Deepmala 1 – Each Little Action Matters

Very few people know that the famous ‘Second Haldighati Ladhai’ as it is known now, when India fought the battle over the patent on turmeric with United States Patent Office, and won, has its roots in a small incident that happened about ten years ago in Pune.

I, along with my wife, mother and son were sitting on the terrace of our house in Pune in the evening of a hot summer. Suddenly a bird came from nowhere and fell in front of us. Its wing was broken. My mother ran downstairs and brought some turmeric powder, made a paste out of it, and applied it to the bird. She never even thought for a moment as to whether the treatment of wound healing by application of turmeric, which works so well with human beings, will work with a bird. I suppose this tendency to treat the entire human and animal kingdom as one is deep rooted in our Indian faith. Anyhow, the poor bird died within two hours or so. All of us had fallen in love with the bird in the meantime. We all cried. We gave the bird a grand burial in our garden with tearful eyes. That incident remained etched in my memory for ever.

These memories came back to me in 1997, when I saw that America had granted a patent on the wound healing properties of turmeric. I was surprised. A patent is granted only when the conditions of novelty, non-obviousness and usefulness are fulfilled. Whatever is governed by prior knowledge cannot be given a patent. I decided to challenge the patent on the grounds that its use was well known in India.

We submitted all the evidence, including from our ancient Sanskrit literature, and finally US did revoke the patent. This was the first time that the third world had fought for its rights on its traditional knowledge with the mighty US, and had actually won.

This victory was later inspired the victory on patents on Neem and Basmati. There was a great deal of churning and thinking in the World Intellectual Property Organisation. The US and other developed countries realised the mistakes they were making. It has been now decided that the traditional knowledge of the developing world would be respected on par with the industrial property based knowledge. It will also find a place in the standard international patent classification system so that no wrong patents will ever be claimed on the rich heritage of the third world. This second ‘Haldighati Ladhai’ thus has served a historic purpose.

What was particularly touching for me was that this news of our winning the battle on turmeric reached some 400 tribes in Amazon, thousands of miles away. A wrong patent was given by US on some of their knowledge also. They also got confidence from India’s win and fought with the US in 1999. They also won.

Prof. Gangadhar Gadgil, in one of the felicitations that I had in Bombay, had asked me as to whether it was my department’s job to fight this case. I said ‘NO’ ‘Why did you fight then?’. I ‘said because I am an Indian. Someone had to fight against the injustice done to India. I decided to do it rather than waiting for others to do it’.

I believe there is a lesson here. Each individual action, no matter how small it is, helps. It is like dropping a little stone in the pond. Little ripples get created. They can sometimes take the form of waves. They reach far and beyond, just as this little Indian act inspired the tribes from far away Amazon. You never know what the impact of that little action of youth may be. I suggest that each one of us should do our own bit to bring justice and equity to this world, rather than for others to do it. It will make a world of difference. For sure, it will make a far better and a far greater India.