India’s Traditional Knowledge and the role of CSIR’s TKDL

India’s valuable S&T heritage spans diverse domains such as medicine, food, cosmetics, agriculture, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, astrology, chemical and physical sciences, among many more. The traditional knowledge, an important S&T heritage, has been passed on from generation to generation for over thousands of years. This ancient heritage is global knowledge that belongs to humanity and no single individual or entity can claim ownership and importantly, and in the process prevent others from using this traditional knowledge. While some knowledge is so integral and common in Indian homes, yet others are waiting to be read, validated and utilized.

In the mid-1990s, patents were granted on the turmeric’s wound healing properties, basmati rice lines and grains, and the fungicidal activity of neem, among others. The properties and uses for turmeric and neem are common knowledge in India and patents being granted on India’s traditional knowledge was unbelievable. To reiterate, these ‘inventions’ were by no way were either novel or inventive. By way of intellectual property rights granted to applicants from other countries, India stood to lose its rights on its own traditional knowledge and practices.

So, why and how did these happen? How was India to act on these misappropriations of its traditional knowledge? What were the gaps and how was India proposing to block this?

Answers to these lay on how patents, an intellectual property right is managed For patents to be granted, an invention should meet the criteria of novelty, inventive step and industrial applicability/utility. Patent applications are examined for these aspects from literature – patent and non-patent - already known in the public domain. Based on the prior-art information, the novelty and inventive steps are established. Intellectual property rights by way of patents are granted when prior-art does not exist, and this confers legal title to the grantee the exclusive right to make use of the said invention for the specific application in the granted region for a specific time period.

So, why was Indian traditional knowledge that is common knowledge in India not come up as prior-art to the aforesaid patent applications on turmeric, neem and basmati rice? Indian traditional knowledge including that in classical texts are not part of the prior-art literature that is referenced by patent examiners when assessing patent applications for grant. The additional complexity was that the Indian traditional knowledge is often in Indian languages which are not understandable and accessible to these examiners from patent offices world-wide.

When faced with grave situations, we often think the unthinkable and roll out solutions that often effectively alleviate the challenges. The Visionaries, Dr. Raghunath A. Mashelkar, the then DG, CSIR and Mrs. Shailaja Chandra, the then Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India spearheaded efforts to tackle the challenges of misappropriation of Indian traditional knowledge. Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) took its birth to address a grave situation— the misappropriation of Indian traditional knowledge.

An inter-disciplinary inter-ministerial task force was drawn under the Chairmanship of CSIR and experts from Department of ISM&H (now Ministry of AYUSH), Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion (DIPP, now Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade), Central Council of Research in Ayurveda & Siddha (CCRAS), Banaras Hindu University (BHU), National Informatics Centre (NIC), Controller General of Patents Design & Trade Marks (CGPDTM), among others. The task force recommended that the Indian traditional knowledge be transcribed in languages understandable to the patent examiners, and in a digital form that is accessible to patent offices across the world. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the European Patent Office (EPO) and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) played an important facilitative role.

The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, the first of its kind globally – an unprecedented intervention - was thus jointly established by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, Sowa Rigpa and Homoeopathy (AYUSH) in 2001.

The TKDL was set up as a prior-art database of Indian traditional knowledge, which can be referenced by patent examiners while assessing the patentability of inventions claimed in patent applications. The TKDL provides information of Indian traditional knowledge transcribed in five languages, namely, English, Japanese, French, German and Spanish, with the help of information technology tools and an innovative classification system - Traditional Knowledge Resource Classification (TKRC), yet again a first of its kind. The TKDL was envisioned to help overcome the language and format barriers by linking the western world to India’s traditional knowledge. The TKDL provides for the required legitimacy to the Indian traditional knowledge and confers protection to India’s traditional knowledge systems from those claiming intellectual property rights.

Today, the TKDL contains information of about four lakh formulations transcribed from the classical texts of the Indian systems of medicine namely Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani and Sowa Rigpa, and also yogasanas. As per the extant approvals of the government of India, the database access through specific non-disclosure access agreements is provided to thirteen patent offices globally that include European Patent Office, United State Patent & Trademark Office, Japan Patent Office, United Kingdom Patent Office, Canadian Intellectual Property Office, German Patent Office, Intellectual Property Australia, Indian Patent Office, Chile Patent Office, Malaysian Patent Office, Peru Patent Office and Russian Patent Office, and Spanish Patent and Trademark Office. The CSIR-TKDL Unit by pro-active monitoring of patent applications also files third party observations and pre-grant oppositions on those applications with relevance to Indian traditional knowledge. So far, outcomes in the form of patent revokement, amendment or withdrawal has been seen in 239 such applications.

Moving forward, CSIR aspires to create a valuable repository of Indian traditional knowledge systems through the TKDL. The TKDL continues to draw synergy from the complementarity of similar efforts by other organizations in the field such as the National Biodiversity Authority, Honey Bee Network, Asian Agri History Foundation, Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (CIKS), Centre for Development of Advanced Computing and others. The value proposition is also to position Indian traditional knowledge systems as a source of R&D and innovation. CSIR strongly believes that the inclusion of our Indian traditional knowledge systems as one of the driving forces will facilitate the required strategic transformations and lead us on the path of creating a New India, and for it to be a global S&T leader.

The CSIR commemorated two decades of Traditional Knowledge Digital Library on 25 Jan 2021. The event was celebrated through a webinar on “Two Decades of TKDL – Connecting to the Future”. The program was graced by Dr. Raghunath A. Mashelkar, Former DG, CSIR & Secretary, DSIR, Vd. Rajesh Kotecha, Secretary, Min of AYUSH, Shri Guruprasad Mohapatra, Secretary, DPIIT, Ms. Begona Venero, Sr. Counsellor, Traditional Knowledge Division, WIPO, Geneva, and Dr. Shekhar C. Mande, DG, CSIR and Secretary, DSIR. The dignitaries appreciating the uniqueness of the digital library, expressed that the future is be towards deriving immense value of Indian traditional knowledge through expansion of scope and role of the TKDL. The valuable contributions and support rendered by several experts drawn from diverse domains towards building this unique platform was duly acknowledged during the event.

Dr. Viswajanani J Sattigeri
Head, Traditional Knowledge Digital Library