Once again in the successful row of winning patent battles based on traditional knowledge, India has attained global attention as an Indian public sector laboratory from Bhavnagar has gained victory over an exceptional patent battle on a method of producing iodized salt against a huge multi-national company, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL). Both in a humble and pompous sense, this victory is being considered as the 21st century ‘Salt Satyagraha’, about which even our father of nation, Mahatma Gandhiji would be feeling incredibly self-righteous. The Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI) has humbled the giant multi-national corporation Hindustan (HUL) to reinstate control over a patent to efficiently make the everyday commodity, iodized salt. Eventually, the CSMCRI managed to put a stop to an exertion to extort control over a patent to competently produce iodized salt from Hindustan Unilever Limited, a giant MNC challenger. Hindustan Unilever Limited is an India-based fast moving consumer goods company and the company operates in five segments: soaps and detergents, personal products, beverages, packaged foods, and others.
It is worth praising the continuous endeavors put forward on the desk of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (Chennai) by the inventor of the technology, Dr Pushpito Ghosh, a talented chemist from CSMCRI, and his colleagues in proving that Ghosh’s technology was “novel, inventive and non-obvious” so that the patent can be granted. On a brief note, the mission of CSMCRI and its people is to work in partnership with visionary sponsors and collaborators to generate knowledge and innovations required for efficient utilization of India’s coastal wasteland, sea water, marine algae, solar power and silicates. The institute also exploits its capabilities in areas of biosciences, chemical transformation, process engineering, environmental monitoring, separation science and analysis to address focused needs of industries and organizations in the region and beyond. Some of the topical landmark technologies that have inexplicably changed the brand image of the institute include production of high purity salt from natural brines, production of spherical shaped crystals of common salt from natural brine and production of low sodium salt from bitterns and vegetable salt from Salicornia. Furthermore, the current major projects include salt cluster development program at Rajula to promote ultrapure solar salt technology (Gujarat Industries Commissionerate).
Eighty-five years after the famous ‘Dandi March’ in 1930 when Mahatma Gandhi instigated the famed ‘Salt Satyagraha Revolution’ that finally led to subjugation of British rule from India, a modern day war over salt unfurled once again. The so called modern day ‘Iodized Salt Satyagraha’ was not publicized much, though it held a major position in the field of Indian courts that protect intellectual property rights.
As per Madhukar Garg’s (Director General of the CSIR) statement to media, this case should be considered as a major victory and he also stated that very often MNCs oppose patents essentially to “block India’s research and development and the development of an indigenous technology “. Also, he added that CSIR has recently won a few patent battles against foreign bodies mostly on the grounds that foreigners had pirated savoir faire from India’s traditional knowledge systems. Nevertheless, this case of patent battle holds inimitability and has been a game changer as it was fought and won solely on the basis of modern scientific principles and not prior art. Garg also accoladed the ‘courage and tenacity’ presented by Ghosh and his colleagues at CSMCRI to have fought and won a battle against a big MNC.
In today’s society, some ignorant people might consider addition of salt to their diet as just a ‘taste enhancer’, nonetheless iodized salt is an essential pre-requisite for human health especially in India where iodine deficiency disorders (IDD) are extensive. According to data available with the office of the Salt Commissioner in Jaipur, “it is estimated that more than 200 million people are at risk of iodine deficiency in India, while the number of persons suffering from goitre and other iodine deficiency disorders is above 70 million”. And if not treated on time, iodine deficiency surely leads to physical and mental retardation. Until recent years, iodine deficiency was a recognized disorder in various parts of the world. The most effective and widely employed method for correcting iodine deficiency is salt iodization and it has been part of health programs of various international organizations focusing on health. According to the Salt Commissioner’s office, “India is the third largest salt producing country in the world after China and the US with global annual production being about 230 million tonnes. At the time when India attained independence in 1947, salt was being imported from the United Kingdom to meet every day’s domestic requirement. However, today, our country has not only achieved autonomy in production of salt to meet its domestic requirement but also is in a position of exporting surplus salt to foreign countries.”
The story about the in-news patent battle was instigated over a very long period in 2004 when national R&D organization, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the parent body of the Bhavnagar laboratory-CSMCRI, applied for grant of a patent for a new and novel way of producing iodized salt. The CSIR patent application, titled ‘iodizing agent and process for preparation thereof’, related to a novel process for the preparation of stable iodizing agent, which can be effectively used in the formulation of iodized salt, wherein it offers stability to iodine was filed on June 30, 2004, and published on June 23, 2006. On December 21, 2006, Hindustan Lever had filed a pre-grant opposition alleging that the claimed invention was obvious and not an invention. The patent battle had been fluctuating since 2006 and ultimately in 2013, the Indian patents office refused to grant the patent with victory in the bags of HUL. On an appeal by CSIR, the IPAB chairman Justice KN Basha and technical member (Patent) DPS Parmar in an order said, “We are constrained to set aside the impugned decision of the Assistant Controller of Patents & Designs”, Patent Office, New Delhi, dated June 20, 2013. Amusingly, after tenaciously blocking the grant of the patent for almost a decade in 2015, S Venkatramani, Head of the Patent Group for HUL, wrote a letter to the IPAB saying “due to change in our business priorities, we cease to have any commercial interest in the subject invention and are no more interested in pursuing the opposition to the same”.
As per Dr Pushpito Ghosh, HUL has squashed down its commercial potential in terms of mere disputation and delaying the grant of the patent on iodized salt, as subsequent to this incidence, no industry would buy a technology that has been challenged in the courts by a communal colossal like HUL. Furthermore, the scientist claims that the epoch-long impediments have been removed and the technology is all set to be licensed. Dr. Ghosh also provided few insights into processing technology of conventional iodized salt sold in India; generally, a solution of potassium iodate is sprayed onto salt crystals and normally there is substantial loss of iodine in the sequence of processing and during storage. The loss also depends on several factors such as salt purity, moisture content, nature of packaging, etc. apparently, to compensate for losses; salt manufacturers are inclined towards employing supplementary iodizing agent than indispensible level. Dr. Ghosh also remarked that based on the fact that India has no source of iodine it is an imperative task to conserve iodine usage.
In terms of future perspectives, Dr. Ghosh mentioned that about 200 tons of imported iodine is required annually by the iodized salt manufacturers and the new technologies being developed at CSMCRI can have a major impact on country’s economy. Apparently, this victory sets a positive example for ‘Make in India’ concept to keep India progressive, successful and healthy.