The emergence of biotechnology in India: Collaboration, contestation and non-western perspective

The emergence of biotechnology in India: Collaboration, contestation and non-western perspective

Post-world-war, colonies, especially in the Indian subcontinent, were facing huge food and nutritional crisis. Hence after the independence, A first a few five-year plans were oriented to provide the necessary boost for the revival of the agriculture from its abysmal state. These efforts culminated in the form of large scale revolutions in the fields of agriculture and dairy products. They are known as a ‘Green Revolution’ and ‘Operation Flood’ respectively in the country.  Such social and technological circumstances created the space for the inception of a few new engineering streams such as Fermentation Technology, Food Technology and subsequently, Biochemical Engineering. Biochemical engineering research centre (BERC henceforth) at IIT Delhi, India came into existence with Swiss and British collaboration in 1974.  Within a few years of its inception, BERC emerged as a formidable force and chaired/led various committees and conferences focusing on biofuels and non-conventional energy sources worldwide. The exhibit engages with different forms of archival material such as photographs of the experiments, instruments, records of communication exchange between scientists and government institutions. Curation of archival material in the form of the digital collection will depict the trajectory of BERC, IIT Delhi from a collaborative initiative to leading institutions in biofuels and non-conventional energy resources worldwide.



Essay Maps

The socio-cultural context of research

Alterations in object-culture such as choice of technologies and design, selection of raw material

Epistemic culture of innovation and counter-hegemonic trajectory of biotechnology in India,

The dichotomous and hegemonic nature of so-called ‘western’ and/over ‘eastern’ science.








Essay Meta-Narrative

During the first half of the 20th century, fermentation technology started implementing the principles of chemical engineering for the mass scale production of antibiotics, alcohol, and so on. Two world wars in the first half of the 20th century were two of the most significant events that pushed for the mass production of antibiotics. Surface culture techniques to produce antibiotics were not enough to meet the demand of the injured soldiers during the war. The food and food-related industries had faced similar challenges. From the early sixties, India also thrived on increasing its food production and productivity. A similar initiative that had aimed to increase the production of milk and milk related products was also launched in the late sixties and early seventies. The latter was known as ‘Operation Flood’.  The origins of these movements/ revolutions were not socially driven but driven by scientific institutions/sources.

To scale-up the production processes, people turned towards chemical engineers to overcome the challenge of ‘scale-up’ for biological products. By this time, chemical engineers had already gained enough expertise in scale-up techniques for the chemical processes, but there never dealt with the products created by the microbes. This is how microbes were introduced to a reactor system in the western context, and new specialisation biochemical engineering emerged at the periphery of chemical engineering

This exhibit explores the relationship between various streams that were forging and contributing to the emergence of a new stream of related biology in the Indian context.  India was a late adopter to the fermentation technology. The breakthroughs in microbiology were lagging because of the technological possibilities at that time in India. Now it had become the prerogative of engineering sciences to matchup with the successes of microbiological understandings to garner socio-economical benefits. In India, the training of human resources in the field of fermentation technology, which later became biochemical engineering, was developing within the branch of chemical engineering as one of the final year electives offered in the bachelors or as one of the specialisations in the masters.

Till 1960 there was no B.Tech program focusing on fermentation technology/biochemical engineering. Three major institutes and universities, namely Jadhavpur University, Kolkata; Harcourt Butler Technical Institute( HBTI) now HBTU, a deemed university, Kanpur and University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT) now a deemed university known as Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), Mumbai started a full-fledged bachelors degree in technology in food and fermentation technology/biochemical engineering between 1963-1965. All three institutes and universities have the colonial legacy of providing engineering education from pre-independence era.

There was a gigantic need to collect knowledge about microbes from microbiology and integrate it with engineering and technology. The vast potential of food processing at large scale remained unexploited due to the precise lack of the integration of knowledge of microbiology and fermentation technology. So the emergence of a new discipline and the subsequent dynamics between food processing and biochemical processes in general, the shifting of the focus from food to the diversification of fermentation technology and the establishment of an engineering discipline focusing on biochemical processes has been a long journey that I attempt to elaborate through this exhibit.




All rights reserved.

Created date

July 2, 2019