Freedom and access in times of market / Free knowledge versus freedom of the market / MNCs, Indian firms & IPRs

[ Millenium Post, 12 Sep 2012 ;  Echo of India, 12 Sep 2012; Frontier, 20 Sep 2012 ]

New Delhi is always in news. It is perhaps not a co-incidence that two events are happening almost back to back in the capital of the Indian Union.  One is the final hearing at the Supreme court of the Novartis Glivec patent case. This case involves Novartis’ contestation of what qualifies as a significant innovation of an existing product, to be deemed separately patentable. Novartis considers Indian statutes to be too stringent. The Indian statutes aim to prevent ‘evergreening’ – the extending patents by making small changes and claiming them to be substantially different from the original.  The other event was a police raid on a photocopy shop at the Delhi School of Economics and simultaneous legal proceedings initiated by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor and Francis. There is a common strand connecting these apparently disparate events – both involve multi-national business houses suing Indian entities for depriving them of their intellectual property rights benefits.

In the latter case, legally enshrined rights of the publishers were clearly being violated. Anyone whose education and research was dependent on obtaining photocopies of copyrighted books and chapters has been affected. A campaign has been initiated to protest this. This brings us to a deeper disease that goes beyond copyrights. Beyond generic textbooks, much of specialized and critical knowledge taught in Indian universities is either produced by the West or is commercially owned by entities in the West. This academic produce is largely unaffordable in the subcontinent. By handing out these reading lists to students without helping them obtain the material, the faculty has been passing the buck. This is no different from doctors who prescribe medicines irrespective of the paying capacity of the patient. The doctor, or the university faculty, maintains a glib adherence to the ‘highest standard’, for nothing makes them accountable to make education or healthcare accessible. With their academic seminars on sundry topics, these guard the catacombs posturing as vibrant gardens, open and free. University faculty have now for decades continued to force students to resort to bootlegging while preaching academic freedom from their 6th pay commission padded perches. This is nothing short of a scandal. Unfortunately, in a stratified society, the elitism of the faculty, even in disciplines that never cease to extol their ‘sensitive’ approach to the human condition, is not surprising. What is surprising that stuents have not seriously confronted them on this. While their outrage is directed at the 3 publishers, there is another self-serving goliath in the room.

As a point of illustration, if one peruses the bio-data of full professors at the Department of History, at Delhi University, with the bright exception of a minority of them (like Amar Farooqui, Farhat Hasan, Sunil Kumar, Rampal Rana, R.C.Thakran etc.), others have had some or much of their major books and volumes published by the very same publishing behemoths that are acting to keep photocopies out of the hands of the students at their own university. This pattern is replicated across disciplines. Does the faculty plan to make their own work freely available for download? Surely access to scholarship is at least as important as excellence in scholarship. The choice of publisher for one’s scholarly work or an edited volume can either be a personal or a social one. In the former, one owes nothing to society, though society owes the person his/her monthly paycheck. Elites have a lot of agency. The feigned helplessness that is often passed off as the reason for not publishing in more accessible places gives out the deep politics of the academic elite, irrespective of their champagne socialist public posturing. If they have little agency when writing chapters in volumes edited by others, why not upload those chapters in websites post-publication? In a society of great inequities, this is not simple laziness but really an inability to see through the exclusion practiced by oneself and putting one’s academic production in a social context. With such access barriers, it is not surprising that the sons and daughters of professors are more likely to continue down the ‘academic’ path than the less fortunate ‘photocopy’ castes. But Arjuna’s ‘merit’ cannot be excuse for Ekalavya’s destruction.

This can continue because the elite, which selectively interacts with the riff-raff through well-guarded entry and exit points, has long created a separate world where books are cheap, talk is cheaper. Having retracted from public spaces like government hospitals and pavements, they have created a parallel world where they can do without those. That is why one can have universities paying for pricey books written by people in its payroll, in the name of student welfare. Academic publishers are professional businesses – they depend on making money by selling books. Understandably, photocopying hurts their bottom-line. But publishers do not write books, academics do. Can people not expect that publicly-paid academics make affordability and accessibility a criterion for their publication? In the Western academia, universities and academic bodies are making large-scale moves towards open access publication. Harvard, with its war-chest in billions of dollars is leading the way for making research more accessible. Other leading universities in many parts of the world have been having serious discussions and debates on these issues. Till now, there has not been any such concerted move from the browns. Why? Are they so rich? Where is their much-vaunted independence or is that only reserved for duels that help carve out a niche when engaging with the West? The answer partly lies in the socio-economic origins of much of what passes off as the academia. Themselves being products of privilege and inequity, apart from customary and fashionable nods to the concept, they have not accorded issues of broadening of access to scholarly produce the status of urgent priority. This deafening silence is well matched by the silence of another similar caste, the physicians – on the issue of access to life-saving drugs. Similar to the academic castes, their response ranges the full spectrum ignorance to apathy to outright complicity couched as ‘quality’. Neither the destruction of the generic drug industry or the continued expansion on the patent regime will adversely affect the earnings of the physician. Freedom of thought and expression also tacitly assumes the freedom to access thoughts and expressions. Right to health assumes the access to right to means of maintaining health while maintaining human dignity. Cutting off broad access to academic material is as good as killing the university just like cutting off access to generic drugs is another name for policy-driven genocide.

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Filed under Acedemia, Class, Elite, Knowledge

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