Tuesday, 26 March 2013
Book Review: Road Humps and Sidewalks, by Kalyan C. Kankanala
What happens when a large and powerful MNC holding patent rights to a life-saving drug, hikes the drug’s price to such an extent that it becomes unaffordable for the common man? Section 84 of the Patents Act, 1970 provides that three years after a patent has been issued, the Controller General of Patents Designs and Trademarks may grant a compulsory licence to any third party to manufacture such patented product if certain conditions are met. One of the conditions, the most relevant in the case of overpriced drugs, is that the patented invention is not available to the public at a reasonably affordable price. On this basis, a year ago, the Controller General granted Indian drug manufacturer Natco Pharma Limited, a compulsory license for Nexavar (Sorafenib), a life-saving drug manufactured by Bayer AG, used for the treatment of cancer patients.
In Kalyan C. Kankanala’s Road Humps and Sidewalks, a similar situation arises. A mutant variety of the HIV virus has been wreaking havoc in India. Doctors at the Charaka Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad (CIMS) have called it the Immune Killer Virus and the killer disease has been christened Immediate Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (IIDS). Dr. Vishnu, a young doctor practising in a remote district in Andhra Pradesh accidently discovers that Nervir, a drug manufactured by German MNC Berminger is an effective antidote to the deadly IIDS. Nervir is an approved drug, approved for treating infections of the central nervous system and not for use against IIDS. Yet the good doctors at CIMS, who are called White Angels, start using Nervir, with gratifying results.
Berminger is no different from any other MNC – it is greedy for profits and doesn’t have a heart. When existing stocks of Nervir are exhausted, doctors find that fresh stock is not forthcoming. Instead, Berminger has plans to hike the price from Rs. 2,000 per injection to Rs. 40,000. At Berminger’s Munich office, Dr. Christian Muller, CEO of Berminger, declares, ‘We must make as much money as possible before the epidemic ends. As discussed during the teleconference, you must continue creating scarcity for Nervir, until the death toll reaches a sizeable number and then make the drug available at twenty times the current price.’
Enter Arjun Mamidi, a very young and blind lawyer who has just won a landmark case in favour of Smitha, the hottest property in Bollywood, against Celeb, Smitha’s PR firm for having used, without Smitha’s permission, her images to endorse men’s undergarments. Arjun agrees to assist the White Angels at CIMS, who are desperately trying to get fresh stocks of Nervir. Finally, one Moon Pharma agrees to make Nervir, in breach of the patent rights held by Berminger. Arjun tells his clients that they have two options: One to wait for Nervir to file a suit for an interim order, which would prevent Moon Pharma from manufacturing Nervir. ‘In response to their suit, we will construct a thorough reply to pose as many impediments as we can in their pursuit to stop us through a court order.’ The second option is ‘to file a petition to the court asking for permission to make the drug to save IIDs patients.’ I am not sure if an Indian court is likely to give permission to manufacture a patented drug. There is also no mention of or discussion of the option to seek a compulsory licence from the Controller General to manufacture Nervir under Section 84 of the Patents Act, 1970, but I am no expert in these matters and author Kalyan C. Kankanala is an intellectual property lawyer who I assume knows his onions.
One can’t help but like Arjun, the young hero of the novel. Blind, but still strong and handsome, Arjun did his law degree from the Reddy College of Law, a non-descript law school in Hyderabad. A successful mooter, he met his wife Shreya while taking part in a moot court competition organised by the National Law School, Bangalore. Shreya was representing the Kerala Law Academy. No one expected Arjun or his team to do particularly well. But they beat all expectations and won the competition. Arjun also won Shreya’s heart in the process, Kankanala tells us.
Arjun relies on some very good software, his guide dog Neo and Jose, his clerk and Man Friday to read and write and get around. While walking around with Neo, he relies on road humps and sidewalks to get a sense of direction. The book’s title is derived from these aids.
Kankanala uses his writer’s licence with free abandon, at the expense of realism, not necessarily a bad thing. Young lawyer Arjun has a classy, three thousand square feet office in the Banjara Business Centre though his only employee is Jose. There isn’t even a receptionist. When Berminger goes all out to stop Arjun, they send a hired killer to smash up Arjun’s office. Due to sheer luck and bravery, Arjun fights off Ibrahim, a former ‘military assassin.’ A second attempt is made to abduct Arjun and prevent him from attending court on the day Berminger’s suit is to be argued in court. Once again, Arjun fights off his assailants, with able assistance from his guide dog Neo, who we are told, loves cream wafers. There is a third attempt as well, this time to kill Arjun and I’ll leave it to you to read this book to find out if Berminger is finally lucky.
Greed isn’t restricted to Berminger. We find a corrupt academic, in the form of Professor Saran Das, once a good man who inspired Arjun, now ploughing the land for MNCs like Berminger. The Union Health Minister is no good either. There is even an attempt to bribe the Chief Justice to have the incorruptible Justice Shekar replaced while the court proceedings are on.
I wouldn’t say that Road Humps and Sidewalks is an outstanding work of fiction, but all in all, it is a good read, especially if you are interested in issues revolving around patent rights.