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The Hindu Editorial Analysis | PDF Download

Date: 26 September 2019
  • The oneness in ‘one nation’ is the kind of oneness talked about by narayana guru, shankara, the saints in the bhakti movement and the sufi poets. It is the oneness between the humans and the world, and oneness between each one of us independent of the language we speak or the religion we practise. Those who talk about ‘one nation’ must realise that the true meaning of oneness lies in its quality of unity and togetherness. It does not arise through measurable and majoritarian views but only as a quality that comes through recognising the common humanity in all of us, independent of our gender, caste, class and religion.

The real deal

  • Even a limited trade agreement between India and the U.S. is some distance away
  • After the backslapping bonhomie and high of Houston, it was time for a reality check in New York. Contrary to expectations that were consciously generated and managed by both sides, India and the United States failed to arrive at a limited trade deal that was to have been announced during this visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the U.S. The deal stumbled over duties imposed by India on ICT (information and communication technology) products — the U.S. wanted the 20% duty on mobile phones and ethernet switches to be reduced or eliminated.
  • America is also understood to have demanded greater access to the Indian market for medical devices such as stents and knee implants apart from its dairy and agricultural products. These are sensitive products politically for the Indian side as Mr. Modi has often taken credit for making them affordable. Loosening price controls now is not an option for India as that would push up prices of these products in the country.
  • For its part, India wanted the Generalised System of Preferences which gives preferential market access for its products in the U.S., restored. These are so far as a “limited trade deal” goes; a full scale trade agreement would pose bigger challenges on issues such as intellectual property, e-commerce and the ticklish subject of H1B visas.
  • Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale has said that the two sides “narrowed” down their differences and made “significant progress” but it is clear that there is still a wide gulf even assuming that India is willing to go more than half the way to strike a deal. That a deal could not be struck despite Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal winging his way to New York to lead negotiations tells the story.
  • For U.S. President Trump, even a limited deal with India will be something to talk about as he approaches election year. This is especially because trade talks with China are going nowhere. China has not only taken Mr. Trump’s punitive tariffs on its chin but has retaliated in kind, picking the products that could hurt his constituency and supporters. This explains the hectic, behind-the-scenes activity with India in the last few weeks. With its economy in the grip of a major slowdown, any concessions from India on imports of American products may not have gone down well both politically and in economic terms.
  • Going by the limited information in the public domain, it appears that India has played tough and refused to yield to U.S. demands. Trade negotiations are never easy and for them to succeed, both sides have to believe in a policy of give and take. It does not help if one side tries to bulldoze the other into submitting totally to its interests. At this point in time it does seem that even a limited trade deal between India and the U.S. is some distance away.
  • India is among the first countries to set up a specialized agency for the development of research and human resources in the biotechnology sector. More than three decades later, it is imperative to ask: has the biotechnology sector lived up to its promise? Or was it all faux optimism?
  • More importantly, is the sector poised to stand shoulder-toshoulder with, if not beat, the IT sector in creating jobs for the future?
  • One needs to go beyond the traditional indicators such as the numbers of institutions formed, students and scientists trained, and the number of patents filed to judge the sector’s performance, and its impact on the economy and society as a whole.
  • Modern biotechnological research is expensive. It requires a highly trained and skilled workforce and access to expensive instruments. So far, most of the high-quality research output has come from a handful of institutions with better scientific infrastructure. The rest, which forms the bulk of the research publications, is of mediocre quality. This is primarily due to a “publish or perish” culture that incentivizes numbers over quality.
  • Over the years, the focus of research has slowly shifted from fundamental to applied research. Why has India not produced another Jagadish Chandra Bose or G.N. Ramachandran despite the biotechnology research budget growing several folds? The fruits of applied research will only come when we start investing in basic research without asking for quick returns. While continuing and increasing the share of funding in basic research, the government should encourage and incentivize the private sector to invest substantially in applied research.
  • Compared to the developed economies (the United States), biotechnology research in India is mainly funded by the public exchequer. Unless the private sector starts supporting applied research and engages with academic institutions, the innovation in applied and translational biotechnology will be minimal

Field-specific issues

  • Let us look at the creation of human resources and jobs in the biotechnology sector. In India, unlike the IT sector, a large pool of the English-speaking workforce, low wages of scientists (compared to the developed economies) and a sizeable institutional research base have not helped create more jobs in biotechnology.
  • There may be several possible reasons. Biotechnology research often requires access to laboratories with high-end scientific infrastructure, the supply of expensive chemicals and reagents with minimum shipping time between the supplier and the user, and a disciplined work culture and documentation practice due to regulatory and intellectual property filing requirement. Additionally, unlike the products and solutions from the IT industry, biotechnology products and solutions often require ethical and regulatory clearance, making the process long, expensive and cumbersome.
  • As the nature of the work in the biotechnology sector is specialized, most jobs are filled with experienced and skilled scientists leaving the demand for young and inexperienced ones low.
  • In a global marketplace, having a large number of young professionals hungry to work at meagre wage coupled with the need of large corporations in the West to get work done cheaper created some of the large IT companies in India.
  • Advantage China
  • However, for the biotechnology industry, the same honour went to China. Unlike India, China has many more labs with the best of scientific infrastructure; each with more number of skilled human resources trained in regimental work culture and trained to practice rigorous documentation. Chinese students and scientists outnumber Indians nearly 5:1 in most American universities in the life sciences/biology-related disciplines.
  • A booming economy and a higher science budget coupled with a flexible hiring system have made Chinese universities and research labs attract many overseas Chinese scientists. Our government needs to make the process of hiring in our universities and national labs simpler and flexible, not necessarily provide more salary, to attract the bright overseas Indian scientists.
  • Last, let us look at innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology creation. Unlike the IT sector, the biotechnology sector requires years of experience in the domain, access to labs with sophisticated instruments, sustained and long-term funding to innovate. The government has been supporting biotech entrepreneurs.
  • Initiatives through the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) of the Department of Biotechnology to support the innovation ecosystems have resulted in an impressive outcome. For example, the funding has helped startup companies make nearly 50 biotechnology-related products that are in the market today.
  • Moving beyond this, however, will require a different strategy and understanding of the mature biotech-led innovation and economy ecosystems. Two successful hotbeds for biotech innovation, Boston and Silicon Valley in the U.S., may provide us some clues.

A road map

  • Along with the availability of funding, infrastructure and skilled workforce, the presence of top-notch research institutions and universities in the vicinity make these two places among the most attractive locations for biotech startup companies anywhere. Unlike the IT and e-commerce space, ideas for biotechnology companies are initiated in scientific research labs while their parent academic institutions work as feeders of intellectual property. Often technology is incubated, refined and tested for years in academic labs before it gets spun out. Therefore, and unlike the IT sector, a sustained innovation and product development model in the biotechnology field without enriching the academic institutions is not possible.
  • The government is very encouraging and promoting entrepreneurship, but the culture of institutions and scientists to be entrepreneurial will take time. This will require a flexible policy in the institutes to allow scientists incubate startup companies in their labs while retaining their positions. • Second, the government should let scientists from research institutions and universities take unpaid leave to join the industry for a fixed period.
  • Similarly, the government should relax rules to appoint researchers from industry in faculty positions with the freedom to teach, participate, and take students. This academia-industry linkage will do the much-required communication and understanding of the problems at both ends.
  • Without a sustained effort in encouraging and promoting science-driven innovation in our academic institutions, and a robust academia-industry collaboration, biotechnologyled innovation will not aid the nation’s economic growth.
  • The future of biotechnology is bright in India. However, the sector is not going to displace the IT sector anytime soon in employment generation. Discoveries in biotechnology may help us solve some of the pressing societal issues of our time: cleaning our rivers, producing life-saving drugs, feeding our growing population with nutritious food and helping us clean the air we breathe.
  • Therefore, it will be a mistake to look at the biotechnology sector through the lens of employment generation only. The need for the use of artificial intelligence-based tools and applications of big data in biology will leverage India’s strength in IT and move biotech innovations faster to the marketplace. Till then, India needs to do things patiently and work on the right side of the ethical and regulatory boundaries.
  • While referring to women in live-in relationships, a Bench of the State Human Rights Commission of Rajasthan said on September 5 that the “concubine” life of a woman cannot be termed a dignified life. In the absence of any specific reference in the order to the complaints that triggered these provocative comments, it is difficult to say what the honourable justices sought to achieve by making them. The kindest interpretation would be that they were overcome by benevolent patriarchy, the kind which prompts universities to have more conservative curfews for female students. However, this seemingly innocuous need to ‘protect’ women is a symptom of a more pernicious disease: the need to ensure that women don’t challenge the patriarchal structures and institutions meant to keep them in their place.

The rights of parties who cohabit

  • In demanding a law that would provide avenues to formally recognize live-in relationships, the Bench touched upon an important legal issue. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, extends remedies in the legislation to ‘relationships in the nature of marriage’, and courts have repeatedly held that long, continuous cohabitation raises a presumption in favour of marriage.
  • Notwithstanding this, there is a legal vacuum as regards the rights of parties who cohabit. The Supreme Court has passed several landmark judgments on intimate relationships. In Shafin Jahan v. Asokan (2018), it held that the right to choose one’s life partner is an important facet of the right to life, and social approval of intimate personal decisions should not be the basis for recognizing them.
  • In Navtej Johar v. Union of India (2018), it read down Section 377 of the IPC which criminalized consensual homosexual relationships. In light of this, it is important to note that being in a live-in relationship is a valid choice which deserves the recognition and protection of law. That said, there may also be those who cohabit informally because they cannot formalize their relationships, such as inter-caste/religion opposite-sex couples who are barred from marrying by social norms, or same-sex couples, who are barred from marrying by law.
  • Informal cohabitation, like marriage, creates vulnerabilities due to divisions of labour that leave one party, usually the woman and her child, in greater need of financial support when the relationship ends. The law provides ways to address these vulnerabilities in marriages through the provision of rights to maintenance or inheritance, but the needs of informal cohabitants are left up to the discretion of judges, without any legal framework to guide them.
  • However, it is not for these reasons that the SHRC has demanded the law. The real apprehension of the Bench is the alleged proliferation of live-in relationships, a social institution through which sexual freedom can be exercised outside marriage.

Problematic proclamations

  • The SHRC’s order is problematic on many levels. One, Article 19 of the Constitution, which protects the right to freedom of speech and expression, includes the freedom to express one’s identity, sexual preferences, and love. The right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 includes the right to privacy. The right to choose how to organize one’s personal intimacies is an important facet of the right to privacy and, therefore, outside the purview of the state. Demanding that the government seek to prohibit live-in relationships is therefore brazen contempt of the decisions of the apex court.
  • Two, the language of the SHRC promotes sexist and heteronormative stereotypes, and ignores social reality. At one level, in stating that women in live-in relationships are ‘kept’ as concubines, it ignores the possibility that such relationships could be a viable alternative in cases where marriage is legally or socially prohibited. It also assumes that marriage is, or ought to be, the only relationship through which women sexually associate with men. At another level, by equating women who cohabit with concubines, it entrenches the patriarchal Madonna-whore dichotomy: women can either be good women who abide by the societal boundaries set for them or bad women who dare transgress these boundaries. The fact that this language was used by a body tasked with protecting and upholding human rights makes the proclamations doubly egregious.
  • Finally, the language in the order will likely create a chilling effect, preventing vulnerable citizens, in need of legal protection, from seeking redress.
  • The SHRC also demanded that governments run awareness campaigns against live-in relationships. It is worth considering whether that time and money might be better spent in campaigns to sensitise the functionaries of the justice system instead.