Patented to act

Basmati embroglio -- stoked to cook

Published: Saturday 15 September 2001

Whether the granting of a varietal patent on basmati rice to an American firm by the us Patent Office is a "victory" as the government maintains, or a defeat as most ngo s maintain, is not the issue. The issue is to chart out a clear and time bound strategy to protect our traditional knowledge. As yet, our actions have been at best ad hoc and piecemeal.

Take the basmati case. It is clear at best our victory is technical. The Indian government challenged and won three claims that were broad -- virtually taking all rights to the basmati strain. What it lost is five claims of RiceTec which were for specific "novel" ricelines, bred by the company. But what has been surrendered is that RiceTec can now use the basmati name by claiming that their rice is "similar or superior" to basmati.

Clearly we have failed, and by design. The only way to protect basmati within the modern patent system would be: Firstly, have a domestic geographical appellations system under which products associated with a particular territory, country, place or region, can be protected, from 'Darjeeling tea', 'khadi' to Kolhapuri chappals and basmati.

What is typical is that while our Geographical Indications Bill was passed in 1999, the rules for registration have still not been framed. These are still been "considered" and circulated in the many mindless government departments.

The second step would be to argue that the agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (trips), which governs the global patent system, should be amended so that its geographical indication protection is expanded to cover other products and items. Currently, only wines and spirits are protected under this clause of trip s. The us has blocked proposals for expansion arguing that it would even like the current protection to Champagne, coming from the Champagne region of France, or Scotch whisky from Scotland to go.

The third action would involve detailed documentation so that the claims made by RiceTec of novelty can be challenged. It is still not clear if the Indian Council of Agricultural Research has a scientifically strong database on the rice lines, aroma, cooking quality and other features of the grain, which it used in this case. The fourth and fifth steps would involve passing the biodiversity bill and giving recognition and protection to traditional knowledge system. But as usual we are still debating and discussing these laws while the world moves ahead and merrily patents our natural wealth. But this our India, once again.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.