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The Hindu Opportunities : An interview with Dr. Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, recipient of the Padma Bhushan

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Wednesday, April 18, 2001
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An interview with Dr. Pushpa Mittra Bhargava, recipient of the Padma Bhushan

Dr. Pushpa Mittra Bhargava is the French Legion D' Honneur, is the founder director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB).

What exactly does genetic engineering promise us for the future?

It is going to be a major revolution worldwide. In India, however its future depends on a number of factors. There are various bottlenecks, especially those created by governmental institutions. If however, these hindrances were removed, it would revolutionise healthcare by a large investment in genetic engineering. Initiative is a necessary ingredient for progress. For instance, plant-based drugs, by using modern technology, can be standardised and validated very quickly. We have the capability to market 100 formulations by the end of the next decade. The range could be gradually enhanced. These drugs would have no side effects, no toxicity and the industry would provide employment to tens of thousands of people in the agricultural sector. This would ensure higher returns than any of the cash crops. The medical and health care sector would have been completely revolutionised inspite of genetically engineered drugs.

Briefly tell us about your present association with Anweshna.

Anweshna is my own private consultancy, which I started after my retirement from CCMB. As the workload remained the same, I needed to set up an office. I have concerns with a large number of organisations that essentially deal with science like Vera Labs, Shantha Marine, CMI (a German company), Jagdish Kamla Mittal Museum, Sambhavana Trust (set up to treat the victims of the Bhopal Gas tragedy), MARCH, Manushi trust, and the DNA association dealing with fingerprinting and laser technology, etc. I'm also the scientific advisor to Satyam computers, SKJ Steel, Shantha Biotech, Biogen, etc which also deal with biotechnology and bio-informatics among other things.

Where does CCMB's stand in research at a global level? Are its facilities on par with international standards? How do you rate Indian scientists vis-a-vis their global counterparts?

The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology is a globally recognised institute offering highly qualitative research and educational facilities. It is the only lab in the world that has all the available research facilities under one roof. A Ph.D. student at CCMB has access to research facilities that most other students would normally not have.

Any scientist if he is good enough would definitely gain recognition, no matter where he comes from. I've myself been invited to about 250 lectures abroad sponsored by the respective institutes rather than being sponsored by the government.

How do you see the genome revolution influencing the private sector? Do you believe that it will generate more employment in the country?

It should be a matter of mutual interest, companies that satisfy the country's interest and their own legitimate interest. It is a win-win situation. On the contrary, if the advantages are in the company's favour, it is an unfavourable situation. Why does the country need coca cola or pepsicola, when we have campacola, thumsup and double cola? Why should there be any quantitative restrictions at all? Most foreign companies export products that are no longer saleable in their own country, to make more profits. In such instances, local citizens are robbed out of their livelihood and jobs. These companies will begin to control the market as they can afford to sell at a loss for a couple of years.

What do you think of the brain drain happening in India, with highly qualified scientists preferring to work abroad? Is the government doing something to counter this?

The country has immense talent, out of which only 5% of it goes abroad. The remaining 95%, we kill. It's incredible that a brain becomes a brain only when it leaves the shores. It is a traditional Indian syndrome. The proper utilisation of the vast amounts of funds being granted by the government would definitely ensure better results. To achieve outstanding success in the field of research you need to be scientifically independent. With courage, articulation, honesty and integrity, path- breaking research is possible. Despite all that, you could still be mired in problems. I literally had to resign thrice from CCMB to have funds allocated to the institute.

How can scientists achieve success in the field of research? Is research a viable profession?

Genetic engineering is only one of the 20 areas in biotechnology. Tissue culture, reproductive technology, immuno technology, peptide synthesis, etc are some of the specialisations. Each one of them promises tremendous scope. As a research scientist, it would be impossible to make millions. Space, energy, material science, information technology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, etc are subjects where there is tremendous excitement and makes for viable careers in India. These are what will determine people's lifestyle over the next ten years.

Our country provides some of the best qualitative education in the world. A PhD from CCMB is a considered very prestigious. Your future is secured! This also gives them the opportunity to go abroad and gain exposure. Our country doesn't know how to utilise the talent it has. The motivation to take up a chosen profession has to be there from childhood, and study of scientific subjects needs to be greatly stressed upon. Though CCMB provides an exceptional environment, there are other equally good institutes in India like the TIFR, the Indian Institute of Science, the National Centre for Biological Sciences, and Institute of Biotechnology. There are no private research organisations as of now. Companies like Satyam, Reliance, DHQ, Nicolas Piramal, etc are palnning to venture into bio-informatics and biotechnology. A really good scientist has no dearth of employment either in the private or the public sector.


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