India has long been a pioneer of family planning and birth control. In fact, in 1952, we became the first country to launch a nationwide Family Planning Programme.

A key player in India’s family planning programme is the pill Saheli, the world’s first non-steroidal birth control pill developed by Dr Nitya Anand.

The pill was the product of two decades of rigorous research led by Dr Anand, a celebrated organic chemist, at the Central Drugs Research Institute (CDRI), Lucknow.

Unlike implants, condoms, and surgical sterilisations, birth control pills — which interfere with the biological processes involved in pregnancy — are the least intrusive and most effective.

But they may have a series of side effects including nausea, bleeding between periods, and other potential complications, as was seen in the world’s first birth control pill developed by Carl Djerassi.

In the 1960s, the Government of India called upon its scientists to develop better-quality pills. Among them was Dr Nitya Anand.

Dr Anand was born in Lyallpur (present-day Pakistan) to parents deeply involved in both social work and India’s freedom struggle.

His family was among those devastated by the Partition, when they had to leave their home, and life as they knew it, to flee to India amid growing violence.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in Lahore, he left for Delhi to complete his MSc in chemistry from St Stephen’s College, and did his research work in organic chemistry at the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT), Mumbai.

He also went on to obtain another PhD from St John’s College, Cambridge University, under Prof Alexander (later Lord) Todd.

“I was very much interested in biological sciences right from the beginning,” he recalled in a later interview. “And professor Todd, who became a Nobel laureate and Lord Todd [later on], was one of the upcoming scientists in the field of chemical biology…That prepared me very well for what I was going to work on drug discovery research later.”

For the pill, Dr Nitya Anand and his team used a molecule called ethamoxytriphetol (also known as MER-25) as the base, and “synthesised a variety of molecules and tried each of them for antifertility activity”.

In contrast to the pill developed by Djerassi, the pill developed at CDRI was to be taken weekly since it remained well absorbed in the body for many hours.

The pill, named Centchroman, prevents the process of implantation and does not disturb a woman’s hormonal balance as it does not affect ovulation. ’

It can be taken after sexual intercourse and possesses no steroidal component, and subsequently none of the associated side effects. If a woman chooses to discontinue using it, she can regain fertility.

In 1990, the Indian regulators approved Centchroman and gave a licence to manufacture it with the name ‘Saheli’ (female friend).

In 2012, Dr Nitya was awarded the Padma Shri for his contributions to Indian health and science.

Until his retirement as director of CDRI in 1984, Dr Nitya played a vital role in turning the institution into a globally-recognised centre for drug discovery and development.