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THE WAY TO SERVE A BILLION

Lalit Sethi*

India has silently been engaged for over two decades to enhance the potential of biotechnology in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, oceans and a number of other areas to add quality to the life of its billion citizens. Biotechnology may not, on the face of it, be as exotic as the frontiers of space but it is something that can negate the prophets of doom. The doom sayers may not be off the mark when they talk of an overcrowded planet earth with six billion people and their ever-increasing numbers causing destruction and playing havoc with life. Yet biotechnology offers new hope of reversing the self-destructive tendencies, visible to many and setting nations of the world on a new path of progress.

Biotechnology may or may not be concerned with the development of the magic pill or capsule that could concentrate in it a day's nourishment. But it is definitely on the path of doubling or tripling farm production, curing what may now appear to be incurable diseases including HIV, AIDS and non-chemical pesticides with no harmful elements in them. It is involved in not just organic foods or chemicals-free seafoods, but also in making arid or flooded zones productive. It is also concerned with diminishing pain and generating medications, drugs and pharmaceuticals with the least side effects. To begin with these could be expensive but over a time frame and with tax incentives and tax breaks, they could be cost-effective. Biotechnology also seeks to develop safe preservatives to increase the shelf life of many products and push expiry dates farther away.

These elements are all parts of India's BT Vision 2010, launched two years ago by the Prime Minister, Shri Atal Bihari Vajayee. India's increasing strengths were forcefully brought out at a seminar "Biotechnology in India: Emerging Opportunities for Partnerships" held a few months ago in Washington. It was pointed out that biotech in India was expected to grow by 40 per cent every year with a 70 per cent increase in exports. At present there are 110 biotech units in health care, 140 units in agriculture and 300 units in industrial and other biotech products sector concentrated in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Lucknow and New Delhi which are becoming India's biotech hubs. The Indian delegates at the Washington seminar disclosed that the number of biotech units was expected to double in the next three years from 550 to more than 1100.

India is a good destination for research, development and production of biotech goods - as has been appreciated in the area of information technology. The biotech growth could be so substantial in the next few decades that it might overtake information technology in view of the projects in hand and strong initiatives by the government and private sector, especially in view of the large pool of skilled manpower. The Indian biotech sector employs 25,000 scientists for research and development. India's English-speaking skills are evident from three million graduates, 7 lakh post-graduates and 1,500 PhDs in biosciences and engineering every year. These advantages are available to the world community.

It is well known that India offers the cheapest drugs to combat HIV/AIDS and a number of countries in Africa and Asia prefer to buy Indian formulations which are affordable and not as expensive as the products of the multinational corporations. A globally competitive diagnostic kit for AIDS made in India costs less than $ 0.5 whereas the imported ones cost several dollars. As the HIV strain prevailing in India has been identified, work on an anti-AIDS vaccine is in an advanced stage of development. A vaccine to treat leprosy, developed by India, is the first of its kind in the world. Asmon, a cheap effective herbal remedy for asthma patients, has no side effects. It is popular in India and has high export potential.

India's contribution in a ten-nation international effort to sequence the rice genome has received world-wide acclaim. India and Switzerland have now taken up joint research on Golden Rice, a pro-vitamin A rich variety of rice.

Commercial production of the genetically modified BT Cotton has been successful. Modified tobacco, tomato, potato, brinjal, mustard, cauliflower and cabbage are undergoing field trials.

The Government of India's Biotechnology Department provides financial assistance to a number of universities for advanced research in biotechnology. The Council of Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR) is also engaged in commercializing a number of biotech products developed by its laboratories in Pune, Goa and elsewhere. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which oversees the work of more than 80 universities and institutes is engaged in biotechnology in field trials and dissemination of its benefits to the farmers.

To allay fears about the intellectual property rights (IPR), the Government is evolving fiscal and regulatory policies to promote capital-intensive research and manufacturing. The Indian biotech sector is committed to World Trade Organisation (WTO) and trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPS). The patent protection laws have been strengthened to enable drug companies to protect their products.

In this millennium modern biology and biotechnology are the emerging sciences both in the developing and developed countries. More and more young people are attracted to these disciplines as a career option. The entrepreneurs see biotech as profitable area for economic and industrial growth. Research scholars delve deeply into the fundamentals of life's secrets at the cellular and molecular levels. Biotechnology in India seeks to improve health, food, farming and environment besides contributing to energy requirements of the people. The focus is evident in research and development projects in bio-resources including genomics, molecular medicines, vaccines, bio-instrumentation, bio-fuels, bio-informatics and nutritional security. Efforts have been made to ensure synergy among researchers, academics, industries and policy makers for public welfare.

A number of countries perceive India as a good place for bilateral cooperation in biotechnology as excellent infrastructure is available here. The setting up of an Indo-Asian biotechnology network, an Indo-Singapore Biotechnology Park and Bio-Informatics Centre in Mauritius underline India's interest in international cooperation. A bio-diversity information system has also been developed. Bangalore's Butterfly Park serves as a hub for research education and tourism.


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