Seeking patents for indigenous products abroad has never been India's strong point. Right under her nose, the US granted patents on neem and turmeric, two products which are household names in the country. Predictable was the din raised by concerned NGOs who demanded that the government take suitable steps to arrest India's wealth from being frittered away cheaply in the global market. And therein lies the crux of the issue.

To date, the Indian political scenario has been such that different parties have been unable to project a unanimous viewpoint on the issue of intellectual property rights (IPR). The Indian government is under obligation to the World Trade Organization (WTO)-Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Articles 70 (8) and (9) to amend its Patent Act of 1970 so that it can meet international requirements.

The Patent Amendment Bill of 1995 was a step in this direction. It, however, ran into rough weather after opposition parties rejected it. But now with the US threatening to take India to task for non-compliance of TRIPS agreement, the new government has initiated face-saving tactics.

The United Front government has begun drafting a new Patent Amendment Bill and will enlist the support of various political parties to arrive at a consensus. The Bill will be introduced in the near future and should help Indian firms shield their own drugs .

Meanwhile, in a related development, the chairperson of India's Dr Reddy Laboratories, observed that Indian drug companies stand a good chance of clinching at least 10 per cent of the nearly US $30 billion market, as a number of pharmaceutical patents will expire by the year 2000 in the US. Indian firms can thus fill this gap and market their own produce. Again, it hinges on the government to honour its vow made to the WTO on pushing through a patent law.