India's centuries-old traditional knowledge, preserved and orally
passed down through generations of households, is now going digital.
Over the coming months, India will unveil a first-of-its-kind
encyclopedia of 30 million pages, containing thousands of herbal
remedies and eventually everything from indigenous construction
techniques to yoga exercises.
The project represents a 21st-century approach to safeguarding
intellectual property of the ancient variety. The Traditional
Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) aims to prevent foreign
entrepreneurs from claiming Indian lore as novel, and thus patenting
"We do not want anyone selling our own knowledge to us," says
Ajay Dua, a top bureaucrat in the Department of Industrial Policy
and Planning, which oversees intellectual-property rights. "Also, we
would like anyone using our traditional knowledge to acknowledge
that it is from India."
These concerns are not unfounded. In the past decade, India has
fought several costly legal battles to get patents revoked. The
impetus for TKDL came in 1997, after India successfully managed to
get a US patent on the wound-healing properties of turmeric revoked.
"This patent claimed the wound-healing properties as a novel
finding, whereas practically every Indian housewife knows and uses
it to heal wounds," says R. A. Mashelkar, chief of the Council for
Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
The innovative idea to translate and digitize all the available
information on traditional medicine was a collaborative effort of
bureaucrats, scientists, and intellectual-property lawyers.
"It was a way to prevent more patents from being granted. Also,
it was a way of throwing the information open to the public because
this traditional wealth is for the benefit of mankind," says
Rajeshwari Hariharan, a partner at K&S Partners, the law firm that
represented India in several high-profile patent cases, including
its fight over basmati rice, turmeric, and the antibacterial
properties of the neem [margosa] leaf.
Of about 5,000 patents on plant-based formulations granted by the
US in 2000, 80 percent were on plants of Indian origin, says Vinod
Gupta, with the National Institute for Science Communication and
Mr. Gupta heads a team of 150 doctors, scientists, and
information-technolgoy experts who have worked on the TKDL project
since 2002. Poring over ancient medical texts and punching code into
computers in Delhi, they have already documented more than 110,000
formulations culled from some 100 texts belonging to the three
principal systems of traditional medicine - ayurveda, unani, and