by Ranjit Dev Raj
(IPS) NEW DELHI --
is enough to get Indians hot under
the collar. Curry, that fiery, condiment-laden sauce, so
essential to Indian cuisine, is in danger of falling to Japanese
There have been other overseas claimants to the ownership of curry. Not long ago, the British Tourist Authority (BTA) declared it Britain's national dish in acknowledgment of its phenomenal popularity among restaurant clientele in London.
But the BTA was never so proprietorial about curry as Hirayama Makoto and Ohashi Sachiyo -- two enterprising Japanese who have a patent application pending on the pungent preparation.
If granted, the patent could give them exclusive rights to the process of making curry: "by adding extracted spices to ingredients like cut and processed onions, heating the mixture, adding curry powder and heating until the mixture becomes viscous."
Devinder Sharma, an expert on food security and patent issues who blew the whistle on the Japanese, warns that such piracy of traditional knowledge is bound to increase in future thanks to poor initiatives by the Indian government.
"India and other developing countries desperately need to get their act together before the 'Millennium Round' of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle Nov. 30," Sharma said.
So far, the government's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has succeeding in getting cancelled patents taken out in the U.S. on turmeric (curcuma longa), a root used for centuries as 'grandma's remedy' for healing wounds.
from that singular success, which CSIR has been
crowing about, India has watched helplessly as patents were taken
out on processes and products drawn from this country's vast
storehouse of both traditional knowledge and biodiversity.
For example, no less that 70 patents have been granted on the products of the neem tree (azadirachta indica) which is native to Indian and whose uses range from the treatment of fever, snake-bits, leprosy and as a natural insecticide and disinfectant.
The piracy list is long and includes the vegetable 'karela' (bitter gourd) known to counter diabetes, urinary infection and arthritis but against which the New York University has taken out two patents already.
India's stakes are high because it happens to be one of the world's richest biodiversity hotspots with over 81,000 species of recorded fauna and 47,000 species of flora with 15,000 of the plant varieties unique to this country.
Most ordinary Indians became aware of the real threats posed by the patents regime, sought to be imposed under the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), when a U.S. company obtained, last year, patents on the famed 'basmati' variety of rice grown only in India and Pakistan.
They also became aware of the bumbling way in which the government has been handling the patents issue responsible for emboldening biopirates and patent buccaneers to lay outrageous claims to items whose origins were thought indisputable.
In the five years since the signing of the GATT agreement at Marrakesh, the government has lost substantial control over investment and trade with the space steadily getting occupied by transnational corporations (TNCs) and other interest groups.
India has been dragged to the WTO Dispute Panel on at least 20 occasions and lost most of the cases under what are called trade-distorting subsidies while it cannot afford expensive legal battles in developed countries.
Vandana Shiva of the independent, Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) has pointed out that the "theft of the basmati patent involved a theft of the intellectual and biodiversity heritage of Indian farmers and traders and a deception of consumers."
But the government has had to stand by while other glaring commercial thefts such as the use of the 'Darjeeling' label on tea which originated in countries far away from the Himalayan district where the genuine item grows.
With just two months to go before the Seattle ministerial round, the bureaucracy has finally begun preparatory work this week to formulate a negotiating stand which is expected to oppose current emphasis on the patents regime.
"Virtually nothing has been done by way of preparation for a meeting that would decide effectively whether India ranked among the poorest countries in the world would ever be able to move out of the poverty trap ..." complained Biplab Dasgupta a legislator and member of the Marxist Communist Party of India.
accused the government of deliberately steering away
from a national consensus on WTO issues and taking advantage of
the current political instability to formulate policies which may
not be in the country's best interests.
India is currently engaged in a five-week long election to vote into power its fifth government in three years - one which cannot be in office till the second week of October leaving little time for any meaningful debate on the issue.
Ideally, Dasgupta said, the election should have been used as an opportunity to initiate national debate on an issue which vitally concerns the people.
According to Dasgupta, it is important that India challenges the extension of patenting to life forms under the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement which has resulted in a rush of bioprospecting in developing countries by TNCs.
TRIPS is already in conflict with the Convention on Biodiversity since the latter asserts that intellectual property rights must not be in conflict with conservation and sustainable use use of biodiversity.
But India with its low 0.6 percent share in world trade has little real negotiating power and has so far failed to take along other countries, even its neighbors in South Asia, on issues of common interest such as basmati and jute and tea prices.
What is more, India's two main national parties, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the opposition Congress seem little inclined to put up a fight to protect India's economic interests.
In February, the two parties ensured passage of patent legislation which not only granted granted exclusive marketing rights to drug and agrochemical TNCs but also allowed them to poach on Indian traditional medicine. That legislation has since been challenged as unconstitutional in the Supreme Court.
Last October, Indian negotiators agreed to abide by the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property and Patent Cooperation Treaty, the UN patents agency, ignoring warnings by these groups.
This time the Indian delegation will reach Seattle without doing their homework thanks to the "criminal indifference, if not actual complicity with multinationals, on the part of the government," Dasgupta said.
September 27, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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