Move over missiles—India’s defence R&D lab makes killer skin creams and vodka mixers

Not just this.
Not just this.
Image: AP Photo/Channi Anand
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Aloe vera cream. Toothache medicine. Fruit juice. Self-warming shoes. Medicines for skin disorders. And food supplements and tomatoes that can grow in extreme conditions.

These are some of the things that you would normally find in a supermarket next door. But there’s a chance that one of these things might actually have been manufactured not by a major multinational, but by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

On Monday (Aug. 24), the organisation inked a pact with yoga guru Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogpeeth allowing it to market herbal supplements and food products produced by DRDO.

It can be argued that life sciences is a crucial part of military research as the survival of soldiers depends as much on their equipment as the food they consume—but the timing of DRDO’s effort clearly wasn’t the best. Many questioned why DRDO is getting itself into manufacturing herbal products while its mandate primarily is to develop defence equipment and armament technologies.

The answer could well lie in the fact that, for now, the organisation seems to be doing much better in making medicines and food supplements than mines or missiles.

DRDO has been termed a “laggard,” and even prime minister Narendra Modi urged it to buck up during an address, asking it to finish projects on time, pointing out that “the world won’t wait for you.” In these harsh times, it is herbal research and life sciences that’s bringing in awards and laurels for the organisation.

In 2010, it won an excellence award for its “qualitative and quantitative” changes in the way agriculture is practiced in the hilly regions of Leh in Ladakh. A closer look at DRDO’s portfolio, however, provides insight into how wide it has actually cast its net.

Leh Berry orange drink: Developed by DRDO’s laboratory in Ladakh, Leh Berry is a fruit-based drink with a faintly spicy taste.

Made from sea buckthorn plants to increase strength in army personnel, it is marketed by Godrej foods to consumers and has apparently become a favourite add-on to vodka for many in Delhi and Mumbai.

Transgenic tomatoes: The DRDO has also been experimenting with ways to make tomato farming viable in extreme climate conditions. It reached a breakthrough with its “transgenic tomatoes” which, once cropped, can tolerate anything from a drought to harsh cold. The tomato crop is still being tested for other extremities and could become a reality soon.

Ointments for skin diseases: Frost bites and skin conditions such as eczema and leucoderma often trouble troops in harsh conditions. DRDO has manufactured an ointment and oral liquid called Lukoskin to combat skin diseases. The organisation claims that the product is made from Himalayan herbs and is “quite effective” clinically. It also “relieves the affected ones from mental stress, emotional and psychological trauma.”

Chicken biryani for space: The organisation makes several dried products that can be consumed by astronauts in space. On the list are mango juice, pineapple juice, rice, pastries and biscuits. DRDO added chicken biryani and lemon rice to this list in 2010.

Shoe warming pouch: For soldiers fighting at the Siachen Glacier, frost bites are always a menace. The organisation tweaked a food heating powder it had developed earlier to invent a solution that can keep feet warm even in subzero temperatures.

Here is a list of products DRDO manufactured during 2011-2014, and it does include a fair number of arms and equipment, too.

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