MUMBAI: The India-China border standoff has put the spotlight back on our near-total dependence on the dragon for crucial raw materials used in medicines, posing a potential ‘national risk’ for millions across the country.Even as the nation clamoured for banning products and cancelling contracts emanating from China, it’s apparent that, at least in pharma , it may not quite work out as imports from China account for 80% of total raw materials for making medicines, also called APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients). For certain life-saving antibiotics like cephalosporins, azithromycin and penicillin, the dependence is as high as 90%.Though a new bulk drugs’ scheme had been announced recently when Covid-19 hit API imports from Wuhan in China, experts say the industry needs a sort of ‘single-window clearance’ to expedite its implementation.India imported Rs 17,400 crore worth of APIs from China in FY19. Dependence on China for key APIs has been an ongoing concern for the industry, with crucial raw materials used for manufacturing cardio-vascular, diabetes, antibiotics, anti-infectives and vitamins imported from there. The Covid-19 crisis led to a huge jump in certain API prices imported from China, leading to price volatility, and highlighting again the risk of a single source for supplies, which can potentially disrupt procurement of essential medicines in emergency-like situations, experts say.In March, left with depleting stocks of APIs in the country, the government decided to de-risk the supply chain, and announced a Rs 9,940-crore package for bulk drugs involving a production-linked incentive scheme of Rs 6,940 crore, and setting up of three bulk drug parks of Rs 3,000 crore. PwC India partner Sujay Shetty said, “Self reliance of APIs cannot be emphasised more at this stage. India needs to step up in terms of API manufacturing for its own captive use. Being the pharmacy of the world, that is the only piece missing (for India). The government should provide subsidies for greenfield investment. The proposed scheme is good in parts, but would help if the operational details are clearly laid down.”India’s focus has to be on manufacturing life-saving penicillin G and antibiotics. For instance, China being the sole manufacturer of penicillin, has also started manufacturing intermediates from penicillin G, which makes even the production of intermediates uneconomical in India, an industry expert said.Industry body IDMA’s executive director Ashok Madan said, “As an immediate step, 27 priority molecules can be produced by the synthetic process, for which idle capacity lying with MSMEs can be utilised. Government can help by extending incentives to these units, without insisting on minimum investment.” Other APIs which require capital-intensive outlays are 26 fermentation-based bulk drugs, which are included in the government scheme.Nearly two decades ago, India was self-dependent on key ingredients used in antibiotics and fermentation products. But over the years, API imports spiked from around 1% in 1991 to about 70% in 2019. China’s advent at the API stage globally goes back as far as the late ’90s, driven by competitive pricing the clusters could offer, based on large-scale manufacturing and state-driven subsidies.As against this, domestic bulk drug units started languishing here, faced with a lopsided duty structure that favoured (Chinese) imports. Further, drug formulation companies also started sourcing APIs from China as they had a definite cost advantage of 15-20%.