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Safeguarding India’s ancient wisdom

India has a wealth of traditional knowledge and resources. How shall we protect them from infringement and theft? The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) been able to check the piracy of ancient wisdom related to medicinal plants cost-effectively. Other developing countries whose traditional knowledge (TK) is being plundered want to replicate the idea.

TKDL, a collaborative project of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy, is situated in Ghaziabad, U.P. It uses the tools of information technology and a novel classification system to make available traditional medical knowledge to patent offices in major developed countries so that what was known for centuries in India is not patented by unscrupulous individuals, companies and research organisations as something they claim to have discovered or invented by themselves.

Biopiracy, or misappropriation of TK is rampant, not just in India but in a host of countries rich in bioresources across the African and Latin American continents. The TK of 110 developing countries is vulnerable to theft and capture. Initially, TK documentation lacked a rigorous classification system. Vinod Kumar Gupta, who set up TKDL, devised a modern classification based on the structure of International Patent Classification (IPC) for India’s traditional systems: Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and Yoga.

This knowledge, found in Sanskrit, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Arabic, Persian and Urdu texts, is inaccessible and incomprehensible to patent examiners overseas, even to many in India. The focus of TKDL was on breaking the language and format barriers by scientifically converting and structuring the available TK in IPC. The novel classification system which was developed, the Traditional Knowledge Resource Classification (TKRC), has resulted in a fundamental reform of IPC by enhancing the TK segment from one sub-group to 207 sub-groups, thus enabling effective search and examination process.

The knowledge culled from ancient Indian texts is stored in 34 million A4 size pages and translated into five foreign languages. Now, Sanskrit slokas can be read in Japanese, English, Spanish, German and French languages by examiners in international patent offices on their computer screen.

TKDL has signed access and non-disclosure agreements with the Indian and seven other global patent offices. This ensures near-foolproof security for our invaluable bioresources against piracy. All of this required not just high-end technology but also skills of a high technical order. And there were people with knowledge of ancient texts, modern medicine and technical terms of foreign languages. This was a tremendous exercise of global proportions and the price for this unique propriety system was Rs. 16 crore.

In the last three years, TKDL has identified 1,000 cases of biopiracy of India’s TK. In 105 cases, patent claims were withdrawn or cancelled by the patent offices which gave the patents — decisions that were effected in just 4-5 weeks at no cost to India. All that is required is an e-mail to the relevant patent office.

This is the biggest benefit for India, which cannot afford huge legal fees in fighting biopiracy. That is also the case with time. For instance, it cost the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) seven years and Rs 7.62 crore in legal fees to fight the intellectual property rights battle for basmati rice. The adjacent graphic gives crucial data on this.

If one goes by the data in the above graphic, it would cost India close to $200 billion to defend and protect 2,50,000 formulations already listed in TKDL.

A recent study has revealed that there has been as much as a 44-per-cent decline in patent claims filed on Indian systems of medicine. This is what probably prompted the Government of Peru to publicly declare its intention of setting up an institution similar to our own TKDL.

TKDL protects about a quarter million Indian formulations culled from our ancient texts. Now it also includes videos of the most common yoga postures. This is a response to the national furore over the increasing number of patents being granted in the West for yoga exercises.

(The author is former Professor, National Science Foundation and can be contacted at

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Printable version | Jan 15, 2021 2:27:07 AM |

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