Scientist arms for neem patent battle
Rumblings in Cong over poor floor show
Kashmir bursts bonhomie bubble
Opp. heat for probe into ‘shady’ data project deal
GNLF starts on winning note
Split whispers after one-to-one

 
 
SCIENTIST ARMS FOR NEEM PATENT BATTLE 
 
 
FROM ANAND SOONDAS
 
Lucknow, May 3 
It is David vs Goliath. India’s hopes of wresting the patent for neem from Americans, who have already appropriated basmati, karela, jamun and brinjal, rest on Uday Singh.

The Benaras Hindu University (BHU) professor will be in Munich on May 9 to attend the final hearing in the five-year-old case at the European Patent Office.

Singh, who heads the department of mycology and plant pathology at BHU’s Institute of Agricultural Sciences, will urge the patent office to “liquidate” the patent for neem, “falsely, inappropriately and unethically” acquired by US giant W.R. Grace & Co.

The 58-year-old scientist, who has been working on the “effect of neem extracts and oil on fungi” for 20 years, says he has a watertight case. Singh is hoping the patent office will give a “fair judgment in my favour”. “My first research paper on the subject was published nearly 10 years before that of the Americans. The patent (for neem) acquired by W.R. Grace and Co is not only unethical but is also clearly a case of bio-piracy,” he says.

The American company succeeded in getting the patent for neem on the basis of a research paper on the same subject as Singh’s. Singh’s work was first published in 1980 in the journal Mycologia, brought out by the Mycological Society of America. The American research saw the light of day as late as 1989.

The very next year, Singh’s paper was published in the Australian journal Plant Pathology. In 1984, it was made the main story in Germany’s Journal for Plant Protection and Plant Diseases. “If my paper, which was the pioneering study on the fungicidal effect of neem has been coming out since 1980, how can they claim it is their original study?” Singh asks.

Seeing the strength in Singh’s argument, the Delhi-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology threw its weight behind the professor. Vandana Shiva of the research foundation and Magda Alvoet, former European Parliament member and head of Green Group, an NGO, filed a suit against W.R. Grace and Co and put their case before the European Patent Office in 1996. Their hopes surged after a favourable interim judgment from the patent office in 1997.

Singh, who has been working on the anti-fungal activity of neem products and neem oil in the control of plant diseases since 1977 and also using it for plant disease control, says the Americans have no business taking the patent for neem. “Neem’s medicinal properties have been described even in the earliest Sanskrit medical writing,” he says. “Many groups from Germany and other parts of Europe have supported my claim as they are aware that neem is an Indian plant”.

Maintaining that this could be his only chance of “freeing” at least one indigenous plant from the “US patent onslaught”, Singh says that in the course of India’s five-year-old case, Shiva and Alvoet have submitted affidavits from scientists, farmers, practitioners of ayurveda and other concerned individuals who say the American patent is “immoral and unethical”.

India had earlier snatched the turmeric patent back from the US and Singh hopes neem will be the second milestone in the developing world’s fight against the “patent onslaught unleashed by powerful and moneyed American companies”.

“Nowadays, one small neem plant is being sold for $60 in American markets. It is our plant,” Singh fumes, while acknowledging that he is pitted against a powerful foe. “Gaining patents is all about money,” he emphasises. “No company here is willing to come forward and get us back what is rightfully ours. We have already lost basmati, karela, brinjal and jamun to them. I don’t want us to lose neem now.”

Asked how much it costs to make a claim for a patent, he says: “I don’t know. What I know is that it costs a lot of money which I don’t have.” Singh hasn’t lost hope, however. He is “90 per cent” sure he will come back from Munich with a symbolic neem sapling in his hands.

   


 
 
RUMBLINGS IN CONG OVER POOR FLOOR SHOW 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 3 
There was disquiet in the Congress over its tardy performance in the Lok Sabha yesterday when it failed to press for cut motions on the crucial issue of price-rise.

Congress floor managers today candidly admitted that their floor strategy lacked punch. The party, they said, should have done more homework, issued whip and ensured the presence of Opposition leader Sonia Gandhi in the House when ministry-wise grants were passed within ten minutes.

But Sonia-baiters said the smooth passage reflected poorly on the Congress, which had been publicly demonstrating on the hike in the price of urea, petroleum and other food items.

“It was strange that the party failed to pin down the Vajpayee regime on the floor of the House,” a Congress MP from Uttar Pradesh said, pointing out that the party had also “missed an opportunity to highlight the differences between the NDA allies opposing the hike”.

AICC spokesman Ajit Jogi said that Sonia was not present in the House as she was “indisposed”. She also cancelled her tour to the drought-affected areas of Gujarat, scheduled for today.

There were less than two dozen Congress MPs present when the Centre got the demands for various ministries passed. By contrast, the treasury benches were full. The Speaker disallowed the cut motions on the ground that they did not pertain to ministries taken up for discussion.

Congress leaders conceded that the government had out-smarted them in floor management. The main Opposition party, they said, made a tactical error in accepting a discussion only on three ministries — home, communications and human resources development, leaving out the petroleum, food and fertiliser ministries on which the party had planned to move cut motions.

As there was no discussion on these ministries, the Speaker disallowed the cut motions under Rule 208, putting all demands collectively to vote. Beaten in the game, the Congress and other Opposition parties staged a walkout.    


 
 
KASHMIR BURSTS BONHOMIE BUBBLE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 3 
Nostalgia tinged with moments of bitterness laced today’s interaction between the Pakistani women’s delegation and the Indian intelligentsia as they sat around a table at India International Centre.

For a while, when the 40-member delegation stepped on Indian soil yesterday, the conundrum of Indo-Pak conflict had receded to a tiny speck on the horizon. But even as they talked, the bubble of euphoria was bursting slowly as the hard face of reality stared back at the participants on either side.

But there were moments of shared warmth too. Khushwant Singh broke down greeting Asma Jehangir, a leading light of the human rights movement in Pakistan. “Asma is no longer just a leader in Pakistan. She is a leader in the whole of the subcontinent,” he said at the seminar organised by the Indian Women’s Press Corps. Both Asma and her colleague Nusrat Jameel — a journalist — heard the author with tears in their eyes.

The delegation’s visit, organised by the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia, is in response to a similar visit to their country by an Indian women’s delegation two months ago.

There is nothing official about the visits. The Pakistani delegation has brought with them songs of harmony and peace, but there was no escaping the palpable apprehension of a future that could devastate both countries if tension and hostilities multiplied by the day.

The fear was clouded by a greater anxiety: would the two governments checkmate each other? Will India change its stand and start talking to Pervez Musharraf? Will Pakistan give up abetting terrorists and violating the Line of Control?

“Our enthusiasm has come to the sad realisation that things are not just bad, but are getting worse,” said Asma Jehangir. She and her colleagues are the minstrels of peace — not official representatives of the military junta — but those who have been nailed by that regime for their outspoken criticism and aggressive pursuit of democracy.

There were voices from the Indian side cautioning against any dialogue with a regime that could not be trusted. “It will be a kiss of death,” said Surjeet Man Singh, a professor in the School of International Studies, JNU. Her colleague Amitabh Mattoo wanted the delegation to respond to his question whether the Pakistan government could check cross-border terrorism.

“Any government, if it wants, can control terrorist elements,” said Asma. But the Indian government, she argued, was going to strengthen the hand of the fundamentalists. If the Indian participants argued that the government was against talking to a military regime, the Pakistani delegates reminded them of the time when India had no qualms about talking with another military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq.

“It was General Zia who had begun funding the Lashkars. If the Indian government could talk to him then, why not to the present general?” they asked.

The solution, the delegates reminded, lay in a dialogue. “Otherwise, the consequences will be disastrous. We do not want a war,” said Asma.

Four women out of the delegation have been jailed by the Musharraf government for criticising his government. “We are sandwiched between the might of India and the Lashkars. By not talking to the Pakistani government, India is making heroes out of these Lashkars,” she said.

Kashmir was a raw nerve that hurt both countries. “If there are people screaming there, we cannot ignore them,” said Asma, stressing that she and her friends were committed to democracy, protection of minorities and peace. “Our government has violated people’s rights. So has yours. Do not exonerate them,” she said.    


 
 
OPP. HEAT FOR PROBE INTO ‘SHADY’ DATA PROJECT DEAL 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 3 
The Congress and the Left today came together to demand a joint parliamentary probe into the Sankhya Vahini data carrier project, even as the rift within the government on the issue became clearer.

CPM MP Nilotpal Basu wrote to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, attaching copies of the Cabinet’s notings which raise questions of probity in the award of the high speed telecom expressway project to an unknown US company.

In the Lok Sabha, Congress leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi demanded a joint parliamentary probe into the “shady deal”. He was backed by the Left parties.

The BJP was quick to react. Dismissing the demand for a probe, information technology minister Pramod Mahajan and party spokesperson Venkaiah Naidu, however, tried to cool tempers by offering a full discussion on the issue in Parliament.

Documents made available today showed that the information technology ministry had written to the communications department, raising doubts over the ownership of IUNet, the US-based company which is partnering the government in the Rs 1,300-crore project.

The government had claimed that IUNet was a fully owned subsidiary of Carnegie Mellon University. But infotech ministry secretary P.V. Jayakrishnan pointed out to his counterpart in the telecom department that he had got “no document from Carnegie Mellon reflecting that IUNet has been incorporated by it.

Articles of Incorporation and bye laws of IUNet are also silent on its relationship with Carnegie Mellon. In fact, the shareholding pattern of IUNet is not known.”

The telecom department wrote back saying IUNet was owned by a company called GUNet which, in turn, was owned by Carnegie Mellon. Jayakrishnan acidly remarked that this was a new story, which even the Cabinet had been kept in the dark about. He added that there were no details about the ownership of GUNet.

Jayakrishnan also pointed out that while IUNet would be giving equipment with a life span of just five years as its equity contribution, the Indian government would be transferring 10,000 km of optic fibre lines with a life span of 30 years. He asked if this was a fair deal.

The secretary raised questions on whether such a huge network could be given away to a new joint venture without any bidding.

The joint venture is supposed to act as a network for universities and educational institutions but might be used later as a high speed network for long distance telephony, a most lucrative business proposition.

Critics say the project, in which IUNet will be investing no hard cash, is being gifted in a non-transparent manner to a company whose bona fides are unkown.

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GNLF STARTS ON WINNING NOTE 
 
 
FROM KESHAV PRADHAN
 
Siliguri, May 3 
Even as final reports on the withdrawal of candidates are yet to come from far-flung and inaccessible areas, about 20 per cent of gram panchayat seats in the Darjeeling hills have been won unopposed by candidates, most of whom are reportedly from the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF).

Yesterday was the last day for withdrawal of nominations for the elections to the single-tier panchayat, scheduled to be held on May 21. About 6,000 people had filed their papers for the 1,597 seats of the 112 gram panchayats.

District officials in Darjeeling said so far 331 seats have gone to various candidates. Of them, 64 are in Darjeeling-Pulbazar, 91 in Kalimpong-1, 55 in Kalimpong-2, 33 in Gorubathan, 68 in Kurseong and 20 in Mirik.

Among the panchayats which have been won without any contests are Tashiding in Kalimpong-1, Lamahatta and Singrimtam in Rungli Rungliot and Gok-2 in Darjeeling-Pulbazar.    


 
 
SPLIT WHISPERS AFTER ONE-TO-ONE 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 3 
Communications minister Ram Vilas Paswan, who is reportedly planning to float a party, met Lok Shakti leader Ramakrishna Hegde today to discuss the state of affairs in the Janata Dal (United).

Observers believe the meeting is significant as both leaders are cut up with the Janata leadership, the reins of which are with Dal (U) chief Sharad Yadav and Samata Party leader George Fernandes.

Sharad and Fernandes, along with Paswan, had joined hands to fight the Lok Sabha elections in Bihar on a common symbol.

Lok Shakti and Dal (U) sources confirmed the Paswan-Hegde meeting. But Lok Shakti spokesman M. Raghupathy sought to make light of today’s development, saying: “It was just a routine meeting. Within a party such meetings are common.”

However, the meeting is considered important as it follows Paswan’s announcement that he would convert his outfit Dalit Sena into a full-fledged political party.

Sources close to the Bihar leader said Paswan was keen on kickstarting the process for a formal split rightaway and he wants Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi to immediately recognise Samata Party as a separate block.

Lok Shakti sources claimed that the Paswan-Hegde duo may force a reluctant Sharad to convene the Dal executive by end-May, something which he had been avoiding.

If the 10 Samata MPs are allotted separate seats, the Dal (U)’s strength would come down from 21 to 11. Paswan, sources said, feels that such a scenario would help him split the Dal and get the required one-third MPs’ support.

On the other hand, Sharad and Fernandes have reportedly asked the Speaker to defer recognising Samata as a distinct entity until after the budget session is over.

Irrespective of what happens in the Lok Sabha, the Bihar Dal (U) is on the verge of a split with Paswan deciding to back the rebel candidate, Vijay Shani, in the biennial elections to the Legislative Council. The official nominee, Vijay Kumar Verma, is a close associate of Sharad and a nephew of Dal MP Jai Narain Nishad.

Sources close to Paswan said he was upset with Sharad for his handling of the Dal. “He treats it like his personal fiefdom and has not bothered to call a meeting of the national executive or the parliamentary board or even the parliamentary party for a long time,” the sources alleged.

Apart from his grouses against Sharad, Paswan is also keen to position himself as a powerful satrap on the lines of Andhra chief minister Chandrababu Naidu.

While the BJP was initially willing to play along with Paswan’s aspirations — especially now that it has reconciled itself to Nitish Kumar’s “diminished” stature in Bihar politics — and project him as its “mascot”, the spectre of a split has given the ruling party cold feet.

BJP sources said a division in the Dal would not only consolidate Laloo Yadav’s base in Bihar but also weaken the NDA coalition in the Centre.

“Given the past experience with the Dal, it is their internal bickerings which have proved to be the undoing of any coalition experiment. We don’t want the past to be repeated,” BJP sources said.

   

 

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