Bitter truth

FOR generations, Indian peasants have sworn by neem and counted its blessings while using it's leaves, branches and extracts either as pesticide or toothbrush. And now, it has come as a bolt from the blue that a foreign chemical company -- the us-based W R Grace -- has acquired a patent in 1992, granting exclusive rights over a pesticide extract of neem which has recently come to light.

But M D Nanjundaswamy, of the Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha, claims this to be unjustified. He has joined hands with Jeremy Rifkin, president, Foundation On Economic Trends, Washington, to legally challenge the "plundering" company. The Foundation has mobilised a global coalition of more than 200 organisations from 40 nations, and together they have filed a formal petition with the us Patent and Trademark Office, charging that Grace relied on "prior art" or knowledge available before, and therefore its patent should be revoked. "This is nothing but genetic colonialism. It is an effort by multilateral corporations to reap windfall profit off native inventions and discoveries. It is a critical test for the intellectual property rights laws set up by the World Trade Organisation," thunders Jeremy Rifkin.

However, Indian experts are convinced that the coalition is making much ado about nothing. "First of all, it is being made out as if Grace has obtained patent on neem. This is absolute nonsense. No one can claim exclusive rights over a product of nature," explains Anil K Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, who has researched extensively on natural resource management.

Patent can be claimed over a product on 3 grounds: if a new compound is discovered; if a new method or technique is used to develop a product about which prior knowledge was available, and if a new use of the product is discovered. W R Grace has patented a unique formulation which includes azadirachtin, the neem extract. It extends the pesticide's shelf-life and effectiveness. So one may say that Grace has developed a new method, and therefore obtaining a patent on it is perfectly justified, reasons Gupta.

Grace is using a process little different from the traditional one used for at least 2,500 years: grinding the neem seeds, immersing them in water and spraying the resulting emulsion on crops. Now Grace is claiming exclusive rights on this indigenous process to gloss profits, alleges the coalition.

Denying all allegations in a September 14 statement, Martin Sherwin, vice president of the company asserts that the Grace patent is very specific, covering a formula for stabilising azadirachtin, making it effective upto 2 years. Traditionally made, azadirachtin loses potency within days. So Grace's patent is unique, argues Sherwin.

Grace-baiters, however, call this unique "storage method" a suspect. "Villagers in India have never needed to store these pesticide...because they usually apply it the following day," states the petition.

"I have come to know only a week back that some Indian companies like Spic and Godrej have also obtained patents on various extracts of neem. And most alarmingly, Grace has recently set up a branch in Bangalore," said Nanjundaswamy who now plans to launch offensives from homeground.

Meanwhile, Anil Gupta remains unconvinced. "What are they fighting for? Grace is not encroaching on anyone else's territory. Indian farmers can continue to produce their pesticides in their traditional way and sell them as they did before," he maintains.