Partisan and patently painful

Published: Saturday 31 August 1996

how many miles must a Bill traverse before you can call it an Act? Apparently, there is no end to this. The recent case of the secretary in the department of industrial development (ministry of industry) announcing that the government has drafted a new Patents Amendment Act, which will be placed in Parliament in September, and the prompt denial by the official spokesperson of the government the very next day is a classic case. And it is also a very sad example of how issues crucial to the country are pushed in the backburner, simply because the people in power and those outside it can never consent to together protect the country's vital interests. Apparently, the real reason that the government retracted the public statement of the topmost bureaucrat of the concerned department is that it had vehemently opposed the Bill brought about by the previous regime. Also, as reports indicated, the secretary had embarrassed the government he serves because so far, the Gowda regime has not taken the other political parties into confidence about the contents of the new Bill.

It is likely that in this whole game of politics, the issue will once again be sidelined, because our politicos can give anything just to nit-pick on an issue of procedure, rather than get on with the real business. And yet, the pressure from the West to make our stand clear is becoming immense.

The 'democrat' Clinton administration has turned the heat on India on the issue of Intellectual Property Rights ( ipr ). The us has issued a notice threatening to invoke dispute settlement provisions of the World Trade Organization ( wto ) against India for failing to amend its ipr laws in line with the provisions of the Uruguay Round agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights ( trips ). The notice, issued on July 2, seeks bilateral consultations with India within 60 days, failing which, us will initiate action under wto 's dispute settlement mechanism. Ostensibly, the us' trade interests in India have been jeopardised by the lack of trips -worthy laws in India.

The situation is not at all heartening. Firstly, the us continues to include India in the 'priority watch list' under Special 301, a clause that helps us to impose bilateral trade sanctions against selected trade partners in total contravention to the multilateral trade agreement under wto. A recent amendment to the us domestic legislation, the Uruguay Round Agreement Act, makes it abundantly clear that even after complying to the trips agreement, countries like India will continue to be treated under Special 301. This is a total mockery of the gatt and wto agreements, whose very basic philosophy is to employ multilateral policy instruments to reduce bilateral trade barriers.

Secondly, the us has been granting patents on neem and turmeric, for inventions based on the bioresources as well as the traditional knowledge of Indian origin, in complete violation of the Convention on Biological Diversity ( cbd) , especially relating to the clauses on prior informed consent, information/material transfer agreement and benefit sharing. The ominous implications of the us decision to grant such patents has been repeated much too often.

It is true that some sporadic attempts have been made on the Indian front to challenge some of these patents. But one notices an element of ad hocism in the decision to challenge such patents individually. While the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's enthusiasm to challenge the objectionable patent granted ( us patent no. 5,401,504) on turmeric is laudable, the unsustainabilty of such a stand in the long run is evident if one considers the sheer economics of challenging each individual patent.

India has a strong case to seize the initiative in adopting a counter-offensive position and actually push the issue to the centrestage in the wto and other fora such as cbd . However, it goes without saying that this requires a carefully planned strategy and a pro-active approach, which has been wanting. The Indian government has till now done pathetically little to facilitate the process of enacting a national legislation declaring our biodiversity as a national resource and laying down the principles for its commercial exploitation and benefit sharing. And the new Bill, as the drama unfolds, is clearly in the bin.

The Indian government needs to get its act together immediately and devise its strategy on the above lines and articulate its position firmly but carefully. Sadly, the Indian political process has not attempted seriously to explore the possibility of drawing in a wide section of civil strata -- ngo s, scientists, social groups and others -- into the debate. Any delay or complacence will only lead to a situation where the present government has to agree for the very same clauses which it had rejected while in opposition last year, or a messing up of the negotiations by improper articulation and knee-jerk reactions at international fora, ending up in an isolationist position. For this, however, the Deve Gowda regime will have to rise much above its present peurile partisan attitude.

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