Riding on ‘Atma Nirbhar’ wings: Is India ready to take the plunge?

Delhi Jun 30, 2020, 01.27 PM(IST) Written By: Malay Mitra

Coronavirus in India Photograph:( PTI )

Story highlights

From more beds, ventilators, PPE, and test kits to a stronger global connection for the latest technology, the existing medical sector needs a complete structural revamp.

With India’s coronavirus tally nearing the six lakh mark, the country is taking significant steps to weather the pandemic and its economic impact. From announcing the Atma Nirbhar Abhiyan (self-reliant India Mission) to boost the Indian industry and become less dependent on the global companies, to looking at the global partnership by asking the G20 members to work on policies to ensure flexible access to treatments for COVID-19 across borders, India is trying hard to stay ahead of the virus. This clearly implies we understand the importance of global partnerships to develop as a manufacturing hub for domestic as well as international consumption but are reluctant to provide them with market access. It’s a noble thought at a time when we want to provide impetus to our local industry. However, currently, when we are looking at the world for a vaccine and healthcare solutions to defeat the COVID-19 juggernaut we may want to spare the healthcare sector from the inward policy and look outwards for stronger collaborations to increase India’s access to global solutions. 

Why Collaboration is Key  

India is called the pharmacy of the world but that does not mean we are self-reliant in manufacturing them; we rely on China for key APIs, vitamins, antibiotics and excipients. There is no doubt that India is capable enough to make finished formulations and key ingredients, however, the country may take a few years to get there. For the production of even ventilators, we are dependent on imports of several components like pressure sensors and solenoid valves. Therefore, we need to provide easy access to global technologies and inputs in our journey to become self-dependent, as a self-sufficient approach alone will prove to be detrimental given the global nature of supply chains.  

Government pressure and domestic demand have forced several local manufacturers to throw their hat in the ring and it triggered a wave of ingenuine ventilator production and even after two months of manufacturing, these ventilators remain unsold, according to some media reports. Take, for instance, production of low-cost ventilators in India in a bid to make COVID-19 treatment affordable for all, fell flat. For rendering affordable solutions to all, India tried to take a short cut through ‘jugaad’ system. According to reports, we now have locally manufactured ventilators which are made without any clinical precision, real engineering and most importantly, evaluation. We need more original thinking, and it is felt that more investment and autonomy in research can play a big role in it. 

The Gaping Holes in India’s Healthcare Structure 

Recently the government’s Make in India push also received a very big jolt recently after Gujarat manufactured Dhaman-1 ventilators’ quality was questioned by the Ahmedabad Civil Hospital doctors who called them artificial manual breathing devices. 

A video went viral in which a doctor from a hospital in Vadodara was heard saying that Dhaman-1 ventilators are not of good quality and can only be used if necessary.  Amidst the scare of rising COVID-19 cases is it advisable to risk the lives of several Indians only to boost the Indian firms which are still struggling to build capacity?  

It becomes crucial to understand how a push was made to sell an ayurvedic combination for the cure of COVID-19 by Patanjali without any permission, at a time when the world is struggling for a vaccine or drug for the disease. 

Mumbai, home to more than 20 million people and an epicentre for coronavirus outbreak in India, is on the brink of collapse as now the emergency ward of hospitals have two people on a bed. Corpses of virus victims were also found next to patients in another hospital in the city. The situation has highlighted India’s crumbling health infrastructure burdened by the unprecedented demand and exposed its lack of resources and self-sufficiency. Therefore, this is not the time to turn our back on access to critical medical supplies, technologies and therapies by adopting an inward-looking ecosystem.  

The way forward 

India stood at 63 in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business 2020 luring international manufacturers to invest in the country.  But the question is how will global innovation enter a country that does not offer them an environment to prosper? Therefore, the right policies along with uninterrupted and robust supply chains are the need of the hour to ensure that essential life-saving products can be rendered to patients in time. 

Indian healthcare industry is at a developing stage, making global partnerships critical in providing quality healthcare facilities to 1.3 billion citizens. To respond to the coronavirus, the medical device industry is playing a key role in ensuring that hospitals are adequately equipped to protect healthcare workers and save lives. But for global manufacturers to continue supporting India with the necessary technologies, the country needs to build welcoming policies and a conducive environment. Everything said and done, the time is right for the country to learn from counterparts and fix the gaps in its existing healthcare infrastructure. From more beds, ventilators, PPE, and test kits to a stronger global connection for bringing the latest technology and vaccines to patients, the existing medical sector needs a complete structural revamp. Made in India should be the outcome and develop organically rather than acting as a disruptor. 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Malay Mitra

The author retired as Deputy Drugs Controller, CDSCO in 2011. Currently, he is a freelance independent regulatory adviser for pharmaceuticals, medical devices and cosmetics.