Profile: Secretary, Dept of Biotechnology
Transformed DBT into a multi-disciplinary, collaborating agency that can nurture smart-thinking people into new-age innovators
“He is a visionary, but can he deliver?” was the subject of a letter sent to the Prime Minister’s Office after Maharaj K Bhan took over as secretary of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) in 2005. The context was some radical changes that he was proposing after extensive consultations with students, faculty, industry, investors, agriculturists and regulators—virtually all stakeholders.
“That [letter] did not hurt me, nor did I take it as challenge, but I did get obsessed with combining my vision with execution brilliance,” says Bhan.
He went on yet another “consultation yatra”, this time looking for the principles of implementation. His insight: Don’t mix policy with service; build a solid governance system but outside the government.
In the months that followed, DBT set up dozens of institutes, new unobtrusive models of governance that are enshrined in the General Finance Rules and a service structure that is outside the government and allows for outsourcing.
The new hiring rules give contract careers to professionals and a salary, Bhan emphasises, that is unheard-of in the government. “We have created manuals of rules that never existed in India.”
One example is the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council, a Section 25 (non-profit) company.
In the first year, strong validation came from WHO and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which want the Council to be their management partner in India. Sensitive to social innovation, it’s evaluating at least 10 proposals in this category.
The way to bring transformative change, Bhan says, is to be guided by principles, create new instruments, convince people, get support from financial advisors and use them again and again, to create standards.
“We’ve tried to do things beyond standard committees; I have realised the power of soft think tanks,” he says.
A paediatrician and an acclaimed public health professional, Bhan came to DBT with a vision to change the department, which focused on biology, to one that encompasses engineering, technology, agriculture, bio-energy, product development and much more. Since he doesn’t like five-year Plans, which, he believes, miss core strategy, he developed one preceding the 11th Plan.
It’s amazing how he imagined everything and has achieved almost all of what he promised in the Biotech Policy, says Shrikumar Suryanarayan, an entrepreneur and ex-chief executive of the Faridabad bio-cluster. “He has been brave enough to fund industry projects, which is important because biotechnology is all about translation. That’s a big shift he has brought in the government.”
One of his last goals is the Biotech Regulatory Authority Bill lying with the Parliament which he hopes gets passed soon because the country needs a regulator for other biotech products even if it shuns GM crops.
“I have created instruments that will serve biotech in the country for 1,000 years. If all other ministries use these, the nation will save 15 years,” says Bhan.