Science in Society Archive

India’s Biotech Future

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Public-private partnership is the cornerstone of India’s National Biotechnology Development Strategy, according to an article in the “bioentrepreneur” section of the journal Nature Biotechnology (May 2005).  The aim is to create a million jobs and an annual turnover of $5 billion in the biotech industry by 2010. Science minister Kapil Sibal released the draft for comment at the end of March until May 2005. The document was then to be submitted to the cabinet for approval and to be implemented later this year.

The new strategy has already aroused strong criticisms from civil society organisations, coming as it were in the wake of three successive years of failed GM cotton crops that have driven farmers into debt and suicide (“India’ GM cotton fraud”, SiS 26), and independent scientific evidence from all over the world are now confirming those failures (“Scientists confirm Bt crop failures”, to appear).

Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, accuses the government of effectively deregulating the hazardous of biotechnology and nanotechnology and turning Indian scientists into corporate slaves (“Outsourcing ecological and health risks”, accompanying article).

Criticism has also come from the Indian biotech industry because the proposed strategy will allow 100 percent foreign direct investment, thereby threatening the local industry. The draft policy envisages that by 2010, biopharmaceuticals – mostly vaccines and bio-generics – will be contributing $2 billion to the biotech sector in India. Clinical development services are predicted to reach $1.5 billion and outsourced research services estimated at $1 billion. Agricultural and industrial biotechnology will contribute the remaining $500 million.

This ambitious target is apparently supported by the government’s strong growth data, showing that the biotech industry grew by 39 percent between 2003 and 2004 to a value of $705 million, and total investment in the sector also increased by 26 percent to $137 million.

The new policy will allow public funds to be spent on industrial projects, while scientists employed by public research institutions can be seconded to private firms. It also stipulates that at least 30 percent government-funded programmes must have a commercial partner who will be responsible for directing research and development towards commercialisation. This is welcomed by Varaprasada Reddy, managing director of Shantha Biotechnics in Hyderabad, which pioneered recombinant vaccines in India in the 1990s. But Reddy wants at least a 25:75 local/foreign partnership instead of allowing a 100 percent direct foreign investment.

The new policy dispenses with the need for government approval for equity investment in the biotech sector, unlike other sectors such as telecommunications or energy. “What this means is multinational companies can come with suitcases full of money, buy up plots, build plants, hire our scientists at low salaries and create wealth for themselves,” Reddy is reported to have said.

But Bhimsen Bajaj, president of the southern chapter of the All India Biotechnology Association in Hyderabad sees nothing wrong in having 100 percent foreign-owned companies, as they will bring new technology and generate jobs.

Article first published 22/09/05



Sources

  1. “India’s strategy to bridge the public-private divide”, K.S. Jayaraman, Nature Biotechnology 2005, 23, 523.
  2. New Biotechnology Development Strategy, 31 March 2005, http://dbtindia.nic.in/biotechstrategy.htm

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