Has Prime Minister Modi Conceded Ground To America On Patents Over Patients?

Unprecedented high profile engagement of the Indian Prime Minister with various interested groups during his recent visit to the United States under equally unprecedented media glare, has invited overwhelmingly more kudos than brickbats, from across the world.

However, in the context of upholding patients’ health interest in India, a lurking fear did creep in, immediately after his visit to the United States. This was related to whether or not demonstrably tough minded Prime Minister Modi has yielded to enormous pressure created by all powerful American drug lobby against the current Intellectual Property (IP) regime in India.

The backdrop:

This apprehension started bothering many as the Prime Minister appeared to have moved away from a much-reiterated stand of India that any IP related issue would be discussed only in a multi-lateral forum.

That India’s Patents Act is TRIP’s compliant, has been categorically endorsed by a vast majority of international and national experts, including, a key intellectual belonging to Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Think -Tank’ – Arvind Panagariya, Professor of Economics at Columbia University, USA.

Subsequent to my blog post of February 5, 2014, an article dated March 4, 2014 titled “India Must Call The US’ Bluff On Patents” penned by Panagariya stated as follows:

“Critics of the Indian patent law chastise it for flouting its international obligations under the TRIPS Agreement. When confronted with these critics, my (Arvind Panagariya) response has been to advise them:

  • To urge the US to challenge India in the WTO dispute settlement body and test whether they are indeed right.
  • Nine years have elapsed since the Indian law came into force; and, while bitterly complaining about its flaws, the USTR has not dared challenge it in the WTO. Nor would it do so now. Why?
  • There is, at best, a minuscule chance that the USTR will win the case.
  • Against this, it must weigh the near certainty of losing the case and the cost associated with such a loss.
  • Once the Indian law officially passes muster with the WTO, the USTR and pharmaceutical lobbies will no longer be able to maintain the fiction that India violates its WTO obligations.
  • Even more importantly, it will open the floodgates to the adoption of the flexibility provisions of the Indian law by other countries.
  • Activists may begin to demand similar flexibilities even within the US laws.

On possible actions against India under the ‘Special 301’ provision of the US trade law, Professor Arvind Panagariya argues:

“Ironically, this provision itself was ruled inconsistent with the WTO rules in 1999 and the US is forbidden from taking any action under it in violation of its WTO obligations. This would mean that it couldn’t link the elimination of tariff preferences on imports from India to TRIPS violation by the latter. The withdrawal of preferences would, therefore, constitute an unprovoked unilateral action, placing India on firm footing for its retaliatory action.”

Examples of some global and local views:

On this score, a large number of business experts from all over the world have expressed their views, recently. Some examples are as follows:

  • The former Chairman of Microsoft India reportedly advised the new ‘Modi Regime’ as follows:

“While the new government must work hard to make India more business friendly, it must not cave in to pressure on other vital matters. For instance, on intellectual property protection, there is enormous pressure from global pharmaceutical companies for India to provide stronger patent protection and end compulsory licensing. These are difficult constraints for a country where 800 million people earn less than US$ 2 per day.”

  • Maruti Suzuki, India’s largest car manufacturer, aircraft maker Boeing, global pharma major Abbott and technology leader Honeywell have reportedly just not supported India’s IP regime, but have strongly voiced that IPR regime of India is “very strong” and at par with international standards.
  • The Chairman of the Indian pharma major – Wockhardt also echoes the above sentiment by articulating, “I think Indian government should stay firm on the Patents Act, which we have agreed.”
  • Other domestic pharma trade bodies and stakeholder groups in India expect similar action from the ‘Modi Government’.

Who are against Indian IP regime?

By and large, American pharma sector and their well-paid lobbyists representing drug multinationals are the strongest critics of Indian Patents Act 2005. They allege that Indian IP law discriminate against US companies and violates global norms, severely affecting their investments in India.

Recent stand of India on unilateral US measures:

Just to recapitulate, on April 30, 2014, the United States in its report on annual review of the global state of IPR protection and enforcement, named ‘Special 301 report’, classified India as a ‘priority watch list country’.

On this report, India responded by saying that the ‘Special 301’ process is nothing but unilateral measures taken by the US under their Trade Act 1974, to create pressure on countries to increase IPR protection beyond the TRIPS agreement.

The Government of India has always maintained that its IPR regime is fully compliant with all international laws.

The Indo-US working group on IP:

The Indo-US high-level working group on IP would be constituted as part of the Trade Policy Forum (TPF). The US-India TPF is the principal trade dialogue body between the countries. It has five focus groups: Agriculture, Investment, Innovation and Creativity, Services, and Tariff and Non-Tariff Barriers.

The recent joint statement issued after talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama states:

“Agreeing on the need to foster innovation in a manner that promotes economic growth and job creation, the leaders committed to establish an annual high-level Intellectual Property (IP) Working Group with appropriate decision-making and technical-level meetings as part of the TPF.”

This part of the Indo-US joint statement on IPR created almost a furore not just in India, but in other parts of the world too, interpreting that Prime Minister Modi has conceded ground to America on patents over patients.

IP experts’ expressed concerns even in the US:

Commenting on this specific move by the Obama Administration to push India on issues related to IP, even the independent American healthcare experts expressed grave concern.

Professor Brook K. Baker from the Northeastern University School of Law has reportedly said:

“This working group will give the US a dedicated forum to continue to pressure India to adopt TRIPS-plus IP measures, including repeal of Section 3(d) of the India Patents Act, adoption of data exclusivity/monopolies, patent term extensions, and restrictions on the use of compulsory licenses”.

Professor Baker further said:

“The US, in particular, will work to eliminate local working requirements that India is seeking to use to promote its own technological development…. The fact that this working group will have ‘decision-making’ powers is particularly problematic as it places the US fox in the Indian chicken coop.”

“FDI and innovation are also always rhetorically tied to strong IPRs despite inclusive evidence that typically shows that most low and middle-income countries do not benefit economically from IP maximization, since they are net importers of IP goods. It is also because the path to technological development is ordinarily through copying and incremental innovation – development tools that are severely undermined by IP monopoly rights and their related restrictive licensing agreements,” Baker elaborated.

Jamie Love, Director, Knowledge Ecology International, an NGO working on knowledge governance also reportedly said:

“It is very clearly going to be used to pressure India to expand liberal grants of drug patents in India, and to block or restrain the use of compulsory licenses on drug patents.”

Has India conceded to American bullying?

On this backdrop, during Indian Prime Minister’s interaction with the President of the United States and his aids, it was reportedly decided to set up a high-level working group on IP, as a part of the TPF, to sort out contentious issues which have been hampering investments. This was interpreted by many experts that India has conceded to American bullying, as it apparently deviated from its earlier firm stand that the country would discuss IP issues only in multilateral forum such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).

No change in India’s position on patents:

Taking note of this humongous misunderstanding, on October 4, 2014, the Union Ministry of Commerce in an official clarification reiterated that during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to America:

  • There has been no change in India’s stated position on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).
  • India has reaffirmed that the IPR legal regime in India is fully TRIPS-compliant.
  • A bilateral Innovation and Creativity Focus Group already exists in the Trade Policy Forum (TPF) since 2010. Any IP related issues have to be discussed by the United States only in the TPF. This group consults each other no less than twice a year on improving intellectual property rights protection and enforcement, enhancing awareness of intellectual property rights, fostering innovation and creativity, and increasing collaboration between American and Indian innovators.
  • The Indo-US joint statement issued now merely reiterates whatever has existed in the earlier Trade Policy Forum. IPR issues are critical for both the countries and India has been repeatedly raising the issue of copyright piracy and misappropriation of traditional knowledge with the US.
  • The US agreeing to discuss IPR issues through the bilateral mechanism of the Trade Policy forum is in fact a re-affirmation of India’s stand that issues need bilateral discussion and not unilateral action. The statement on the IPR issue will only strengthen the bilateral institutional mechanism.

Conclusion:

Most part of the above statement is indeed quite consistent to what happened even immediately before the Modi regime.

In September 2013, the Commerce Secretary and India’s Chief trade Negotiator, Rajeev Kher, while terming the decision by the US Trade Representative for not labeling India with its worst offender tag in IP as a ‘very sensible decision’, strongly defended India’s right to overrule patents in special cases to provide access to affordable innovative medicines to its 1.2 billion people.

Moreover, many recent judicial verdicts have vindicated that a strong and balanced patent regime of the country not just secures the bonafide rights of the patentee, but at the same time ensures genuine needs of the public and in case of pharma of the ailing patients.

The Indian Supreme Court judgment on Glivec of Novartis in the recent past, have re-established, beyond an iota of doubt, that to secure and enforce patents rights of genuine inventions, other than evergreening, India provides a very transparent IP framework.

Taking all these into consideration, it seems unlikely to me that Prime Minister Modi, who is a self-confessed nationalist and holds India’s interest first, would in any way compromise with the country’s TRIPS compliant patent regime, sacrificing millions of Indian patients’ health interest at the altar of American business needs.

The above official clarification by the Union Ministry of Commerce is expected to tame the fire of this raging debate to a great extent. However, the grave concern expressed in the following lines by the independent healthcare experts, such as Professor Baker, on the high-level IP working group, cannot just be wished away:

“The fact that this working group will have ‘decision-making’ powers is particularly problematic as it places the US fox in the Indian chicken coop.”

That said, from your government Mr. Prime Minister “Yeh Dil Maange Much More”.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

 

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