Published: Saturday 15 November 1997

CSIR speaks

The report on the dispute over patenting of haldi (turmeric) in the us ('Knowledge without power,' Down To Earth , Vol 6, No 9; September 30, 1997) mispresented the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research's (csir) efforts. The report mentions that the csir cited a paper published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research in 1953 as evidence challenging the patent -- since its traditional use in India to heal wounds is not documented by Ayurveda shastra.

This is not true. The fact is that csir had submitted no less than 32 clear references, including from Ayurveda , to establish that haldi has been used to heal wounds in India from time immemorial. This information was made available to reporters, including your correspondent, at a Press conference addressed by R A Mashelkar on August 23, 1997.

Your magazine misreported the facts and it should be acknowledged.

Sumita Dasgupta replies:
Two basic points made in the article have been misconstrued. It may be that csir submitted several documents and extracts from the Ayurvedic scriptures to the us patent office, but were they taken into account by the us authorities as incontrovertible evidence challenging the patent?

As the report pointed out, under the us Patents Act very specific and limited types of prior use and know-how outside the us can be used to invalidate a patent. The act lays down that a us citizen will be denied a patent if "the invention was...patented or described in a printed publication in a foreign country" (emphasis added). If the Ayurvedic scriptures alone had been produced before the patents office -- without furnishing the paper printed in the Indian Journal of Medical Research ( ijmr ) -- would victory have come the Indian way? Moreover, all those who had been following the case from the start are aware that the first 'evidence' cited by the csir was the research paper published in ijmr , which was then substantiated by references to the scriptures.

The second, and more important, point made in the article was that the csir strategy does little to protect the traditional knowledge base. Most of this vast treasure house is not codified -- no written records are available. Can traditions that have been passed on orally in India be produced before patent offices in other countries as hard evidence?...

Painful reminder

The report on India's victory in the dispute over patenting of haldi in the us was incisive but disappointing for those who made the effort. The headlines 'Knowledge without power' and ' csir 's empty victory' did not project the positive aspects of the victory. csir 's efforts and the victory sent a strong, positive signal to those who are keen to protect the indigenous knowledge base. Down To Earth and the Centre for Science and Environment are respected in the field of environmental journalism and activism. They should support, not discourage, such attempts.

The Editor replies:
It is true that protecting indigenous knowledge from foreign commercial interest and piracy deserves top priority. Down To Earth has constantly stressed the value of tradition. The report on csir 's triumph merely emphasised that much more needs to be done. India's position in the dispute was shaky but for a research article published as far back as in 1953. It is better to admit our weakness and remedy the situation than to gloat over a lone victory. There are going to be many more battles in the future....

Rain, rain

The editorial on conservation of water and prevention of river water pollution ('River conservation,' Down To Earth , Vol 6, No 6; August 15, 1997) pertinently pointed out that rainwater can easily be harvested and used in gardening, washing and for toilets. In fact, I would go so far as to say that rainwater is generally potable in our country, unlike in highly industrialised ones where it can contain acids. In all likelihood, it is cleaner than the water supplied by municipal corporations. We certainly do not respect rain as heaven-sent, Varuna's boon to humankind, anymore. But it deserves more respect as a source of water than it has received.

As you mention, Chennai has taken a lead in harvesting water. I have personally campaigned in my locality -- Besant Nagar in Chennai -- for harvesting of rainwater for household consumption. Areas like these which are close by the sea had abundant groundwater. Over the years, they have become overcrowded, multi-storey residential apartments have sprung up and bore wells have sucked groundwater greedily. This excessive exploitation has resulted in contamination of fresh water with sea water, which seeped into the ground as it became drier. I have tried to enlist the support of local authorities, with some success: flat promoters have been told recently that provisions for rainwater harvesting will be compulsory for new complexes. I request you to support this cause....

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