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‘Substandard equipment, no repair’ — Modi govt’s ‘Buy Indian’ credo has scientists exasperated

Highlighting the importance of ‘precision, highest quality control’ in scientific equipment, scientists and researchers in India ask for easier procurement norms.

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New Delhi: The “Be Indian, Buy Indian” credo first made an appearance in 2017, when the BJP-led NDA government completed three years. It received a fillip with Covid restrictions coming into play in 2020, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an emphatic pitch for local products.

But after five years of buying Indian or wading through paperwork to get foreign, Indian scientists are an exasperated lot.

They point to what they claim is a lack of quality control in the Government e-Marketplace (GeM), the need for precision in scientific equipment, and the inordinate delays that mark procurement of even proprietary items, to make a case for easier procurement norms.

According to an order first issued in 2017, all publicly funded research and patient care institutes, when buying equipment or consumables, should give preference to ‘Made-in-India’ products. Researchers are, therefore, required to first check the availability of those items on GeM.

If they are available, procurement must be from the Indian manufacturer. If not, a process called ‘Global Tender Enquiry (GTE)’ is set in motion, beginning with paperwork and forms at the level of the researcher, which are then routed by the research institute to the line ministry, with the secretary of that ministry being empowered to give consent.

The present system has eased from the initial requirement of a foreign procurement nod at the level of the cabinet secretary but researchers say the delays continue to be crushing.

Earlier this year, the ministry of health issued a list of items that are GTE exempt, but scientists say most of the equipment on the list is for diagnostic purposes, leaving researchers at the mercy of bureaucratic red tape.

The 128 items on the list range from robotic surgery systems to transcranial dopplers. Last year, an exception was granted for parts of existing equipment that need repair, but the faculty at premier research institutes says that much still remains to be resolved to ease procurement.

A researcher at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) told ThePrint on condition of anonymity that “India does not manufacture high-end research equipment”.

“Taking waivers for these is an exercise in futility. Hence the effort by IISc and IITs to set up healthcare research institutes solely from alumni grants,” the researcher said.

“We at AIIMS can’t even procure Dell or HP desktops… Unknown [Indian] companies have sprouted up that make substandard desktops, microscopes and sell them at throwaway prices to the government… Half of these don’t even work at the time of installation and keep getting replaced with further substandard stuff. Work suffers, research suffers, patient care suffers,” the researcher added.

The researcher said “even procurements through research grants have to go through GeM that has ‘Made-in-India’ and ‘lowest-bidder’ clauses”.

“Can’t procure quality research equipment like flow-cytometers, cell sorters, etc. I am struggling to procure equipment. I’m fatigued and frustrated enough to throw in the towel.”

ThePrint reached the GeM via email for a comment, but no response was received by the time of publishing this report. An email to the expenditure department in the Ministry of Finance, which monitors transactions under the GeM, has yet to elicit a comment either.

This article will be updated when a response is received.

Also read: ‘Another blow’ — Scientists worry as GST exemption removed for science equipment

‘Lack of quality’

Several researchers that ThePrint spoke to alleged a lack of quality and durability in ‘Make-in-India (MII)’ products.

A senior scientist at an IIT gave the example of his own experience of buying a microtome, a machine used for making thin sections of tissues to be examined under a microscope, to explain why he and his colleagues in the field are upset about the GeM procurement clause.

“Some years ago, I got foreign-made microtomes for Rs 18 lakh. That was before the ‘Make-in-India’ procurement restrictions came into force. The ones I bought on GeM came at half the price but their service is very poor. I have written several times asking for repairs, but there is no response,” the scientist said.

“My only recourse now is to go to court. The question is whether I should do that or whether I should focus on my research.”

Calling many products available on GeM “jugaad” items, the scientist said that while these pieces of equipment have been put together with ingenuity, there is no assurance of performance. “They make performance claims they fail to meet but who is checking?” the IIT scientist added.

GTE requests are sent to the education ministry, he added, four times a year. “If you miss that window for some reason, you are again stuck for three months,” he said.

In a long Twitter thread tagging the GeM_Support handle, Dr Santosh Chauhan, scientist and DBT-Wellcome fellow and European Molecular Biology Organisation Global Investigator at the Institute of Life Sciences, Bhubaneswar, points out the importance of “precision and highest quality control” when it comes to equipment.

“Even an error of 0.1 per cent is sometimes a disaster for scientific data. Such instruments are made after several years of research by some of the top companies in the world. Because of the MII clause, these companies cannot compete in bid (even if they bid, they will lose),” he wrote.

“There are some local companies who have assembled such equipment with some very low-quality cheap products, putting the stamp of made in India (they qualify 50% MII) and are bidding (sic),” he added.

Similar to the AIIMS researcher, Chauhan, too, mentions the low quality of such equipment and how their hard-earned funds are being lost on procuring cheap products.

“We have to buy these low-quality equipments from someone who is sitting for example in Rajasthan 2,000 km away from me. In almost all cases, nobody comes for repair. They also know after few emails, we wouldn’t be able to do much (sic),” he wrote.

‘Still waiting for approvals’

A researcher at a Chandigarh institute said his laboratory had started the paperwork for buying a proprietary reagent from a foreign company in April this year as the current rate contract was due to expire in June 2022. “We are still waiting for the approvals to come through,” the researcher said.

“This is for a chemical. There are examples of people waiting two years to get the go-ahead to buy a particular equipment. The main problem with GeM is that there is no quality control,” the researcher added.

“Take for example the biosafety cabinets which we use to work so that particles do not escape. There are a few hundred available on GeM but none of them are NSF-certified. NSF is a global standard of certification but we are required to buy only what is available on GeM. Who will take responsibility if there is an accident?” he asked.

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

Also read: India at no. 5 in the world for science research, says new global report


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