Thrust on biotechnology

Published : Nov 25, 2000 00:00 IST

Tamil Nadu unveils a comprehensive biotechnology policy in order to take advantage of the emerging industrial activity in this sector.

WITH 5,000 species of flowering plants, 22,500 sq km of forest cover and a coastline of 1,000 km, Tamil Nadu is exceptionally rich in biodiversity. This kind of wealth, rarely occurring in a State, needs to be put to sustainable use, especially since the market for biotechnology products in the country is expected to double to Rs.15,000 crores in the next five years. By putting in place an exhaustive biotechnology policy, Tamil Nadu has become one of the first States to take advantage of this anticipate d growth. The landmark policy, which provides a comprehensive scientific plan to put to use the State's natural resources to promote the biotechnology industry, was unveiled by Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi on September 12.

The policy comes with a firm commitment by the State government on financial and procedural matters in order to enable its speedy implementation. Karunanidhi said: "The idea is to provide a policy framework as well as suitable implementation structures t o convert the bioresources of the State into economic wealth in ecologically and socially sustainable manner." He said that the growing demand for biotechnology products and the State's potential to tap the market for them had encouraged the government t o announce the policy. The policy, based on the recommendations of a committee appointed by the government under the chairmanship of the agricultural scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, focusses on product development in the four segments of technology - med icine, agriculture, environment and industry.

The State's biotechnology enterprise would involve

* the setting up of a biotechnology incubator park near Chennai to develop and commercialise products and patents;

* the establishment of a medicinal plants park near Madurai to focus on sourcing raw materials in a sustainable manner and offer value addition to scientifically tested herbal and traditional medicines;

* continuing government's support to the women's biotechnology park at Kelambakkam, near Chennai, which would concentrate on microenterprise and traditional biotechnology products;

* the starting of a marine park at Mandapam in Ramanathapuram district to devise ecologically sustainable methods to conserve sea weeds and plankton; and

* the opening of a Bioinformatics and Genomics Centre at the Tidel Park in Chennai in order to exploit the germplasm base and the vast pool of talented bioinformatics scientists and low-cost software skills in the State.

Tamil Nadu is committed to encouraging biotechnology entities, consisting of research organisations, service providers, knowledge workers and companies, which will commercialise the new products and processes, and to creating a network to facilitate the transfer of information and knowledge among the various entities.

According to the policy document, schemes are being worked out to protect and develop various biosphere reserves, such as the Gulf of Mannar off Rameswaram, the Pichavaram mangroves in Nagapattinam district and Muthupettai in Tiruvarur district. The Glob al Environment Facility has announced an assistance of $7.85 million to protect the Gulf of Mannar.

Industrial activity has so far been confined largely to first generation biotechnology enterprises such as fermentation of antibiotics. To broaden the industrial base, a large number of plant tissue culture units are being set up, besides promoting the p roduction of food and industrial enzymes, classical fermentation products (antibiotics and immuno-modulators), bioenergy and bio- polymers, and other such activities.

According to the policy document, all efforts are directed towards the creation of a critical mass of industrial activity in biotechnology. A two-pronged strategy would be evolved to encourage modern processes in the areas of agriculture, industry, and m edical and veterinary sciences at the same time focussing on traditional biotechnology products, especially industrial and food enzymes. There is also a move to encourage commercial enterprises to develop recombinant DNA(deoxyribonucleic acid)-based prod ucts and bioinformatics.

In the field of medical biotechnology (the State accounts for 11 per cent of the market in the country), the focus is on such areas as diagnostics, vaccines (Hepatitis-C and malaria), therapeutics (Interferon and insulin) and veterinary drugs. In the fie ld of agriculture, the government would work with the germplasm data available with the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation to develop biopesticides and biofertilizers, natural health care products, animal feed , transgenics and diagnostics. The government would also facilitate the creation of quarantine facilities and sanitary/phytosanitary measures as per the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements for biological items.

The thrust areas in environmental biotechnology products would be those concerning leather and textiles. The idea is to develop apparatus/techniques for biosensors, microbial strain development of cultures for waste management (bioremediation), and so on .

The State government has made a commitment to set up a Rs. 30-crore venture fund to provide the single-window clearance facility to obtain clearances from the various Central government agencies, such as the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, the Instit utional Biosafety Committee, the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation and the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, to establish biotechnology enterprises. The policy document promises the creation of a Biotechnology Board, under the chairmanship o f an expert, and consisting of senior government officials, scientists and industrialists. The Board will form standing advisory committees to identify and attract investments, mobilise resources, and work out guidelines and set up a regulatory framework for the use of bioresources.

According to R. Gopalan, Chairman and Managing Director of the Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation (TIDCO), the government is gearing up to take full advantage of the biotechnology boom. He says the State has a crucial role to play in entrepren eur education, infrastructure support, human resource development and resource mobilisation, and that the State is concentrating on all these areas.

In order to develop human resources, the government will introduce technology-oriented courses in all State-funded educational institutions and provide infrastructural facilities to set up bioinformatics centres at Anna University and Madurai Kamaraj Uni versity. The government, according to Gopalan, will assist in the commercial and legal aspects of setting up ventures and help enterprises meet intellectual property regulations.

According to State Industries Secretary Sakthikanta Das, the incubator park, a commercial venture, is a collaborative effort involving TIDCO and some American universities. The park is to be developed in two-phases. In the first phase, a 65-acre (26-hect are) park at a cost of Rs.40 crores (excluding the land cost) would come up at Chennai in seven months. This would be followed by a $100-million facility at Siruseri near Chennai on a 100-acre (40-hectare) plot to start joint ventures.

According to Nobel laureate Dr. Ronnie Coffman of Cornell University, who participated in a video conference during the policy announcement function, "Biotechnology can be very effective in mitigating hunger and poverty around the world. However, it is i mportant not only to focus on cutting-edge technologies but also concentrate on areas that would help poor farmers."

The policy document expresses these concerns while discussing micro-enterprises and traditional biotechnologies. According to Dr. Swaminathan, these concerns, along with the idea of training and transforming agricultural extension workers into knowledge workers to assist farmers (spelt out by Karunanidhi in his Budget speech for 2000-2001) are appropriate and would go a long way in helping poor farmers. Dr. Swaminathan says: "This is relevant for propagating such concepts as precision farming that would reduce cost and enhance farm incomes."

The Biotechnology Policy document is scientifically based and comprehensive, and if implemented would put Tamil Nadu at the head of the Biotechnology Revolution. And, as Karunanidhi stated, "the State would find a place on the biotechnology map of the co untry, and indeed of the world".

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