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Monday, June 3, 2002

Ayurveda for all, courtesy Net
Ajoy Sen

INDIA is said to grow over 2,000 medicinal plants. Just a few other countries, like China, equal India's wealth of herbs and medicinal plants. The world's annual herbal trade is estimated to be around $60 billion. Of this, China's share is $7.5 billion. India's share, as things stand, is a paltry $0.4 billion.

But there is an explanation for India's fractional share in the world's herbal trade. According to V.K. Gupta, Director, National Institute of Science Communication, people in other parts of the world do not know about Ayurveda and are unlikely to know about its remedial effectiveness without an effort on India's part to disseminate the knowledge of Ayurveda everywhere.

The Ayurveda system is available only in Sanskrit. And like much else in Sanskrit, including philosophy, grammar, linguistics and the rest, the entire Ayurveda system has been put in verse, in slokas. The slokas are said to have been written over 3,000 years ago by rishis, saints and holy men.

The slokas of the Ayurveda system list some 35,000 herbal processes and formulations in relation to remedies for various diseases. During the last few decades, these slokas have been collected in nearly 54 authoritative textbooks. The translation of some into Hindi were actually available. But it was medieval Hindi, and even Hindi-speakers were unable to quite make out what precisely was intended.


But this handicap is about to be removed. Gupta said in course of conversation that the "language barrier" which had prevented wider dissemination of Ayurvedic thought and practice would soon be curbed considerably. In April, this year the Indian authorities announced a new project called the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library. The classical Ayurvedic herbal formulations are to be translated into simple Hindi and five major international languages, and then are to be moved to Websites so that they are available to the world at large.

Come December, many persons in the world would be able to access India's rich Ayurvedic heritage, crossing the language barrier: the access would not be to what was written in original Sanskrit but to authoritative translations in most languages of global speech and communication. This will not, however, be the only outcome of disseminating Ayurvedic system and formulate in easily understandable translations.

There should be a welcome effect on the piracy that is now taking place on a fairly large scale. The likelihood of further increase in piracy cannot be ruled out unless quick remedial measures are taken, officials say.

Official sources reveal that a large number of individual and groups - including some multinational corporations - who had obtained verses published in easily purchasable Ayurvedic textbooks had brazenly claimed the formulae to be as their own. They not only concealed the fact that they had lifted the cures and formulae from Ayurvedic textbooks but also concealed that these formulae and cures constitute prior art, prior material and formulations that have comedown to a society from ancient times as a part of heritage.

Usually, it seems, patent literature is contained almost wholly in various distinctive databases. It becomes relatively easy to search and retrieve. But consideration of 'patentability' in patent-applications relating to prior art - which original slokas are - may be difficult to discern in many diverse sources. This kind of difficulty increases almost to the extent of impossibility when the language in prior art is a classical ancient language and therefore tends to be obstructive. It is pointed out that information in the Sanskrit language is not easily and fully available to either European Patent Office or the US Patent and Trademark Office.

The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library will make available to patent examiners in Europe, the USA and elsewhere the precise translation of the prior art of Ayurveda in easy and eminently understandable form. This should remove the hurdle of language ignorance that allows patent examiners as of now to let pass patent applications for lack of reference material to fully check the subject matter of the application. The digital library will tap the relevant key on the computer keyboard to bring up the particular disease for which the application claims a remedial formula. Simultaneously, along side on the screen, will appear the relevant Ayurvedic remedial processes and formulae for curing disease. The process will, it is said, appear in the original Sanskrit form. But a translation in any of the six languages selected - English, French, Hindi, German, Spanish and Japanese - will be simultaneously available.

This will include modern botanical names of plants and herbs mentioned in the Sanskrit original. The computer screen will display a maze of tables, charts of formulae and processes, and photographs in colour of plants and herbs in India.

It is pointed out that the World Intellectual Property Organisation at present has no database of India's traditional works and knowledge. For this reason, the digital library proposes to provide a DVD to each of the 170 patent offices all over the world. This should fill the kind of gap that leads India to complain constantly that a large number of patents on plant products have been granted wrongly because such original Indian products exist in the public domain. In a number of instances, India filed cases in court and was able to successfully counter the patent decision - for example, in the cases of turmeric basmati rice. The US Patent and Trademark had allowed these patents. The European Patent Office had also granted a patent on the neem plant which India succeeded in getting cancelled.

The digital library will, among other places, be hosted at the Geneva based World Intellectual Property Office. There would thereafter, be no excuse for anyone to claim patents on India's ancient prior art processes and formulae. In addition, the digital library proposes to document the knowledge existing in the public domain. It will do so by sifting and collating traditional knowledge available in classical writing on Ayurveda techniques and analysis. Among other things, this should help in spreading knowledge about Ayurveda and its methods and philosophy.

As things are, the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library is already gaining some measure of international recognition and acceptance. This is evident from the fact that India has been included in the specialised task force -along side the USA, the European Patent Office, the International Bureau and China-which the World Intellectual Property Organisation constituted in February 2001 to address the need of international patent classification. Asia Features