Continuing our efforts to engage with the major political parties, we met Dr Ajoy Kumar, National Spokesperson, Indian National Congress to know his opinion on various policy issues within the bioscience sector. Here are the excerpts from a freewheeling discussion in which Ajoy responded to the questions on agri-biotech, clinical research and broader issues on policymaking. Enjoy reading the interview:
How do you view the transformation in Indian bioscience policy over last one decade?
The bioscience policy in India has evolved over the period of time. From early 80s to 2016, there have been lot many achievements to its credit. However, it goes without saying that there are also some important areas where we have to work seriously. The sector now needs a big push.
To begin with, how do you look at the various bottlenecks in the expansion of agri-biotech industry in India?
I think the agriculture biotechnology needs a clear cut strategy not only terms of financial gains but also from the local need point of view. There are various issues that are lingering on. For example, the royalty paid for Bt cotton, farmers protection, innovation to happen, they are not able to find a solution to these. Recently the agriculture ministry came out with a controversial order on sealing of variety. From public perspective, it might sound like a very positive decision but the government has done a huge mistake of not discussing. It would have been better if they had got all the stake holders in confidence and found out solution on royalty because it affects the farmers and on innovation for continuous product improvement. And you need to get the regulators on board to maintain a clear policy.
What is your take on the GM crops? How should the government arrive at a consensus?
Currently only Bt cotton is allowed in India and the logic behind that was because it can’t be consumed and has given good yield. But now I will tell you where we are going wrong on agri-biotechnology. First of all we are not able to get the farmers representatives and the companies on the same platform. Lots of biotech food is consumed by commoners in USA and Europe. And it is not that India is unique. May be it is the lack of understanding that it is not happening here.
The only body that can do the course correction is the government. But the ministers in the government due to their busyness or lack of understanding or due to the lack of political dividends continue to ignore it.
Unless the government takes right steps for agriculture food mission and all the ministries are on board on this issue, it is difficult to achieve single point clearance.
Shouldn’t there be a single window clearance system to enable that? Will congress party support BRAI bill in the parliament?
It was under the UPA government’s time that the Biotechnology Authority of India (BRAI) bill was conceived. Therefore, we would surely support the bill when the government brings it again on table in the Parliament. We need to pass the bill but government hasn’t taken it up yet.
“The Department of biotechnology which I feel is a politically unimportant department, has to get its proper due place. It has to get a separate ministry for a proper attention. A dedicated ministry can deal with the regulatory approvals in a better way rather than current cumbersome approval process from the various ministries.”
What are the steps do you think we must take to tap the potential opportunity areas in the agri-biotechnology?
We need to identify the key biotech crops that are important based on our domestic requirements. Soil salinity in eastern parts of the country and issues like emergence of new pests in Punjab has affected the agriculture production in a major way. In southern states too, soil salinity is a major issue as there are only few Bt crops that work in it.
India’s food productivity is a huge challenge. We have to improve the yield and the productivity will only improve if we embrace new technology. We have touched maximum yield in agriculture and now we need innovation.
“We have to give an option of long term safe career options to our PhD students and attract back those who left due to lack of opportunities in their own country.”
Nobody is championing the cause. It is an uncomfortable choice. During Late Mrs Indira Gandhi’s time, we started the Operation Flood. Launched in 1970, it was a project of India’s National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), which was the world’s biggest dairy development program. It was taken on the mission mode, and the results were obvious. Similarly, biotechnology today requires a mission which will decide on the regulatory approvals, a dedicated minister who has high political weightage to drive it. Otherwise, with increasing population, India is working on a time bomb.
Biotechnology doesn’t have any immediate political benefit. It has got a five to ten year cycle. The Department of biotechnology which I feel is a politically unimportant department, has to get its proper due place. It has to get a separate ministry for a proper attention. A dedicated ministry can deal with the regulatory approvals in a better way rather than current cumbersome approval process from the various ministries where a lot many people don’t actually even understand the basics.
How have we fared on the biopharma front? Are you satisfied that now India is being talked about as a future biosimilar hub?
I will begin by saying that the future of Indian medicine is going to be biotech. From new treatments such as immunotherapy, preventive methods such as vaccines are slowly catching up. However, I feel that we still have an industry that has remained nascent for a long time. We have only few big names to talk about. Biocon and couple of companies have made India proud but then we have been unable to scale up.
Coming to biosimilars, I would say the nation’s challenge is that whether we are just going after a short term growth or a long term strategy. What I am trying to convey is that should India only bank on biosimilars or we are also going to take up long chain molecules and work on it. So we have to ask ourselves a question that is we a country that will have its shortcuts or we are ready to innovate. The entrepreneurial ecosystem will allow biotech to thrive or not. Biotechnology manufacturing is again complex. We require many centres of excellences to build the capabilities.
Do you agree that the successive governments have been unable to work on a clear strategy to develop a skilled workforce for this industry?
Lot of private universities have mushroomed in the country. The focus on the education has been replaced by competition to create huge campuses and facilities. The number of government teachers has gone down as compared to private ones. Students have to learn new technology by practical hands on training and only the comfort zones will not make them scientists. Cutting across governments, there has indeed been a lack of clear policy on this.
Privatization of education is fine but it should not be only a means of business. The responsibility is much beyond that. I believe that the biotechnology can only happen only with the government support. Hardcore basic as well as advance research is possible only in government backed universities. We have to give an option of long term safe career options to our PhD students and attract back those who left due to lack of opportunities in their own country.
The innovation will have to be funded with good financial support. Whether it is Max Planck, Germany or National Institue of Health, United States, everywhere in the world public funding has a great role to play. In India, we have left have our research and development or education to private players thinking that the job is done. Perhaps we think that there is no return on investments due to the long gestation period. But there has to be a realization that biotechnology is the future and we cannot compete with the world without it. The biotechnology is a sector with immense job creation opportunities. PM Modi talks about a lot about it but we have not seen any major results on this.
What are the remedies do you suggest? Should we do lot more Public Private Partnerships to bring both the academia and industry closer?
The central laboratories have to be encouraged to do the cutting edge science. I can see that the DBT institutes are doing well. CSIR laboratories too must buck up. We cannot say that we have created few innovation centres and that is enough. It cannot be one or two centres. We need to create 30-40 institutes of prominence with good funding support. It has started happening but I think we need more.
The basic research has to be taken forward but at the same time as you suggested, the PPPs too can play a role. Yet I feel that these should be based on the lines of PPPs in Europe where the focus in more on translation research. The government must create an innovative capital fund.
One of the increasingly potential areas in India, is the medical technology industry. How do you analyse the trends and policy here?
The medical technology indeed has good potential. Given the fact that we have a huge engineering skill base in India, we need to ensure that we create a right kind of environment for medical devices. We can become a manufacturing hub but not only the low end. I mean not just an assembling hub where you put a battery in the device and be satisfied that we are innovating.
We have to do the cutting edge science. We have the core skills, national institutes and required fundamentals but what we need is the right nurturing. The future of human bodies would be driven by devices and robotics. If we miss out on these, we will miss the bus of future opportunities too.
Isn’t the Make in India a step towards that?
I think we need to get our make in India slightly better. We should not deprive the multinationals their opportunity to innovate in our country just because we are running a campaign. If there is a cutting edge science from outside India and we are putting curbs on it, we are depriving the people of its benefit or knowledge of that benefit. So, in the areas like devices, the government must have adequate incentives to manufacture here. Government must ask MNCs about their feasibility to manufacture in India and give support wherever possible. It can be also make in India and export globally.
Protecting domestic manufacturers at the cost of innovation is something where government will have to balance out. As an example base metal stent is cheaper yet not popular. So, you might manufacture it here in India yet not have as many as buyers. Even a middle class person will go for a quality one. We have to also understand that there is difference between older and newer medical devices. For example the device in 1940s was more about having an alternative to natural human part while in 2016, it was like a digital device or walking computer.
Especially on science and technology including medicine, we have to be careful in not creating the walls for innovation.
Does the $100 billion Indian bioeconomy by 2025 target look feasible to you?
There is no harm in setting up targets but we have to understand that the value generation happens with lot of sweating and realistic roadmap. The countries like Europe and America has got huge investments into their biotech sectors. Here too it is only the government which can do it. It has to start with the basics such as creation of strong knowledge base, skilled manpower and long term career option to lure the exceptionally talented workforce into the sector. A good manpower will keep us in the game.
Similarly, it takes 20 years to build a reputed company. It is not an overnight possibility. Industry must avoid the shortcuts wherever it can. We cannot always remain in competition by saying that we offer a cheap alternative to labour cost. It will not work in longer run as more and more innovation is happening in automation technologies. It will be smarter for the companies to manufacture in their own countries than to outsource.
Finally, I hope that this target is achieved and let us keep trying.
What according to you should be the vision for biotechnology industry in India?
The vision of Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru was greatest for science. As a thought leader, he did a lot. In his speech to IAS officers at Doon Academy, he told the aspiring bureaucrats that the scientists came first in the line of importance, then doctors and their place was last. India has to follow this philosophy even now. Science has to come first.