Sans safeguards?

The newly amended patents bill is replete with loopholes

Published: Saturday 15 June 2002

amid uproar, parliament recently passed the controversial Patents (Second Amendment) bill. Even though Union commerce minister Murasoli Maran gave an assurance that all safeguards to ensure easy availability of drugs at affordable prices were incorporated in the bill, there were voices of dissent. It was argued that the government had complied with the World Trade Organisation (wto) diktat without protecting India's interests. The bill allows for product patents to be introduced closer to the 2005 deadline, as per its wto commitment.

However, pharmaceutical company Cipla's Yusuf K Hamied believes that India should have postponed the introduction of product patents till at least 2016, considering the poor state of healthcare in the country.

It is claimed that the bill widens the scope of compulsory licensing of drugs to prevent abuse by multinational companies (mncs). But drug majors such as Pfizer and Aventis Pharma say the key provisions on compulsory licensing are so weakly worded that they could be commercially exploited. " Compulsory licensing has been so diluted in the Indian law that it could become another Raj licence regime," Hocine Sidi Said, managing director of Pfizer in India, is reported to have said.

The need to tighten intellectual property rights (ipr) for any meaningful investment in the segment has also been stressed. Kiron Mazumdar-Shaw, chairperson of Biocon biotechnology group, feels that iprs should be viewed as an opportunity to create an asset base.

Maran pointed out that the bill has provisions to deal with any crisis. It is aimed at safeguarding public health, and protecting traditional knowledge and bioreserves. However, noted lawyer Rajeev Dhawan has mentioned that no real attention has been paid to the 1993 Gujral committee's warning that trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights on patents in wto were inimical to India's interests. The new bill has mortgaged India's future on false premises and uncertain promises, he warns.

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