Daily Archives: 09/12/2008

Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (2008)

The catalyst


During the Second World War, in view of the snapping of communication lines, the colonial rulers asked the Indian government to take up the task of “supplying the technical equipment of a modern army”.

The government decided to conduct research under its own auspices, and more importantly, to fund scientific and industrial research in centres outside its system.

History chose the hour and the hour produced the hero. Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, then a professor at Punjab University, Lahore, was appointed the director of scientific and industrial research in 1940.

The same year an advisory board of scientific and industrial research was set up to receive and appraise research proposals from universities, industry and trade.

On March 12, 1942, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research was established, which was later transformed into a vehicle for industrial development by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The old timers would recall with a chuckle how Bhatnagar would meet Nehru during the latter’s morning walk, get approval for a new laboratory and have the paper work ready by the time office opened.


S.S. Bhatnagar

S.S. Bhatnagar

Bhatnagar held a number of important posts. He was secretary to the government in the ministry of natural resources and scientific research, secretary of atomic energy research and chairman of the University Grants Commission. 

He was a bridge between two cultures and two eras. He was a chemist as also the author of the ceremonial Sanskrit hymn of the Banaras Hindu University.

He was proud of the honours bestowed upon him by the British government while, as a government servant, he had the courage to publicly touch the feet of the Congress president in 1942.

If science was his passion, Urdu poetry was his refuge.

 Quick take

Q: Bhatnagar was an avid writer. What did he write?
 Urdu poetry

Q: What was his reaction when he learnt about plagiarism by a fellow professor in BHU?
 He leapt on him and gave him a good drubbing

Q: Who called his association with Jawaharlal Nehru the “Nehru-Bhatnagar Effect”?
 Sir C.V. Raman

He was greatly influenced by the Brahmo Samaj in his formative years.He was very attached to his wife, Lajwanti. A romantic at heart, he nursed the hope that he would take to farming after retirement and his wife would bring him lunch and a pot of butter milk in the fields.

— The author is former director of the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies

Patently Unfair: Third World Should Uphold Traditional Knowledge (2004)

THE LEADER ARTICLE: Patently Unfair: Third World Should Uphold Traditional Knowledge
 Rajesh Kochhar

 Times of India 27 Nov 2004
The Indian government’s success some years ago in the revocation of a 1995 patenton turmeric is significant not so much for what it accomplished as for what it drew attention to. The revoked patent in itself was particularly silly. Through it two expatriate Indian medical scientists working in an American university sought to project themselves as the discoverers of the time-tested wound-healing properties of turmeric. It is not clear what these worthies hoped to achieve. They could not possibly have made money out of their patent. They could not possibly have prevented an American from sprinkling turmeric powder on his wounds. Perhaps they thought the patent would look good on their curriculum vitae. 

When challenged, the two resorted to downright chicanery, trying to make a distinction between powder and paste, and use with and without honey. India was able to produce before the US patent office written proof ranging from modern scientific publications to ancient Ayurvedic texts which showed that the patent lacked novelty. London-based intellectual property specialist Graham Dutfield has pointed out that if India had argued that the “invention” was common knowledge in India, it would have lost the case. This is so because the US recognises undocumented public know-ledge as prior art only within its own territorial boundaries; foreign countries must bring written proof. Because of its ancient tradition, colonial rule and Indo-Europeanism, part of India’s traditional knowledge (TK) has been put down in writing. Much TK in India and the world at large remains undocumented. Ancient texts were not composed to withstand the scrutiny of modern patent attorneys. Bangalore-based legal expert Sangeeta Udgaonkar believes that it is merely a matter of time before clever attorneys devise ways of so wording patent applications as to bypass the available databases. 

Documentation of TK is certainly a good idea. It advances the cause of science and may prevent brazen misuse of TK. Yet it remains a defensive measure and is thus inadequate. Databasing whole world’s TK is such a gigantic task that it would require intellectual and financial resources of the advanced countries. And it is these very countries from which TK is sought to be protected! 

How do we define novelty? When the world was Euro-centric it was easy to do so: What Europe did not know before was new. In 1738, William Champion, “the first European to produce metallic zinc”, was granted a patent even though the process was known to have been brought from Asia. (It was invented in the Aravali Hills 2000 years ago.) However, 100 years previously, in 1608, Europe refused to grant a patent on telescope to Hans Lipperhey “on the ground that it is evident that several others have knowledge of the invention”. By the same logic, in today’s decentralised world, where the political agenda of science and techno-logy is not overtly supported by state, if knowledge is prevalent anywhere it should not be possible to patent it at all. 

It is noteworthy that in the last decade since the time of the revoked patent more than 200 turmeric patents have been granted to inventors from many countries, including India. None of these have been challenged. Most are unchallengeable, dealing as they do with medical and pharmaceutical properties of turmeric’s active ingredients. 

Today, hitherto marginalised traditional knowledge in vital areas of food and healthcare is being molecularised for incorporation into the broad stream of modern science. There is an urgent need to re-examine the concept of a non-obvious or an inventive step. If traditional knowledge provides the initial clue, mere use of sophisticated instrumentation to “unlock” the chemical secrets of plants should not constitute an invention

Today, Third World countries are as confused about their TK resources as the Indian political leaders were about their goals before the advent of Mahatma Gandhi on the Indian scene. The pre-Gandhi leadership could not decide whether it should challenge the colonial empire’s might and incur its wrath or jump on the imperial bandwagon for small favours. Gandhiji resolved the dilemma by squarely placing the colonial powers on the defensive on ethical grounds. In a similar manner Third World needs a joint ethical stand on TK. 

There are practical considerations to support this stand. Third World countries are inherently incapable of protecting their TK. They have become aware of its value only because of the scientific advancement in the West. TK does not recognise political boundaries. It should be viewed as a global heritage. If any organisation exploits TK commercially, it should pay royalty into a global fund meant for the welfare of world’s poor people. Patent laws the world over were enacted to protect local interests and deal with mechanical contraptions. They are grossly inadequate to meet the demands of globalisation and requirements of new biology. In 1738 what is now USA was earnestly appealing to England to grant recognition to Thomas Godfrey, the first- ever inventor of the sextant. Haughtily, London refused. The US has come a long way since. Now that the US has emerged as the solitary world power, its laws should also evolve. It must take the lead in amending its antiquated and parochial patent laws to truly reflect the spirit of a global world. Traditional knowledge of the world does not need individual fire-fighters, no matter how brave. It requires an ethical 
security ring. 

(The author is director, NISTADS.)

Ramachandra Gandhi : A reminiscence (2007)


The enigma that was Ramu

Rajesh Kochhar

Indian Express, 25 July 2007

Ramachandra Gandhi would have suggested a correction to his obituaries. He was not Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, but Mohandas’s. The distinction was lost on most, leaving Ramu with a heavy burden. Not that he minded it. Only that he had a sufficiently high opinion of himself to demand that he be judged in his own right. He was conscious of humanity’s claim on Gandhi but did not approve of his branding.Eight years ago, as a new-comer to Delhi, I started visiting the India International Centre bar. Ramu was pointed out to me, just as later I would point him out to my guests, often to their disbelief. Most people expected to see Gandhi’s grandson in a dalit colony rather than at a bar. Ramu would sit at a table reserved for him by convention. If a newcomer did happen to occupy an empty chair, it soon became clear to him that he was not entirely welcome. Later, Ramu would bring in a chair from the garden and seat himself near the bartenders’ counter. This served two purposes: the chair was good for his back and it occupied less space. Upon leaving the bar, he would personally restore the chair to its original place. 


The plastic chair solved the space problem but the curvature that Ramu effected in space-time lingered. Most people came to the bar to unwind; for Ramu it was a solemn place. The tidiness with which he organised his thoughts he hoped to see around him too. Once, he rather rudely pointed out to a new member that he should not have taken off his shoes. But such instances were rare; by and large he was unobtrusive.
He lived in a room not too far from IIC. He was always dressed in kurta-pyjama and a jacket, with a scarf around his neck. Late into the evening he would proceed to the bar with his chair and drink rum in small doses. He would leave when the bar closed, take a simple meal, specially prepared for him by IIC. It is most befitting that he died in an IIC room rather than in his own solitary quarters. 

The last time I met him was a couple of months ago, when I was at IIC organising a lecture on female foeticide. He recalled the story of Krishna’s son who dressed himself like a pregnant woman and asked a sage whether it would be a boy or girl. As is well-known, the enraged sage’s curse destroyed the Yadava clan. Ramu’s contemporary interpretation of the story is remarkable for its originality. He said that the Yadavas were punished for inquiring into the sex of an unborn child. Ramu had deeply studied the Mandukya Upanishad. Was he planning to write a book? No, he was not yet ready. I remonstrated with him that instead of setting his sights too high, once he started writing, he would find his way through. He thanked me profusely for my encouragement but, I suspect, more out of politeness than conviction.


The writer is a former director of National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, Delhi