What's at stake in the fake?

Indian pharmaceuticals, African markets and global health

Fakes, kingpins, controversy and scandal: The making of india as a global pharma player

Sarah Hodges

I am an historian of the politics of health in modern India. Within the “what’s at stake in the fake” project, my own research examines the role of India in the international political economy of pharmaceuticals, 1970-present.

Today, there are, broadly speaking, two opposing sets of views about the role of India in the international political economy of pharma. In one view, India’s generics export industry is a fake drugs ‘Goliath’ wreaking havoc in the lives of the world’s poor. Others, however, contest this view. They argue that Indian pharma has actually been a ‘David’—a so-called pharmacy to the developing world—despite accusations of being a master pharma ‘counterfeiter’’. 

Although the international political economy of pharma provides the essential staging ground, or context, for my research, I am not a political economist. I do not traffic primarily in data sets of states and markets. Instead, I am a cultural historian. I engage in close, ‘against-the-grain’ readings of a wide range of written sources produced within and about India—sources like newspaper archives, industry associations’ newsletters and magazines, grey literature, police and other government records—and I also conduct oral history interviews with pharma buyers and sellers, as well as with those tasked with regulating and policing India’s pharma commerce. 

In this research, I pay particular attention to cases of controversy and scandal for what they reveal about the politics of these various ‘David-and-Goliath’ stories. 

My initial research suggests that this David-and-Goliath storytelling of Indian pharma does not simply stand on its own. Across scales—from international trade agreements to neighbourhood scuffles—these stories share two elements: they are populated by ‘kingpins’ and mediated by ‘fakeness’. 

I have already written on case of a spurious drugs kingpin from Chennai. However, to confess my true desire for this research would be to tell you that, by the end of the project, I want to have written a book whose successive chapters unfold to tell the stories of a sequence of kingpins and how they negotiate their immediate worlds of controversy, scandal and fakery. A sequence of stories of kingpins that take reader across the multiple scales of Indian pharma commerce—from neighbourhood goonda (or ‘thug’), to regional big men, to multinational pharma CEOs, and back again. 

And, to indulge my penchant for confession further, were this book to have a screen debut, it will be less of a ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ or a ‘Dying to Survive’, and more of a ‘Gomorrah’. Instead of telling a story of redemption, this book will embrace the messy moral economies of the box set. 

This tale of pharma and India, in other words, has no heroes.