|SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY|
War against biopiracy
Kangra: the quake of the century after a century
Kangra: the quake of the century after a century
Prof Yash Pal
War against biopiracy
It was indeed a major triumph for the Third World’s no-holds-barred battle against the rampant and widespread biopiracy and India’s long-standing endeavour to protect its indigenous and rich knowledge base from the clutches of the predatory commercial interests.
After scoring a decisive victory in the historic turmeric patent case, India has now notched up a well-deserved victory in the decade-long legal battle in the patent covering the use of neem as fungicide. And when in early March this year the European Patent Office in Munich dismissed the appeal against revoking a patent it had granted way back in 1995 to the US Department of Agriculture and the multinational W.R.Grace, it was described as a significant step towards obviating the "misuse of the traditional knowledge of the Third World that has always been in the public domain".
In fact, this patent was revoked in the year 2000 after India mounted a legal challenge. However, the never-say-die patent holders went in appeal against the patent revocation. As it is, the documentary evidence produced by India, including research done by two scientists prior to 1995 on the use of neem known for its medicinal properties and fungicidal characterstics, tipped the scale against the patent holders who were far from willing to give up a commercially lucrative patent.
According to Dr Vandana Shiva, Director of the New Delhi based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology who along with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement and the Green Party in the European Parliament challenged the patent, "It was a pure and simple piracy. The oil from neem has been used traditionally by Indian farmers to prevent fungus. It was neither a novel idea nor was it invented. It is a major victory that the appeal has been finally dismissed". Going ahead Dr Shiva expressed the optimism that with this development such patents will no longer "be a threat to the traditional users".
The slender and fast growing neem tree which can withstand extreme climatic and environmental conditions has from time immemorial remained an inseparable part of the sociocultural milieu of the folk tradition of India. Hailed as the remover of all ills, various parts of this tree have been used in ancient Indian pharmocopia and the traditional healing system of Ayurveda.
The extract of the neem tree and its bark is known as an antidote to infections, inflammation and a variety of stomach ailments. A report from the US based National Research Council (NRC) states that the tree can usher in new era of pest control, provide millions with inexpensive medicine, cut down the rate of human growth, reduce soil erosion, deforestation and the excessive temperature of our overheated planet.
A series of experiments carried out by the US Department of Agricultural Research at Beltsville in Maryland has revealed the outstanding effects of neem extracts against numerous species of destructive insects and fungi. Of the thousands of plant extracts used, neem was adjudged the best.
According to Dr N.A. Madhyastha, a noted bilogist, most of the MNCs collaborate with various non-government organisations, institutions and academic centres in the country for research projects. They provide enough funds for the projects dealing with bioresources. In turn, MNCs get authentic information on bioresources.
Stressing the need for a people’s biodiversity register, he says: "We know only 10 per cent of bioresources on large scale", says Dr Madhyastha.
He is of view that indigenous knowledge (IK) plays a vital role in developing people’s biodiversity register. IK, he observes is a sophisticated knowledge base developed over generations by local communities in various parts of the world.
But this is not the first victory for a Third World country in the war against biopiracy. Way back in 1997, the United States Patent and Trademarks Office (USPTO) was forced to cancel a patent it had granted in 1995 to two researchers from the University of Mississippi Medical Centre, USPTO was told in inequivocal terms that Indians have always considered traditional knowledge the property of the community and should not be seized by the profit-hungry commercial interests.
This controversial patent was awarded to two Indian-born scientists Soman K. Das and Hari Har P. Cohely for developing an original method of healing wounds through treatment based on turmeric powder which is also used as a dye and as spice in the curries.
For centuries Indians have been using turmeric powder for treating wounds, boils and other types of infections. India made it clear to USPTO that novelty and originality are important factor for considering an innovation for the award of a patent.
Commenting on this Dr R.A. Mashelkar, Director General of the New Delhi based Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which challenged the patent said, "This is a development of far-reaching significance for the protection of traditional Indian knowledge based in the public domain. This has been an emotional issue not only to the people of India but also to other Third World countries."
According to UNDP, the Third World is losing billions of dollars every year on plant and animal genetic resources through biopiracy. On its part, the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) has petitioned the Indian Government to enact laws for mandatory transfer of biological material by the developed countries after the expiry of the patent or through compulsory licensing. Further, FICCI has driven home the point that the complete control exercised by developed countries over biological materials such as yeast, bacteria and other micro-organisms for expressing various biotech products puts countries like India in a spot.
From ambassador cars to TATA trucks that were kept working by their mechanics long past their time, to second-hand markets where televisions, typewriters, printers and other components are repeatedly repaired, recycled for another innings, the innovative practices of "jugaad" are an integral part of India’s market cultures.
Indians are inventive in the street, but can this tradition of practical innovation help the country become a global leader in technology designing?
"Used in India", an exhibition tries to answer this. It curates media devices designed and used in India, to explore the nature of street innovation, production and social exchange in India.
"India is a highly creative society. Nothing is discarded, everything is innovatively used,.. through this exhibition we are trying to bring out the design talent in India, how inspiration can be taken from street models to create new designs," says Aditya Dev Sood, CEO, CKS, a user research and interactive design group, which is organising this exhibition in the capital this week.
Citing one such example, he says one exhibit tells the story of Kannada film posters which are printed in colour on lithographic press. A single poster costs just Rs 1.30p, but are a unique example of good economics, keeping an old technology alive and maintaining quality.
Another model exhibits an old television model with no remote but how a middle income class family tries an innovative method and uses electric wires to turn the TV on and off.
Some innovation has started coming in fashion designing, where Indians are making their mark through their designs but not in rest of technology fields. "Through this exhibition, which is a part of the global Doors of Perception Conference here, designers from India and abroad can take inspiration from street vendors, learning from their techniques," says Sood.
"The dirty ‘jugaad’ or fix holds great potential as far as solving everyday problems go. And it can help design technologies which are cheap and offer solutions to little-little problems," he says.
The exhibition has also tried to analyse user behaviour to study these innovations. It is infact a tribute to the tech-savvy consumer in India, who is so innovative.
"People proudly display such innovations in their homes, they (TVs with electric wire acting as remote) are decorated and even Viswakarma Puja performed on them," says Sood, adding it is because of these factors that India has become such a challenge for technology majors from all over the world.
"India and China are most
important emerging markets for technology in the world today. But
Indian consumers are more family oriented, more socially connected and
more innovative in fixing, repairing and reusing technology. These are
the cultural factors that technology houses must be aware of when they
are trying to serve this part of the world," notes Sood. — PTI
Kangra: the quake of the century after a century
Kangra earthquake happened a hundred years back on April 4, 1905. Lady Curzon had a narrow brush with a falling chimney while asleep at Shimla. 20,000 others were not that lucky. We could afford a Kangra then with no mammoth projects like Bhakra, Pong, Chamera…
Over the century Kangra quake has been downgraded from 8.6 to 7.8. Can we manage even a 7.8 quake again in this region? Have we been seismically wise? No one wants to lose sleep thinking of this scenario. God delay our moment of truth but it looks we have not given a damn to seismology while making all our dams and concrete jungles. Given the corruption scenario in our construction, God really needs to be extra kind in this abode of Lord Shiva.
Close to Chandigarh at Pinjore and Manimajra are some active faults (planes of weakness) where a rupture of up to 3.5 metre up and down movement occurred not many hundred years back. Right below Parwanoo we have MBF (the Main Boundary Fault); very close to Barog where so many hotels are peeping into the sky we have the Krol Thrust, Shimla is right over Jutogh Thrust. In the short term it might have looked wonderful going high, building these towns and cities but if Kangra had not been forgotten, we’d have gone slightly slower with development but surely safer.
Seismologists from all over the world gather at Palampur from April 4 to 6 to ponder over the Kangra quake and prognosticate about its future. Ours may be a unique country where the earthquakes are monitored by the meteorology department and not the Geological Survey. Hopefully, governments of HP and India (and even neighbouring States for Kangra shook beyond Roorkee, Rajasthan and upto Quetta) would become geology savvy and future generations would benefit from the exercise. Science ignored by administrators and town planners makes a matter of life and death.
Q. Since earthquakes cannot be predicted exactly, how can the damage and devastation caused by tsunami disaster be prevented or minimised?
A: When a large earthquake happens beneath an ocean floor it can change the level of the floor suddenly, raising or lowering it substantially. This produces a large disturbance in the sea. The size and energy of disturbance depends on the magnitude of the earthquake.
Most severe earthquakes occur near the subduction zones of the tectonic plates. A wave starts spreading out. The height of the wave might be only a few metres, but this wave is very different from the normal oceanic waves produced by the action of the wind on the surface. This wave involves the up and down movement of the whole column of the ocean above the affected zone that might be hundreds of kilometres in length.
The speed of the wave in the deep ocean is nearly the same as the cruising speed of a jetliner, namely 7-8 hundred kilometres per hour. In the middle of the ocean this wave might be seen and felt as a gentle swell and fall of the ocean surface and does not represent a major hazard to boats and ships. But it becomes dangerously high and devastating when it approaches the coast. This is the much-feared tsunami.
Every earthquake, even below the ocean floor does not produce a destructive tsunami. The vertical displacement of the ocean floor has to be large and extend over a long distance. The position of the focus below the floor also seems to make a difference. Much is still under investigation and the total behaviour is not yet fully understood.
The tsunami that produced so much death and destruction on Christmas day, 2004 followed a severe earthquake under the ocean near the northern tip of Sumatra. The strength of this earthquake was measured 9 on the Richter scale. The quake and the resulting tsunami caused more devastation and loss of life in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka than any other natural disaster in living memory.
The area where the earthquake occurred was considered to lie in an endangered zone by many geologists and other experts, even though the exact date and time of catastrophe could not be forecast. The strength of the quake could not have been predicted nor its location below the ocean. No one had thought that such a dangerous tsunami would result.
Let me now address the question of warning people about the presence and advance of a tsunami. Clearly this can be practical only for those who are some distance away from ground zero. The broad waves of tsunami travel a little more than 10 km a minute.
While these waves could be detected by specially designed synchronous satellites mandated to keep a watch, a more reliable method might be to locate several pressure sensors at the bottom of the ocean. These sensors would detect the periodic change in pressure produced by the variations of the water column height above caused by the passing waves. They would send the information up to floating buoys using ultrasound chirp signals. The buoys could be equipped to communicate through satellite communication with control, analysis and operational centres, which could then issue appropriate warnings to people in potential impact zones.
We have to remember though that the waves travel at a speed of over 10 km a minute and therefore the warning to the coast of Tamil Nadu for a tsunami originating near northern Sumatra will not be more than the time it takes to fly from there to here. We have also to plan for managing the traffic of fleeing people near the crowded coasts of our rapidly industrialising countries. It is clear, nevertheless, that many lives could be saved if such a system for detection and warning is put in place.
A few days ago there was another earthquake disaster rather close to the place the earlier one happened. The intensity of this quake was lower by a factor of 10. There was a fear of another tsunami and warnings were promptly issued. Though thousands of people died in the demolition arising from the quake, no significant tsunami waves were generated.
One should not assume that no
earthquake of this lower intensity could produce a tsunami, because
the depth and extent of the disturbance below the ocean floor also
make a difference. Furthermore, a tsunami is more likely when there is
a significant upward thrust or downward depression of the ocean floor.