State of Biotechnology – An industry under siege
Touted as the most promising field with a projected market over $100 billion, the government and the academia with their regressive policies are asphyxiating the potential of biotechnology. The writer, a biotechnology graduate from Mumbai University, reaffirms the need for reforms and a comprehensive policy defining a vision for the industry.
I am angry. My rage directed at the establishment, at every person involved in this business of biotech. The students are mere spectators bereft of significant opinion and the teachers encourage mediocrity conforming to a hackneyed and obsolete education system which undermines the latent potential of an individual and seldom encourages oblique thinking.
The inherent structure of the system suppresses independent view point while rewarding compliance with defined notions. So, a novel idea becomes secondary to the so called primary objective of “achieving merit”. This has resulted in mass production of generic individuals subservient to acknowledged authority where deflection from the norm is vehemently chastised.
The gulf between industry and academia is widening by the day. It is an accepted fact that a person has to unlearn his concepts when he or she enters the industry. So why are we investing in infrastructure and machinery when its eventual utility is null and void? The UGC had advised not to initiate an under-graduate course in Biotech due to the lack of infrastructure and discontinuity in terms of academic progression. In its fifth year now (in Mumbai) there is very little that this course can claim to have accomplished.
A biotechnology graduate ignorant of practical applications is severely restricted in his opportunities. In effect we are educating people to be unemployed as the skill set required for absorption in the industry is absent. Through an initiative of public-private partnership this can be corrected. By linking academia with the industry we can nurture a competent and productive work force which will sustain long-term growth.
As practitioners of biotech, these manufactured foot soldiers of ignominy aspire to extend a pre fabricated agenda without prior contemplation. Hence, we have researchers quick to eschew responsibility when a product of their design causes harm to people. Under the veiled accusation of “an incompetent administration”, which to a large extent may be true, they transfer their responsibility.
The government with its policies has virtually incapacitated entrepreneurs and set the biotech industry in retrograde. Although the cautious nature of our policies considers broader arguments with regards to implication of technology, its structure constricts expansion and rapid growth. As a result, India is trailing almost a decade behind countries like the US and China in spite of having equivalent resources. Dr. Suman Sahai, a member of the Expert committee which drafted the National Biotech policy, argues that, throwing caution to the wind, India has scripted a policy that caters to the wishes of the Biotechnology industry, rather than thinking of safeguards and adopting a precautionary approach.
Also, corporate policies with a linear objective of amassing wealth dilute the prospect of actual benefit to the masses. An erosion of moral fabric or sensitivity towards the common interests of people and the environment alike which may be linked to the lack of holistic education.
A case in point would be the American MNC Monsanto and its unabashed persistence via contemptuous marketing and directed media, of introducing a harmful rBST vaccine ‘Posilac’ to increase milk production in cows, which caused grave damage not only to the animals but also humans who consumed the milk. The recent report of the Monsanto study on the organ damage and compromised immune system of rats fed with GM corn should be an eye opener. Closer home, the BT cotton debacle where farmers committed suicide due to the failure of crop or the imported Japanese encephalitis vaccine, a prophylactic measure taken without proper trials, killed many in North India, portrays a disturbing paradigm of institutional apathy.
Accountability has become a flaccid value, a fleeting thought which does not inspire compassion or remorse.
In what is touted as the century of biological sciences, a majority of the population is ignorant of the impact that this field has on their every day existence. The growth of the industry is solely reliant on developing a knowledgeable consumer base. But, the initiative in generating an informed consent is seen as a faltering strategy because this would lead to deliberations on issues which now are considered a prerogative of industry. This abject alienation further hinders societal responsibility. By ignoring the demands of sustainable industry, the current paradigm will lead to a subsequent degeneration of intellect and enterprise.
It is important that India comes out with a comprehensive national policy to balance national socio-economic priorities with adequate technological expertise. Such a policy may also provide an overarching framework for regulatory issues, which may help in strengthening not only the process of inter-ministerial co-ordination but also in accommodating expectations of various state governments.
The state of biotech in India can be likened to the early attempts of man to fly. A person would stand on a very high cliff, flapping his wings. In a moment of faith he would leap in order to test his theory. Initially the air rushes at him creating an illusion of overcoming gravity, but the ground inches closer eventually to break his fall. In actuality he is just free falling. We are governed by certain laws of nature and our momentary perception does not alter the reality.