In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24×7 with The Indian Express Editor in-Chief Shekhar Gupta, Cipla chairman Y K Hamied speaks about the early days of his company, on not being consulted by the government and featuring in the documentary Fire in the Blood.
I’m back in front of No. 25, Cuffe Parade, after eight years. My guest today is somebody who likes to be described as one of the most shaitan chokras of this street, Mr Yusuf Hamied.
That is true.
When we recorded last time… Zubin (Mehta) was mucking round the corner…You haven’t changed much since.
That is right. This is where I grew up and Zubin was in 21, Cuffe Parade.
I believe the sea came right up to the promenade?
The sea came right up there. There was a promenade and this is all reclaimed land that you see.
I believe you once jumped into the sea without figuring out how deep it was.
Yes, in 1947, and I hit my head at the bottom and maybe I’m wiser for that. I must tell you the history of this place. My father came to Bombay in 1932-33. He had a small house in the corner. He and my mother would walk on the promenade every night. And this house, at that time, belonged to a pearl merchant, an Arab. The house was called Jasim House and every night it would be lit up, there would be parties etc. It is now a heritage building, by the way. So my father and mother said our dream is to one day come and live in a house like this. In 1934-35, suddenly, everything was quiet here. So my father enquired and found out that the Basra pearl merchant had gone broke because Mikimoto pearls had come on the scene. He had to sell the house and he sold it to a gentleman called Khatau. That is why the road here is called Khatau Road. My father then came to the house and asked if he could rent a place. So he rented the ground floor — 8,000 feet, ground floor, for Rs 200 a month. So that’s the history here.
And I believe that much other history was made here. It became a hangout for great Indian leaders.
Yes. My father stood for elections in 1936 against the Muslim League, against Jinnah’s candidates, and won because in those days, you could only vote if you were a graduate or an income tax payer. I hope that system comes back to India because some of us could get elected.
I think a graduate may be easier than an income tax payer.
Yes, so this is the original Jasim House and whoever you can think of in the Congress party has been to this house. I remember sharing a room here with Sarojini Naidu, Zakir Husain, Sardar Patel, Pandit Nehru has been here, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai has been here. Also from the Maharashtra government — in those days, it was Bombay Presidency. Morarji (Desai) was in and out of here all the time. B G Kher, the chief minister… Zubin was at No. 21 but further down the road and then there was the famous actress Durga Khote. Mehtab and Sohrab Modi lived down the road. So this place has a lot of history.
I see your eyes light up when you talk of these actresses. I’m sure they will light up when you talk of Pfizer and Merck, Novartis and Novo Nordisk.
That is right. My father started Cipla in 1935-36 and then a very interesting thing happened. In 1939, because my father was friendly with Mahatma Gandhi, he came to Cipla and told my father that the British had approached him, saying we will give India independence if India assists us in the war effort. So my father asked, ‘So where do I feature?’.
Second World War?
Yes. So he said medicines from Europe had stopped coming to India, ‘I want you to supply medicines for the war effort’. And that’s how Cipla came up over the years.
Does the name have a history?
Yes. Chemical, Industrial, Pharmaceutical Laboratory. That is how he coined the name Cipla.
You’re among two or three rock stars in their 70s, other than maybe Mick Jagger and Zubin Mehta. You can fill any concert hall, any stadium with people your medicines have cured.
I remember, at the age of 12, playing cricket with Zubin at 21, Cuffe Parade, and a servant from my house came running to us and said, ‘Sa’ab ne ghar jaldi bulaya hai’. So I went home running. Gandhi had just been assassinated and we did not know who had assassinated him. My father was glued to the radio for news. And God forbid, if it had been a Muslim, it would have been hell to play.
But you had a Jewish mother.
I had a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. In 1925, when my mother first met my father, she called him a Hindu. You know why? Because the name India did not exist in 1925. It was Hindustan and any resident of Hindustan was a Hindu.
Where did your mother come from?
Lithuania… And then, over the years, Cipla has come up. I then went to study abroad… In 1960, I came back to India after studying and I couldn’t get a job because if you were related to a director those days…
Your company couldn’t hire you?
Yes. It had to be approved by the company law board. Anyway, I couldn’t do anything in drugs. Impotent. Why? Because everything was covered under patents. In the 1960s, the multinationals were ruling healthcare.
These days, anybody calls himself a doctor — Vijay Mallya is a doctor, Jayalalithaa is a doctor. Karunanidhi, I presume, is a doctor — whether they went to class X or not. But you’re a doctor, not a medical doctor, but a PhD in chemistry from Cambridge under the watch of a Nobel laureate. A genuine scientist and you were cooling your heels doing nothing?
Yes, for some time, till I took up the challenge on how India changes its patent laws. It took us 11-12 years to fight the government, to change the old British patent laws that we were following of 1911. That was changed in 1972. It gave India an opportunity to legally produce any drug they wanted. And it was a challenge. From 1972 to 2000, it was a golden age for pharmaceuticals, for the indigenous companies.
Why do you say till 2000? Because international patent laws came in?
International patent laws came in 2005 and the government, in their wisdom or foolishness, backdated the law to 1995, which they shouldn’t have done. You cannot backdate intellectual property. So, today, essentially, you’re in a monopoly situation from 1995. I cannot produce any drug patented post 1995.
Cipla doesn’t seem to have suffered. I see your stock prices rising.
We are growing with the momentum.
You’ve set a $5 billion target.
Of the $5 billion, $3 billion will be overseas. Se we’ve had to change our model.
You said it’s time to leave India.
It’s not the time to leave India. This is my home. I love this place.
Leave India in the sense of finding markets overseas?
Yes. There could be more respect… 50 years of being an industry, like you say, a pioneering local manufacturer etc, and the government doesn’t take me into confidence.
In fact, that’s a surprising thing. You say that in 20 years, the government has never consulted you. How come Narayana Murthy and Nilekani and Premji and Chandrashekhar and Ramadorai will not say that? Why does the government consult the IT industry but not the pharma industry?
Because the issue of patents and monopoly is maximum in healthcare.
Aap se darte hain, sir.
Kaun darte hain mujhse?
Nahi, nahi. Maybe because they are influenced by the multinationals more than me. I will live by the laws of the land. In India, I will abide by Indian laws; in America, American laws; Germany, German laws. We have not broken any laws and we never will. So when we got the patent laws changed, it was a golden age. Now, we are going back and I’ve said on many occasions that the government has committed selective genocide in healthcare. Being a scientist, I’ m not against patents, I’m not against science but what I am against is the monopoly which is associated with it. India, with a population of 1.65 billion by 2050, cannot afford a monopoly. So what I’m praying for, and I hope people listen to this, is that the Indian government, in their wisdom, will bring in a pragmatic compulsory licence law. I change the word ‘compulsory’ to ‘obligatory’.
Instead of a drug price control order?
I don’t agree with monopoly, I agree with free competition. The only way to reduce prices is by competition.
And this drug price control has produced many anomalies?
Give us some examples.
If a drug has been marketed for over 20 years, to keep it under price control is meaningless.
Let’s say paracetamol…
Meaningless. There are 100 people making it. What you should put under price control are drugs that are sold under monopoly. Because that is where the pricing is high, the newer drugs. What are you doing price controlling older drugs? And I have given many many examples, particularly in the AIDS area. We gave AIDS drugs at a very affordable price.
I think at about 4 per cent of the price, or not even that?
Not even that. What the multinationals were selling in 2001for $12,000 per patient, per year, we gave at $300. It is possible because we reverse engineered the raw materials. We did it and no monopoly. It is legal.
But sir, why are you not then the Robin Hood pharma czar?
Well, while the patent laws were in our favour till 1995, that’s what we did. We manufactured many drugs. Now we have to go with a begging bowl to the big pharma companies and ask them to licence us their products. It is very sad.
Given our scientific base in India — I’m also a science graduate, my science education was wasted; you are a chemistry doctorate — why are we not discovering molecules?
I have discovered in the past. And I’ve gone with a drug to doctors here in India.
And they don’t want it?
They don’t want it. They say, ‘Dr Hamied, if this is as good as you say it is, how come Pfizer and Glaxo have not marketed it before you?’ Don’t forget, we were slaves for 300 years.
Tell me about this drug, unless it is a secret.
No, no. it’s a drug for thalassemia, for blood disorders, for iron overload. No doctor in India would use it just because Pfizer and Glaxo had not marketed it before us.
So what happened to this drug?
It’s still there in the market but not a blockbuster.
You can sell that molecule to Pfizer and…
They don’t want it. No way.
Because they are selling something more expensive?
Sir, if I can bring in an example from your early days, just as Mikimoto made your Basra pearl merchant go bankrupt, Robin Hoods like you would have made Merck, and Novartis and Pfizer and the rest of them go bankrupt.
There is a place for everyone. There have to be different rules for the developed countries and different rules for the developing and third world countries. The big companies make most of their profits outside India. What I’m saying is that the third world — India, Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America — requires a different system whereby there should be no monopoly. We can then pay royalty to the originator. Canada had this law, why can’t we have it here? Within the framework of TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), if they can do that, put it on their manifesto… This is up to the Indian government, whoever comes to power, whether AAP, BJP or Congress.
Aam Aadmi would love to embrace you because you are someone who faults the evil multinationals. So given their politics and economics, they would love to have you on their side.
I sincerely believe in what is best for India. Which party is not my concern. I believe that in the area of healthcare, if there is no monopoly, pay the scientist a royalty on sales. That, as a scientist, I accept. A scientist has to be suitably rewarded. Reward the scientist but don’t have a monopoly.
But tell me, some of the recent incidents of some Indian companies coming under censure by the US FDA, do you see a conspiracy there?
I don’t think there is a conspiracy but in the regulatory sphere, India has different laws, America has different laws, England has different laws. Now, if you want to sell your products in those countries, you have to adhere to those laws and their regulations. It is very difficult if in one factory you’re producing goods for one dozen countries. Whose regulations are you going to follow? And somewhere there are going to be trip-ups.
And frankly, Ranbaxy has not been an Indian company for many years.
It’s a Japanese company. The Japanese took it up in 2005. So it’s for the Japanese. What are their rules?
And Japanese standards are supposed to be higher than American standards. That’s why you are going and challenging the Japanese.
Not challenging but hoping that we can export to Japan as well.
So tell me. This documentary Fire in the Blood,in which you are a star, how much of it do you agree with? How much of this is a conspiracy and how much of this is organised by big pharma ?
Fire in the Blood is a true documentary. What is important is that it is a true documentary because people like Bill Clinton, Joseph Stiglitz, all of them have appeared in it. Some of the reporters like Donald McNeil and Jimmy Love are in it. If this had not been recorded or shown, it would have painted a different picture. Now, the cat is out of the bag with this movie, which shows clearly as to what is important in life, and I repeat and repeat and repeat that it is access to medicine at affordable prices.
And you can do it while researching and producing and selling at profit and giving dividend to shareholders.
Yes, we are willing to pay royalties, suitable royalties, to the inventor.
Well, if the government is listening to you or not, if AAP is listening to you or not…
I hope so. And if they don’t do that, by 2050, India is going to be in serious trouble.
If they don’t do that, we know that Mr Hamied will keep on expanding the medicine chest of the third world.
We’ll try. We’ ll try our best.
You already own it but you’ll just make it bigger and we’ll have one more conversation.
Transcribed by Arun Subramanian