Most of the increase is attributed to imports of critical items like oximeters, diagnostic instruments, digital thermometers and chemical reagents, which were needed during the pandemic as a quick scale-up wasn’t possible, industry experts said. What makes this starker is that the overall increase in medtech imports from all nations is just about 7%.
“Covid had a silver lining, for bringing into focus the medical devices industry for healthcare security of the nation, even as international supply chains initially got disrupted. The government needed to continue to protect investments in this field, rather than giving mixed signals by reducing duty on Covid-critical devices to zero temporarily, which subsequently led to a huge influx of imports, especially from China from May 2020. We are not against imports. But if these harm the domestic industry, then corrective policies by incentivising homegrown players need to be taken. The huge 75% increased influx of Chinese imports even after having a stated public procurement order that is supposedly in favour of domestic manufacturers should be of concern to policymakers seeking to make India ‘Atma Nirbhar,” said Association of Indian Medical Device Industry (AiMeD) forum coordinator Rajiv Nath.
Of the 151 eight-digit HS codes that cover med devices, there are 58 items where imports have jumped from more than 25% to over 42,000%, industry data shows. Typically, imports from China had risen 5-15% year-on-year in the last few years. More than 80% of medical devices are imported into India, with this year’s import bill at nearly Rs 45,000 crore.
“Imports of medtech devices from China increased sharply during Covid. But except for PPE kits, masks & sanitisers, etc, there was no way to manage critical shortages. Medtech can’t be ‘Atma Nirbhar’ in a few months. We need to build technology, quality, supply chain and it will take a decade to establish it, if there is undisturbed attention and right policy,” said Vishwaprasad Alva, MD of critical care and ICU equipment manufacturer Skanray Technologies.
Significantly, the nil customs duty did not benefit consumers and, with no maximum retail price (MRP) printed on devices, there was massive profiteering due to the huge mark-ups. Besides masks & PPE kits, certain devices like ventilators witnessed robust growth due to the sudden and huge demand, with companies also becoming largely self-reliant. Industry observers pointed out that domestic players also need to develop expertise in neonatal & child care, OT & surgical, ICU, radiology & scanning, and cardiac care, with support from the private sector and government.
Max Ventilators founder & CEO Ashok Patel said, “Private sector procurement largely has not been supporting the ‘Make in India’ programme, with China continuing to be a major supplier. The Centre’s bulk purchases have been mainly restricted to respiratory care and oxygen delivery equipment due to the pandemic. Hence, there hasn’t been much impetus for players to build capacity/capability in other segments.”
“During the pandemic, our local vendors — in a bid to reduce import dependence — developed several key components, as supply from the US and Europe was disrupted. But for imports of circuit boards, we were forced to shift to China this year from the US as distributors promised assured delivery,” he added.