The battle for ayurveda: India is racing to record the details of its traditional medicine
By Andrew Buncombe
Published: 23 November 2007
They range from the everyday to the decidedly obscure, from items with a specific, specialised use to those with a host of applications. Their common heritage is one of the world's oldest cultures, and their details are being gathered together to guard against theft by the West.
For several years the Indian authorities have been collating information about hundreds of thousands of plants, cures, foods and even yoga poses to create a vast digital database of traditional knowledge dating back to up to 5,000 years ago, available in five international languages. Now, the first part of that database – relating to ayurveda or traditional Indian medicine – has been completed and it is set to launch the fight back against what some have termed "bio-colonialism".
"The ayurveda part has been completed," said Dr Vinod Gupta, the chairman of India's National Institute for Science Communication and Information Resources (Niscair), which is overseeing the project. "Now we are negotiating an agreement with international patent offices [for access to this database]."
The database, totalling more than 30 million pages and known as the Traditional Knowledge Data Library, has come about for one very simple reason: to prevent Western pharmaceutical giants and others using this traditional Indian information to create a product for which they then obtain a patent.
The danger of such "misappropriation" is all too real. In 1994 an American company was granted a patent for a product based on the seeds of the need tree, an item that had for centuries been used in India as an insecticide. It took the Indian authorities more than 10 years to have the patent overturned. Similar battles were fought over a product based on the spice turmeric – traditionally used to heal wounds – as well as a Texan company's attempt to trademark its strain of rice as "Texmati".
"In 2000 we did a study of the US patent database. We found there were 4,986 patents for products based on medicinal plants," said Dr Gupta. "Of those around 80 per cent were based on plants from India ... 50 percent of those patents should never have been given – there was no change to the traditional knowledge."
Under international guidelines, patents should not be given if it is shown there is "prior knowledge" or existing information about the product or item. In the United States – where many of the patent applications have been made – this prior existing knowledge is only recognised if the information has been written down. It does not consider information passed down for centuries by means of oral tradition to be valid.
Unlike many cultures from which traditional information has been misappropriated, India has an extensive written tradition. But most of the writing was in languages not widely read in the West. For example ayurvedic texts were written in Sanskrit or Hindi, writings about unani medicine – based on Ancient Greek practices now only practiced in the sub-continent – were in Arabic and Persian, while writings about another form of traditional medicine known as siddha was in the Tamil language.
To get around this challenge, Dr Gupta called in more than 100 practitioners of Ayurveda, siddha and unani to help compile the information using computer software. The database is being made available in Japanese, English, German, French and Spanish and the contents will be made available to patent officials once agreements on protecting the information and preventing it from being passed to corporations, are reached.
Also included within the database are more than 1,500 positions or asanas of yoga. This is because in recent years several yoga teachers in the West have tried to copyright methods of teaching yoga that they are argue are unique but which have existed for centuries in India.
One high-profile case involved Los Angeles-based Bikram Choudhury, the self-styled "yoga teacher to the stars". Mr Choudhury, who moved to America in the 1970s, first obtained a copyright for a book he wrote. But when other teachers began copying the way he taught yoga – with 26 specific poses performed in a room heated to 41C (105F) – he sought legal advice and was told to obtain a copyright for the moves themselves. It has been recognised by the US courts despite India's objections.
Dr Dinesh Katoch, an adviser on ayurveda within India's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, said more than 50,000 different ayurvedic formulations for treating everything from heart disease to memory loss had been entered into the database. Some of the information is mentioned in the Vedas, the ancient Hindu texts that date back several thousand years.
"We want to use this information for the global benefit but it should be done in a judicious way, not by stealing," he said, sitting in his office in central Delhi. "We want to prevent misappropriation. Prevention is the most important thing because it is not easy to repeal a patent."
In addition to the considerable cost incurred by the Indian authorities fighting patents they do not believe are genuine or fair, there is a widespread feeling that Western corporations should not be making vast profits from traditional knowledge while the people who discovered the information receive no benefit.
But campaigners say the misappropriation also has cultural and political implications. "I have termed it bio-colonialism," said Vandana Shiva, an Indian environmental activist and author.
"The international intellectual property laws as promoted by the World Trade Organisation [WTO] promote bio-colonialism because while they say there should be a global system to patent everything, the reality is that patent inspection is done at a national level. If you want to have a global system you have to have global inspection," she said. "This would involve setting up a global database. This will take a decade and cost billions of dollars."
* Arjuna Tree
The bark is a traditional Ayurvedic herbal cure for a variety of ills and is now widely used throughout the world as a high-blood pressure treatment. It is thought to improve the function of the cardiac muscle and to stabilise cholesterol levels, and it contains anti-oxidant properties.
* Basmati Rice
Authentic basmati rice is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas and the Indian government has tried hard to protect the grain. A patent granted by the US Patent Office to a local company for new strains of rice similar to basmati was revoked after a legal battle with the Indian government.
It is grown mostly in Bengal and other areas of south-east Asia but, in addition to a curry spice, it can be used to heal wounds. In 1995, the US Patent Office granted a patent on its healing properties but Indian scientists protested and it was revoked.
This creeping herb is used in many Indian preparations and has gained global recognition for its ability to improve mental acuity and fight cognitive decay. It is thought that brahmi boosts the memory and has calming properties. In India, the plant is often used in salads and soups.
Jeremy Laurance: Little evidence, but much tradition
It is an ancient form of therapy with 5,000-year history and a string of modern celebrity followers but there is "no convincing evidence" that ayurvedic medicine works.
Enthusiastically promoted by users including Cherie Blair, Madonna, Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow, ayurveda has become more of a brand than a treatment in the West. There are ayurvedic recipes and it embraces meditation, diet, yoga and herbal medicine, as well as featuring a lexicon that defines consciousness as the "dream state of the cosmic being".
Offered in hotels, spas and retreats, as well as in the charitable Ayurvedic hospital in west London, its underlying principle is that the body and mind must be maintained in balance. Ayurvedic medicines are combinations of different herbs, tailor-made for each individual, which are given to correct imbalances that would otherwise lead to physical or psychological ill health.
In Britain, practitioners must undertake a three-year BSc degree course, followed by a 1,000-hour internship with an ayurvedic doctor, in order to be registered with the British Association of Ayurvedic Practitioners. They charge £50-60 on the first occasion and around £30 for follow-up appointments.
Despite the long training, scientific peer-reviewed evidence for the effectiveness of what ayurvedic practitioners do is scant. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee investigation into alternative medicine concluded in 2005 that the case for ayurvedic medicine was "not proven".
Some studies have suggested that certain herbal combinations may be effective for heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Triphala, the most popular ayurvedic remedy in India, made from the powdered and dried fruit of threeplants and taken as an aid to digestion, has been shown to slow cancer growth in mice.
Max Pittler, deputy head of the department of complementary medicine at Exeter University said: "There may be individual trials that suggest certain herbal combinations may be effective but there is no really convincing body of evidence that specific ayurvedic mixtures have specific effects. There is no good evidence that it is beneficial.
All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!!!