Biotech parley

A conference on biotechnology in Bangalore failed to live up to its hype

By Keya Acharya
Published: Tuesday 15 May 2001

karnataka's new biotech policy has kept its date with its promotional word. The state's first international biotech trade fair and conference was recently held in Bangalore with much pomp and fanfare and attended by a high-powered group of biotechnocrats, politicians and bigwigs from the corporate world. Of the 56 companies participating, 34 were from Bangalore alone, with another 10 from Mumbai.

But the conference failed to go beyond the fanfare and the overall optimism on the potential for foreign collaborations and research. K Vijayraghavan of the National Centre for Biological Studies ( ncbs ) said that India's lack of open-ended research in the field had led to a reliance on others. If we don't pull up, he believed, "we might end up relying on astrology to keep up."

Shomo Banerjee of the us -based $30 million LabVantage, which is looking for partners to conduct research in India believed biotech it "will probably become another back-office operation" as is the case with India's it -services. Mitsubishi's marketing manager Takanashi stated India's poor infrastructure like power shortage as the reason for companies picking up mid-level Indian talent and training them in the us for operations worldwide.

Outside the conference interiors, Harish Chandra Bhatt, a professor and head of biotechnology at the Government Science College, Bangalore, had an interesting comment on the academic state of biotechnology. "There are no competent teachers, no funds, no laboratories, not even centrifuges, yet there are 19 colleges offering graduate and 12 offering post-graduate degrees in biotechnology in 2000." Sangeeta Udgaonkar, an Infosys Fellow at India's reputed National Law School of India University ( nlsiu ), said that patents on life have come through the courts. "Unfortunately, genetic pollution is not a cause in patent law. And all life-patent cases are in the courts before the legislature has decided on its policy."

Rahul Matthan, founder of law-firm Trilegal, explained how India could serve itself by protecting data leakage created during the provision of services by confidentiality contracts and by patents rather than copyrights in software tools. "Since we are at the beginning, we are in a position to set the standards in the discipline itself," said Matthan.

Biotech expert P M Bhargava was very critical of the department of biotechnology's role since its formation in 1986. "The department has produced not one rupee's worth of products since its inception." India's poor record of regulations was also attacked. "We have an utter lack of awareness on the safety aspects of biotechnology issues," said Bhargava, adding that details of technology should be freely available at every step along with dispersal patterns, gene flows and ecological impact.

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