AN INDELIBLE ink that has maintained the sanctity of Indian elections, a laser machine that has made Surat the global hub of diamond-cutting industry, a novel PVC (polyvinyl chloride) formulation for storage of blood that has energised blood transfusion services in the country — each of these have had an enduring impact in their respective areas. And, behind each one of them are little known stories of scientific innovation and enterprise that have marked the progress of Indian science in the last 70 years.
These stories, and many more like them, are now being recounted in a new book ‘Indian Science: Transforming India’ published by the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), the largest organisation of scientists in the country. The book, written by multiple authors, will be launched this week.
The stories in the book are not about India’s greatest scientific accomplishments. Nor do they represent any spectacular scientific breakthroughs. Most of them involve only incremental innovations, indigenisation, and technology development and application. And yet each of these has had a profound impact on the country’s progress, and are good descriptions of how science has contributed to society and economy, and helped improve the quality of life.
In the process, some of these innovations have triggered huge commercial successes as well. The laser-based diamond cutting machine, for example, has ensured that India now accounts for more than 70 per cent of the global share in cutting and polishing of diamonds. The first laser machines were introduced in Surat only in 1991 and now the city has more than 12,000 laser units operating. In 2016, export of cut and polished diamonds earned India USD 16.91 billion, which was more than 52 per cent of India’s entire gems and jewellery exports.
Similar is the story of Shanta Biotechnics, which pioneered recombinant DNA technology in India with active support from public research institutions like Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad. Its affordable Hepatitis B vaccine — marketed at Rs 50 in 1997 when some multi-national companies were selling them at Rs 750-850 — was a game-changer. In just about 15 years, the company’s values had risen so much that it was acquired by Sanofi Aventis for USD 784 million in 2013.
“The book is not about scientific discoveries or achievements. It is more about how science has touched the lives of the common people in India, and has improved general well-being. In each of the stories, the public connect of science is evident,” said L S Shashidhara of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, who is also the vice-president of INSA.
“Sometimes there are questions about what has public science in India has done, what value has it added to the country. This book will hopefully answer some of those kind of questions,” he said.
Some of the stories in the book are well-known, like the story of Amul which revolutionised milk production and distribution, the IT revolution, the generic drug industry, or the global patent battle over basmati which India managed to win by employing DNA fingerprinting technology.
Some others are relatively unknown stories like that of the blood bags developed by the Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology in Kerala in the 1980s. Before the advent of blood bags, blood used to be stored in bottles, which was unhygienic, the source of multiple infections, and prone to breakages. Penpol, the company which produces and markets these blood bags, now accounts for 38 per cent of the global production.
Similarly, a diagnostic kit developed by Chennai-based Central Institute of Brackishwater Aquaculture to detect viruses that bring diseases to shrimp farms, has revived the shrimp farming industry in Tamil Nadu, an important source of livelihood for many coastal farmers.
Though the stories in the book deal mainly with publicly funded scientific research, the contributions made by private industry, either on their own or in collaboration with public institutions, have also been acknowledged.