, of which the 17 NRCs constitute the cream. Under the guidelines issued by ICAR, its research institutes have the autonomy to decide which output qualifies for patents once they go through the due processes.

To start with, research findings have to be submitted to the Institute Research Committee, Research Advisory Committee and the Quinquennual Review Team to evaluate the authenticity and novelty of the work. Only after approval by these committees can any work be published or submitted for patenting to the consultancy processing cell of the institute, which will then verify and forward it to the Institute Technology Management Committee. This committee will get the application ratified by the Project Monitoring and Evaluation Committee.

This begs the question: how are claims such as Naveena’s thought fit for patenting? Another of the patents that Naveena along with other NRCM scientists has sought is a process for improving the shelf life of meat through what they call innovative super-chilling technology. Experts say it is a process that has long been in use in the meat and fish processing industry the world over. The claim they make is for ‘an innovative super-chilling (storage at -1°C) and vacuum packaging process for buffalo meat steaks and mutton chunks which significantly improves the shelf life up to three months without freezing compared to 30 days and 4 days at refrigeration temperature under vacuum and aerobic packaging conditions respectively’.

NRCM is doubly guilty since it published in its annual reports the details of both the chicken gongura pickling method and the super-chilling technology that its scientists ‘invented’. As anyone familiar with patent laws knows, this makes whatever claims NRCM scientists are making ‘prior art’, which means that which is already known. In other words, NRCM has landed itself in a pretty pickle.

By arrangement with Down To Earth
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