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The DRDO's most unusual lab

May 05, 2009 04:04 IST
During the Second World War, Field Marshall William Slim, commander of the 14th Army in Burma, discovered that the anopheles mosquito was causing more casualties to his men than the Japanese. Ruthlessly practical, he decreed that catching malaria was a disciplinary offence, punishable by imprisonment in a military prison. Today's Indian Army, still serving in the mosquito-ridden jungles of the northeast, continues Slim's dicta t-- sleeves must be rolled down after sunset; mosquito nets are compulsory at night.

Now, however, the jawans have a formidable ally, the Defence Research Laboratory, Tezpur. While other Defence R&D Organisation laboratories focus on weapons and sensors, DRL tackles problems that concern every citizen of the northeast -- malaria; the pestilent dim-dam fly; water-purification in remote areas; and power generation from bio-resources.

Such projects are far removed from the glamorous end of defence R&D. But Business Standard learned during a visit to DRL Tezpur that, measured in terms of intellectual property, this is the DRDO's most successful laboratory. Four months ago, DRL's Molecular Biology Facility became the first Indian institution to file, with the World Gene Bank, the detailed structure of the gene that provides mosquitoes with resistance to insecticides. This gene sequence is now available internationally for research against the mosquito.

And in just the last two years, DRL has filed for eight Indian patents and an international patent for a herbal anti-malarial.

DRL's success rests on a simple method: tapping into local tribal knowledge of herbs and plants that repel mosquitoes, leeches and other pests and provide relief from their attacks. DRL scientists in Tezpur then use modern laboratory techniques to identify the active ingredient in these local herbs. These ingredients are then packaged into convenient dispensers for soldiers, as well as civilians.

DRL's director, Dr RB Srivastava, shows us a sheaf of letters from private companies requesting Transfer of Technology for his products. During May 2009, DRL will hand over technology for the commercial production of five anti-mosquito products, including a herbal anti-malarial that replaces Good Knight; and a bio-larvicide that feeds on mosquito larvae.

DRDO keeps the ToT fee nominal, to encourage as much manufacture as possible. Malaria, points out the DRL Director, can only be tackled at a broad societal level. Only half in jest, he says, "Mosquitoes have developed the technology for flying across cantonment walls. We can't confine ourselves to the military in dealing with issues like malaria."

But why, I ask, is a defence laboratory researching malaria, an area better left to hospitals, academic research institutions and the Ministry of Health? Dr Srivastava explains that DRL scientists collaborate with the National Institute of Malaria Research for technical training and analytical assistance. But there is a marked reluctance within central institutions for working and researching in the difficult border areas of the northeast.

The northeastern state governments turn to DRL as frequently as the military does. DRL is Arunachal Pradesh's referral institute for water quality studies. After DRL's malarial applications won first prize in a Tripura government science exhibition, shutting out competitors like the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Tripura government has turned to DRL for an anti-malaria programme.

DRL's bold charter criss-crosses the dividing line between civil and military. A great success is its one-week mushroom farming training programme, run for batches of 25-30 local youths. DRL estimates that each graduate who opens a mushroom farming unit employs about 30 locals, bringing them into the national mainstream and narrowing the extremists' recruitment base.

Ajai Shukla in Tezpur (Assam)
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