Safeguarding India’s ancient wisdom
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 01 Nov 2012 1 Comment

In 1976 this author had presented an original research paper on the effectiveness of Indian neem (Azadirachta indica) in the International Colloquium on Plant Nutrition at the University of Gent, Belgium, detailing how crushed neem seeds enhance utilization of nitrogen (a very important and crucial plant nutrient needed for all crop plants in large quantities) from soil applied fertilizers like urea. Utilization of nitrogen by crop plants from applied nitrogen carrying fertilizers like urea in rice soils in the tropical countries, especially India, is very low. Only a third of applied nitrogen from the fertilizer is utilized by the crop.


More than two thirds is lost in the running water from rainfall. This was the case in most other tropical countries growing rice, like China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well. Every agricultural scientist was gripped by this problem, but none had the imagination to tackle it.  This was the trigger to conduct a series of experiments on the efficiency of Indian neem in Indian agriculture.


This research paper attracted huge enthusiastic response from the participants, most of whom were European and American. Subsequently, this research paper with more supporting experimental scientific data was published in the most prestigious international science journal, Journal of Agricultural Science, published from Cambridge, the science capital of the United Kingdom, in 1979. Again, the paper attracted huge scientific attraction from the global scientific community.


By early 1980 this author had changed his scientific pursuits when he received the renowned Alexander von Humboldt Senior Fellowship and moved to Germany. During a casual discussion with a German colleague, one was amazed to find that the Germans were keenly pursuing the utility of neem not only in agriculture, but medicine as well. A whole lot of scientific projects were being conducted all over Europe, and a World Neem Conference was planned in Germany. This author was amazed at the extreme interest of European researchers in Indian neem.


In the mid-1990s, when this author had returned to India, he came across a patent infringement case that took place in USA. An NRI Indian at the University of Mississippi in USA had applied for a patent on the curative properties of the Indian turmeric, claiming the finding as his own. The United States Patent & Trade Mark Office (USTPO) granted a patent on the basis of this claim. This author brought the patent infringement to the notice of the Indian government, and the then Director General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Dr R.A. Mashelkar took it upon himself to fight this theft and after a prolonged legal battle the US Patent was revoked.


As we all know, turmeric is the most invaluable and well known spice in not only in our diet, but in medicine also. Ayurveda chronicles all these properties. Indian curry, famous all over the world, contains turmeric as the main ingredient because our ancestors realized its medicinal and culinary properties. Even in prasadam the “Theyyam” gives is turmeric. This simply proves that turmeric is India’s age-old invaluable spice.  


All of the above shows that India has a wealth of traditional knowledge and traditional resources. How shall we protect them from infringement and theft by aliens? It is in this context that the “Traditional Knowledge Digital Library” (TKDL), a valuable tool in the battle against theft of India’s traditional knowledge (TK) comes into focus. For India, it has proved effective in checking the piracy of ancient wisdom related to medicinal plants in an extremely cost-effective manner. Other developing countries whose traditional knowledge (TK) is being plundered now want to replicate the idea.


What is TKDL?


TKDL is situated in Ghaziabad, near Delhi. It is a technology platform. It uses the tools of information technology and a novel classification system to make available the traditional medical knowledge of India to patent offices in the major developed countries so that what was known for centuries in India is not patented by unscrupulous individuals, companies and research organizations 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 bio-resources across the African and Latin American continents. This relates to ancient lore of healing and the use of plants in food and cosmetics. This treasure trove of knowledge is being plundered by a range of enterprises from multinationals to domestic companies and first time entrepreneurs for commercial profit by filling wrongful patents on known formulations.


TK of 110 developing countries is vulnerable to theft and capture. The TKDL documentation lacked a rigorous classification system. Mr. Vinod Kumar Gupta of Ghaziabad set up TKDL and devised a modern classification based on the structure of International Patent Classification (IPC) for India’s traditional systems of medicine and health: 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 on the International Patent Classification (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 and 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 almost complete fool proof security for our invaluable bio resources from pirating. 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 tag for this unique propriety system was about Rs 16 crores (around US $ 3 million, of which Rs 82 lakhs was spent as capital costs and the balance in recurring expenses, mainly salaries).  


How effective is this exercise? In the last three years, TKDL has identified 1000 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 time at no cost at all 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 – a minimum of US $ 500,000 in fighting wrong patent cases across the globe.


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 crores in legal fees (Rs 5.1 crore to a foreign legal firm) to fight the mala fide intellectual property rights on Indian Basmati rice. This sum does not include the overseas travel and administrative cost of the officials concerned, which could be equal to this sum. The following table gives crucial data on this


Global success against biopiracy

Country of patents

Where TKDL submitted

prior evidence



European patent offices



USA patent & trademark office



Canadian intellectual property rights office



UK patent office



Australian intellectual property office









Note: Patenting up to January 2012; Source: Traditional Knowledge Digital Library  


Going by the data in the above table, it would cost India close to US $ 200 billion to defend and protect 250,000 formulations already listed in TKDL. A recent study has revealed that there is as much as 44 per cent decline in patent claims filed on Indian systems of medicine. This probably prompted the Government of Peru to publicly declare its intention of setting up a similar institution as our own TKDL and to send its Foreign Minister to India to study the working of TKDL.


TKDL protects about a quarter million Indian formulations culled from our ancient texts. Its latest edition is yoga postures, and the TKDL has videos of the most common yoga postures. This is in response to the national furore over an increasing number of patents being granted in the West for yoga exercises.


It is high time Indians woke up to this very important development to safeguard our ancient wisdom so that the benefit comes to India and not to aliens. This author has over the last five years worked on an electronic book on the agronomy and economy of two invaluable spices of India – Turmeric and Ginger. The book illustrates hundreds of examples of the therapeutic and nutraceutical values (nutritional values) of turmeric and ginger, and will be an invaluable repository of knowledge for India. It has been published by Elsevier International, the world’s leading publisher in science and launched in London and all other world capitals. The trigger to compile this electronic book was on account of the pirating of turmeric’s medicinal properties by another NRI Indian in USA. It is the firm belief of this author that the ancient wisdom of India must rest with us and not aliens, so that we do not have to pay to benefit from our own heritage.


The author is former Professor, National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium and Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany and Chairman, Independent Expert Committee on Bt brinjal 

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