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Safeguarding ancient wisdom

Safeguarding ancient wisdom
Vinod Kumar Gupta is used to ministers and other VIPs from across the world beating a path to his office and wanting to ‘see’ the unique institution that he has created. Gupta is the man behind the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library [TKDL], a valuable tool in the battle against theft of traditional knowledge. For India, it has proved effective in checking the piracy of ancient wisdom related to medicinal plants in an extremely cost-effective manner. Now other developing countries whose TK is being plundered want to replicate it.

TKDL, located in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of Delhi, is not the easiest of places to find even with a map. And when you do find this internationally recognised institution there is nothing much to see barring some graphic representations of traditional Indian systems of medicine. TKDL is a technology platform. It uses the tools of information technology and a novel classification system to make available the traditional medical knowledge of India to patent offices in the major developed countries so that what was known for centuries is not patented by unscrupulous individuals, companies and research organisations as something they claim to have discovered or invented.

The trigger for TKDL was the infamous case related to the patenting of neem extract in Europe to fight fungal disease of plants and another in the US on turmeric as a healing agent. Both these are centuries old practices in India and their patenting in the mid-1990s caused outrage in the country and led to high-profile legal battles which acknowledged the validity of TK. But the victories were hard won. They cost huge amounts of money and took long years to settle – 12 in the case of
neem.
The turmeric patent was challenged by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research [CSIR] which used an ancient Sanskrit text to show there was prior art in the use of turmeric as a healing agent and was, therefore, not a novel invention. These cases prompted then CSIR director-general of R A Mashelkar to seek institutional remedies for the brazen theft of TK. The digital library is a joint enterprise of CSIR and Department of AYUSH of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

Biopiracy or misappropriation of TK is rampant, not just in India but in a host of countries that are rich in ancient lore of healing and the use of plants in food and cosmetics. This treasure trove of knowledge is being plundered by a range of enterprises, from multinationals to domestic companies

Gupta realised that the drawback with TK documentation was that it lacked a classification system. He, therefore, set about devising a modern classification based on the structure of International Patent Classification for India’s traditional systems of medicine and health: Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and yoga. This knowledge, found in Sanskrit, Tamil, Arabic, Persian and Urdu texts, is inaccessible and incomprehensible to patent examiners abroad – and even to those in India. The focus was on breaking the language and format barriers by scientifically converting and structuring the available TK on the International Patent Classification [IPC]. The novel classification system that was developed, the Traditional Knowledge Resource Classification [TKRC], has resulted in a fundamental reform of IPC by enhancing the TK segment from one subgroup to 207 subgroups and thus enabling effective search and examination process.

In the last three years, TKDL has identified 1,000 cases of biopiracy of India’s TK. In 105 cases patent claims were withdrawn or cancelled by patent offices – decisions that were effected in just 4-5 weeks at zero cost. All that is required is an email to the relevant patent office. This is the biggest benefit for countries such as India which can ill afford the huge legal fees [a minimum $5,00,000] in fighting wrong patents across the globe.

A recent study reveals as much as a 44 per cent decline in patent claims filed on Indian systems of medicine. This is probably what prompted Peru, which has publicly declared its intention of setting up a similar institution, to send its Minister of Foreign Trade to meet Gupta earlier this year. Like India, Peru is a megadiverse country and has been waging an active campaign to protect and preserve its natural resources. Although its National Commission on Biopiracy is a good watchdog – a senior World Intellectual Property Organisation [WIPO] official described the country as a leader in the fight against misappropriation – Peru says it wants an institution that will catalogue its rich biodiversity and determine the manner in which it should be accessed.

Recognising India’s singular achievement, WIPO and CSIR held, in March 2011, an international conference on using TKDL as a model for protection of TK globally.

On arrangement with Down to Earth magazine.
Latha Jishnu

Latha Jishnu

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