With sirens piercing the still of the night, a police jeep carrying a sealed box came to a screeching halt outside the air cargo terminal at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. Some distance away, an officer from the ministry of textiles was anxiously pacing up and down. On the tarmac, an aircraft had its engines running, waiting to take off. Receiving the box, the official ran to the aircraft. Inside the box was the first sample of a personal protection equipment (PPE) kit made entirely in India, being rushed to the South India Textile Research Association, Coimbatore, for testing.
At the textiles ministry, Union minister Smriti Irani and her team anxiously awaited the results. “The test was a make or break moment,” a top official involved in the project tells india today. That was in early March. With the coronavirus pandemic raging, countries across the world were scrambling for PPE kits. Global demand had shot up, straining supplies and causing prices to skyrocket. Major manufacturers in China, the US and Europe were focused on their domestic markets.
Textiles minister Irani and her core team had approached top manufacturers for solutions. Any domestic production would have to meet the stringent technical requirements of the health ministry. These were uncharted waters for textile and garment manufacturers. Before March, India did not manufacture such equipment.
“The demand for PPE kits kept rising,” says an official from the textiles ministry. “By March 18, the projected demand had gone up to 725,000 kits. But before that demand could be met, with cases spiking, the health ministry raised the demand to 15 million. Then, on May 1, it raised it to 20 million kits.”
Armed with technical specifications from the World Health Organization (WHO), the textiles ministry reached out to JCT Mills, Aditya Birla Fashion, Shahi Exports and Reliance Industries, among others, for production. “We started from scratch,” says Priya Thapar, director of strategic business development at JCT. “From the yarn to the fabric to stitching and sealing, we have done it all in-house, following WHO guidelines.” Raghavan of Shahi Exports highlights the government’s role: “The textiles ministry got us the resources we needed, and then industry players came together to find solutions.” The Centre also reached out to the governments of Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. Every state collaborated, identifying MSMEs for participation in the effort. The ministry of defence (MoD) was also roped in, the Defence Research and Development Organisation has labs in Hyderabad and Gwalior to conduct quality tests. “There are now eight labs conducting quality tests and approving the PPE kits,” says an official from the MoD.
Today, there are 106 firms producing PPE kits in India. JCT Mills, Phagwara, is a leading player, even making reusable kits. The government has orders for 14 million kits and has achieved production of 250,000 per day. So far, 1.8 million kits have been delivered to hospitals. Dr Anil Handoo, senior director at Dr B.L. Kapoor & Nanavati hospitals, says, “Indian PPE are of a much better quality than those from China, they are far more reliable.”
India is now the world’s second largest PPE manufacturer, with a Rs 7,000 crore industry set up in just two months. Though the export of such kits is banned, once domestic demand is met, officials hope that India will move on to exporting world-class PPE kits, at extremely competitive rates.