ICAR lands in pretty pickle

The Na­tional Re­search Cen­tre on Meat has odd ideas on what can be patented


A group of sci­en­tists seeks patent for chicken gongura pickle. How au­then­tic are their claims?

Iis a quin­tes­sen­tial Andhra dish, it is F THERE gongura. This is a sour, leafy plant—usu­ally de­scribed as sor­rel ( hibis­cus sab­dar­iffa) and some­times as roselle—that is added to tra­di­tional dishes of the Andhra cui­sine to give th­ese an un­matched zing. So you have gongura with dal or gongura with meat and chicken, although the most popular item re­mains the gongura pickle that is avail­able in su­per­mar­kets across the coun­try.

I am a gongura afi­cionado, hav­ing been in­tro­duced to its dis­tinc­tive sour taste many decades ago dur­ing a brief so­journ in Gun­tur dis­trict,which re­put­edly pro­duces the best leaves. I’ve had it cooked with the best known Andhra dishes, and eaten it in homes, restau­rants and dhabas. It is ev­ery Andhra housewife’s stock in trade, and no can­teen or restau­rant serv­ing “Andhra meals” will hire a cook who does not know his or her gongura in all its vari­a­tions. Such is the ad­dic­tion of fans that an en­ter­pris­ing company in a small town in West Go­davari dis­trict has been sell­ing bot­tles of chicken gongura pickle at a bar­gain 150 for

` 500 grams.So why, and how, could some­one seek a patent on a tried-and-tested pickle recipe?

Here’s the shocker: the patent has been sought by none other than a group of sci­en­tists of the In­dian Coun­cil of Agri­cul­tural Re­search (icar)— all of them work­ing at the Na­tional Re­search Cen­tre on Meat (nrcm) in Hy­der­abad. The lead sci­en­tist in the group of six who claimed to have de­vel­oped “a process for prepa­ra­tion of chicken gongura pickle and chicken soup from deboned chicken frames” is B M Naveena, who was awarded the Lal Ba­hadur Shas­tri Out­stand­ing Young Sci­en­tist Award-2013 in July this year.In his ap­pli­ca­tion for the award, Naveena had claimed to have four pub­lished patents to his credit, one be­ing for the ubiq­ui­tous chicken gongura pickle.

Although Naveena re­fused to tell Down To Earth why his process was patent-wor­thy, he is on record as say­ing, “Tra­di­tion­ally, peo­ple make gongura pickle or chicken pickle. Ours is chicken gongura pickle with a spe­cific process in­volv­ing at least eight steps. It is made with­out the use of vine­gar, cit­ric acid or le­mon. That is the dif­fer­ence.” All of which should make any gongura lover bris­tle.The leaf is so sour that none of th­ese in­gre­di­ents is ever used in the mak­ing of any dish based on this leaf.

Re­act­ing to Naveena’s claim, a well­known patent ex­pert had noted that the com­bi­na­tion of chicken and gongura was “a mere ag­gre­ga­tion” and can­not be the ba­sis for a patent claim.

For a col­umn that has been look­ing on and off at sci­en­tific frauds in the coun­try, there is a de­spair­ing sense of déjà vu in the chicken- gongura story. Not so much in the ab­sur­dity of the patent claim as in the fudg­ing that is ap­par­ent.The fact is that no such patent has been awarded yet, or is likely to be. A search of the In­dian Patent Of­fice records re­veals that Naveena’s claim is yet to be ex­am­ined and that an op­po­si­tion to the patent has also been filed.

The fudg­ing is in the use of “pub­lished patents” by nrcm and Naveena. In their dic­tio­nary, it ap­pears to mean that the patent of­fice has pub­lished their claim. As Naveena told Down To Earth: “I have four pub­lished

patents… The nov­elty and merit of th­ese patents can be chal­lenged by any­one once they go for ex­am­i­na­tion.” icar, on the other hand, as­sumes— just as we all do—that th­ese patents have been awarded to Naveena. Its ci­ta­tion states that the nrcm se­nior sci­en­tist’s “patented work” has “huge de­mand ”and that “many of th­ese tech­nolo­gies (more on th­ese later) have been com­mer­cialised to small- and medium-scale en­trepreneurs with great suc­cess”.

icar’s ten­dency to con­fer its most pres­ti­gious awards to sci­en­tists with a lively imag­i­na­tion— and se­cure pa­tron­age—is well known. A few years ago, icar awarded its top prize, the pres­ti­gious Rafi Ahmed Kid­wai Award, for out­stand­ing re­search in agri­cul­tural sci­ence to K C Bansal based on his imag­i­nary claim that he had “filed three patents for novel gene dis­cov­ery”. It turned out that Bansal, a se­nior sci­en­tist of the In­dian Agri­cul­ture Re­search In­sti­tute, In­dia’s premier in­sti­tute for re­search and ed­u­ca­tion, who at the time was head­ing a cru­cial project on trans­genic crops at the Na­tional Re­search Cen­tre (nrc) on Plant Biotech­nol­ogy, had done noth­ing of the kind (see “The Maya of In­dian Sci­ence,” Down To Earth, De­cem­ber 16-31,2012).

How are th­ese awards handed out by icar year after year? Clearly with­out any scru­tiny of the claims and with­out even a cur­sory look at the work that is be­ing pro­moted by the in­sti­tu­tions. The sci­en­tists who sit on the awards com­mit­tees ap­pear to go through the mo­tions of ap­praisal and eval­u­a­tion in a kind of sci­en­tific tor­por with lit­tle in­ter­est in seek­ing out merit, much less out­stand­ing work.

Sad­der still is the crony­ism and un­eth­i­cal prac­tices that are un­der­min­ing icar’s at­tempt to tone up the work­ing of its close to 100 in­sti­tutes. In re­cent years, it has launched a con­certed drive to com­mer­cialise the re­search of 4,800 sci­en­tists in its in­sti­tutes through a pol­icy of re­ward­ing in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty rights (iprs). Not only does icar fund the te­dious and ex­pen­sive process of seek­ing patents by its sci­en­tists, it al­ways awards marks (2-3) to those sci­en­tists who hold patents or have been able to com­mer­cialise their work.This is a ma­jor in­cen­tive when prized re­search projects are be­ing handed out and more so when ap­point­ments to plum posts are con­sid­ered. In the 11th Plan, a sep­a­rate fund of 49 crore was ear

` marked to pro­mote iprs and icar has been pass­ing this on to its top in­sti­tutes, of which the 17 nrcs con­sti­tute the cream. Un­der the guide­lines is­sued by icar, its re­search in­sti­tutes have the au­ton­omy to de­cide which out­put qual­i­fies for patents once they go through the due pro­cesses.To start with, re­search find­ings have to be sub­mit­ted to the In­sti­tute Re­search Com­mit­tee, Re­search Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee and the Quin­quen­nual Re­view Team to eval­u­ate the authenticity and nov­elty of the work. Only after ap­proval by th­ese com­mit­tees can any work be pub­lished or sub­mit­ted for patent­ing to the con­sul­tancy pro­cess­ing cell of the in­sti­tute, which will then ver­ify and for­ward it to the In­sti­tute Tech­nol­ogy Man­age­ment Com­mit­tee. This com­mit­tee will get the ap­pli­ca­tion rat­i­fied by the Project Mon­i­tor­ing and Eval­u­a­tion Com­mit­tee.

This begs the ques­tion: how are claims such as Naveena’s thought fit for patent­ing? Another of the patents that Naveena along with other nrcm sci­en­tists has sought is a process for im­prov­ing the shelf life of meat through what they call in­no­va­tive su­per­chilling tech­nol­ogy. Ex­perts say it is a process that has long been in use in the meat and fish pro­cess­ing in­dus­try the world over.The claim they make is for “an in­no­va­tive su­per­chilling (stor­age at -1°C) and vac­uum pack­ag­ing process for buf­falo meat steaks and mut­ton chunks which sig­nif­i­cantly im­proves the shelf life up to three months with­out freez­ing com­pared to 30 days and 4 days at re­frig­er­a­tion tem­per­a­ture un­der vac­uum and aer­o­bic pack­ag­ing con­di­tions re­spec­tively”.

nrcm is dou­bly guilty since it pub­lished in its an­nual re­ports the de­tails of both the chicken gongura pick­ling method and the su­per-chill­ing tech­nol­ogy that its sci­en­tists “in­vented”. As any­one fa­mil­iar with patent laws knows, this makes what­ever claims nrcm sci­en­tists are mak­ing “prior art”, which means that which is al­ready known.In other words, nrcm has landed it­self in a pretty pickle.

How are th­ese awards handed out by ICAR year after year? Clearly with­out any scru­tiny of the claims. Peo­ple who sit on the awards com­mit­tees ap­pear to go through the mo­tions of eval­u­a­tion in a kind of sci­en­tific tor­por


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