Greetings from India! My name is Jasdeep Bal and I am one of two interns (the second being Nigel D’Souza) working for the People’s Patent Group (PPG) under the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) in New Delhi, India. Let me start off by saying that India is a relatively new country, still recovering from the wounds of colonialism, and although all sorts of progressive and excellent laws are being formulated, there is a real problem in applying those laws. Corruption is seemingly rampant and many of the cases dealt with by the HRLN have to do with such issues. The HRLN employs public interest litigation (PIL) as their main legal weapon to combat issues of human rights abuse.
When I first arrived, I was immediately informed about a conference on the current issue concerning indigenous vaccine production. There is a case pending in which the government of India has shut down three plants producing indigenous vaccines, and handed out contracts to the private sector. According to the petition I read by HRLN, some of these plants are responsible for producing, for example, yellow fever vaccines—the only production facility for yellow fever in the Southeast. The government has been accused of orchestrating the shutdown on the pretext that the vaccine plants are not up to health standards. Furthermore, the PIL asserts that the government then appointed members to the board of the three plants, who then had the plants shut down, and allowed for the government to hand out private contracts. The PIL also asserts that many of the government officials involved have shares in private companies that will be receiving the contracts. What adds to the suspicion is that bringing the three plants up to a standard would cost the government significantly less than buying private sector vaccines. Unfortunately, it is the children that will suffer. Vaccines produced by the public sector units cost only Rs. 30 (less than $1) to vaccinate a child with all six essential vaccines for all of the required number of doses. The private sector, with their drug patents and more expensive combination vaccines (that are not considered essential by many experts) are threatening to increase the prices of vaccines they supply to the government. With 25million children born annually in India, huge profits can accrue to private companies who manage to get contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to sell their vaccines to the government of India (private sector vaccines can be 2 to 20 times more expensive than indigenous vaccines). The PIL asks the court for an order to reopen the plants and for the creation of a commission of experts to investigate the matter. The case is in the Supreme Court of India.
My focus, however, will be the relation between patents on genetically modified (GM) seeds with India’s food security and the pandemic of farmer suicides. Without making my initial blog too long, I want to introduce this issue, because I will be researching this topic for the weeks to come. Briefly: Farmers are being sold ‘magic’ seeds that they are told do not require expensive pesticides. These seeds, sold primarily by Monsanto, contain terminator genes, which prevent the plants from producing viable seeds. The farmers are therefore required to purchase these expensive seeds year after year. When crop failures occur (which they do often), farmers are faced with insurmountable debt and, seeing no way out, take their own lives. There are also commentaries that these GM seeds are threatening the food security of India (but to tell you the truth, I am so far not convinced by the arguments), but more about that next time!