View: Faith in Indian science and technology begins at home

In the aftermath of the pandemic, there is a huge opportunity for India to transform itself into a thriving economy through economic policies that leverage its prowess in science and technology (S&T), build self-reliance through import substitutio...

It is a harsh reminder of the interconnectedness of the global economy that a microscopic, yet lethal, virus can bring it to its knees. Once the medical crisis begins to recede, governments will be looking for ways to shore up their countries’ economies. The approaches they take will have long-lasting impact, so they need to choose carefully.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, there is a huge opportunity for India to transform itself into a thriving economy through economic policies that leverage its prowess in science and technology (S&T), build self-reliance through import substitution and rapidly expand exports.

Besides protecting against global supply chain disruptions, a sharper focus on large-scale import substitution will help add millions of jobs in the micro, small and medium enterprise (MSME) sector. This will require significant reforms and policy interventions for ensuring timely access to credit, improving ease of doing business and introducing new technology.


Manufacturing capacity expansion should not be limited to catering to domestic demand. Companies need to be able to tap global markets, for which India needs a strong policy that incentivises exports.

In a recent interview in The Print, economist and former NITI Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya has argued for raising India’s share in global exports to at least 4-5%. Even if the global merchandise export pie shrinks to $15 trillion post the Covid-19 crisis, a 5% share will mean $750 billion in exports, translating to a little more than 25% of India’s current GDP.

India has had experience of turning crisis into opportunity by leveraging its scientific, engineering and software skills. The Y2K scare gave the Indian information technology (IT) industry the opportunity to showcase its ability to understand a problem, find a solution, quickly train people to resolve it and emerge as a global software hub. India now has an opportunity to build a huge bio-medical sector that is innovative, high quality and has global scalability.
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We have the knowledge and skill base to rank on par with the world’s greatest scientific powers. But we lack the confidence essential to transform us into an S&T powerhouse. We must, first, encourage our scientists to create and market their intellectual property (IP). Entrepreneurial scientists are crucial in the march towards scientific superiority.

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Look at how Indian entrepreneurs are harnessing innovation to fight the pandemic. Pune-based Mylab Discovery was able to develop a relatively cheaper, and more efficient, coronavirus test indigenously in a record six weeks. Mysuru-based Skanray Technologies is working to locally assemble about 100,000 ventilators to meet the expected spike in demand. Syngene, Biocon’s research services subsidiary, is working to develop serological antibody detection tests as well as vaccines against Covid-19.

Our startups have the ability to think creatively and use cutting-edge science to develop world class bio-medical products. Yet, many get stuck taking ‘ideas’ to the ‘proof of concept’ stage. Most fail to scale up and achieve commercial success because investors are not ready to back them. Even those that successfully reach the commercialisation stage struggle to find early adopters in their home country.

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A debilitating lack of self-confidence in home-grown scientific expertise forces bio-medical innovators in India to seek western endorsement and validation. The first question asked by local investors is whether a product has US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval or a CE mark from the EU. If we continue to under-value Indian innovation, we will not be able to scale up our S&T-based industries. If we do not repose faith in our own capabilities, no one else will.

Going ahead, we will need policies that encourage ‘Innovate in India’, ‘Make in India’ and ‘Buy in India’. The Indian pharma industry was self-reliant in the production of antibiotics and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) till around 1990. We ended up ceding our position to China because India did not match the incentives that Chinese pharma-makers received from their government.

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This is the most opportune time for GoI to implement the Katoch Committee recommendations and give incentives to API manufacturers. If India is to address the bio-medical opportunity, it will have to act expeditiously, and GoI will have to play an enabling role by providing suitable physical, financial, legislative and regulatory infrastructure.

Research institutions must be encouraged to coordinate with industry to share resources and skills, which will eventually facilitate better and relevant bio-medical research. A concerted effort by public institutions and private enterprise to cooperate in advancing scientific research will be the ideal catalyst for India’s emergence as a bio-medical leader.

We must also attract venture capitalists with incentives to come forward with funding. The private sector will need to invest in building the necessary manufacturing capacity, provided the enabling infrastructure is in place. The success of the bio-medical sector will have to be replicated across other sectors in turbo-charging the Indian economy after the Covid-19 threat has passed.

The writer is executive chairperson, Biocon
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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