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  • A giant lapses into a coma
    The Indian Council for Agricultural Research shows little signs of life. Once a prestigious institution, it has eroded over the years to a state where much of it is best shut down, says Devinder Sharma
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    September 2002 : The other day I asked a senior agricultural scientist working with the prestigious Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi he had last visited a village. Without a second thought, the scientist replied: "it must be some 30 years back." That surely is a candid confession; it may however not be true for the Indian scientific community as a whole. But it is also a fact that, like a politician, every other agricultural scientist would claim to be the son of a farmer. Most others would point to their rural roots. That is where their understanding of the complexities and needs of the country's diverse and location-specific agriculture, and an equally diverse farming community, ends.

    India's agricultural research system, once the pride of the nation, no longer maintains a two-way hotline with the multitude of country's villages. The world's second biggest agricultural research infrastructure in the public sector - the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), which employs more than 30,000 agricultural scientists, - has snapped its links with the country's harsh ground realities. It is faced with over-weight, ageing and a terrible research fatigue. Once a giant, it has finally lapsed into a coma. With a network of 47 national Institutes (including four deemed universities), 29 national research centres, 11 project directorates and four national bureaus, the ICAR should have emerged as a formidable agricultural research system of the developing world. But such is the state of decay that it refuses to move its bulk to address the crying problems confronting the country's vast army of small and marginalized farmers. At a time when thousands of farmers are committing suicide due to crop failures each year, the ICAR remains a mute spectator.

    Let alone the harsh dryland regions of the country, which constitute nearly 70 per cent of the cultivable area. Even the better-endowed tracts forming the seat of the Green Revolution are now gasping for breath. The intensively farmed Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, and parts of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are faced with severe sustainability barriers. Agricultural productivity is in decline, with soil fertility reduced to pathetically low levels, and excessive mining of ground water rendering the lands almost barren.

    But then, what can be expected from a research system where merit and innovation have long been given a burial. It is a known fact that merit and professional standing no longer count in the appointment of the top functionaries of the ICAR and its institutes. The less said the better about the vice-chancellors of the 30-odd state agricultural universities. Unless you are a close confidant of a chief minister, the chances are that you cannot be appointed as a vice-chancellor, however meritorious you may be. The Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board (ASRB), which was set up as a parallel body to the University Grants Commission (UGC), itself has become highly politicised. Official denials notwithstanding, caste, political connection, and nepotism have been the essential criteria for scientific appointments.

    Many of the agricultural universities do not have adequate funds even to pay salaries to their staff. The upkeep of research infrastructure, buildings, laboratories and expensive scientific equipment itself has become a major headache. The resource crunch has already cast a shadow on agricultural research. And yet, it is not unusual to find the World Bank-supported National Agricultural Technology Project (NATP) fund being utilised to send administrative staff for training in America and Europe. At the same time, with no new recruitment taking place, the unemployment rate among the agriculture graduates is on an upswing.

    The crisis that the ICAR faces has its root in political control and bureaucratic rivalry, and with the scientific community. The rise of mediocrity since the early 1980s was the result of too much of political interference. Successive agricultural ministers have used their tenures to promote and place their favourites, the most important qualifications being caste and the region to which a scientist belongs. The ICAR's governing board was also tampered with to include a particular caste composition. A former agricultural minister had for some strange reasons vested the research agenda in the hands of a female bureaucrat much to the chagrin of the entire ICAR hierarchy.

    Successive directors general have also been responsible for the neglect and apathy. Much of it because they spent more time travelling abroad than visiting India's villages. In fact, some of the directors general have unsuccessfully used the coveted position to scout for international postings. Not only the DGs, successive agricultural secretaries too have been looking for job openings in international organisations. A former agriculture secretary finally managed to get a relatively junior job with the FAO in a neighbouring country. No wonder, agricultural research priorities for the country continue to be low down in their priority.

    And if one fails to get an international placement, there are still substantial post-retirement benefits for the top functionaries. The 'National Professor' programme has turned into a retirement package for the top ICAR functionaries. It is not clear why the 'national professor' award cannot be bestowed on relatively younger scientists with a brilliant record or achievement. But then, what will happen to the 'great' intellectual and scientific brains that sit in the Krishi Bhawan (the headquarters of the ICAR)?

    With an annual budget of Rs 1,500 crore, and with the World Bank providing a technology package of Rs 1,000 crore in addition, agricultural research agenda could have been redesigned to focus at least on specific problems confronting the country's agriculture. Instead, the major focus has shifted to agricultural biotechnology. ICAR is in reality competing with the private seed companies for the same kind of technology and/or getting into joint biotechnology research collaborations with universities abroad, thereby serving primarily as a service centre for the alien technologies. If the ICAR is to do what the multinational Monsanto is doing, where is the justification to increase the research funding to one per cent of the GDP? Why should taxpayers' money go into funding and supporting the industry's research priorities?

    Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh's initiative to set up a committee for re-structuring ICAR therefore is certainly laudable. But not the way it is being planned and executed. To set up a committee comprising sundry bureaucrats who do not even understand the fundamentals of the sophisticated science as well as the country's need, is to waste the initiative. Much of the crisis that ICAR is presently faced with is the creation of the bureaucracy, which has long been eyeing the position of the director general and other functionaries. Given a choice, the IAS community would like to take over the entire research agenda, making it mandatory for the state governments to appoint only bureaucrats to head the agricultural universities. After all, with the lucrative public sector undertakings getting disinvested one by one, the IAS lobby has to find other convenient places to (mis)manage.

    Not only is the ICAR in need of a major chopping of its excessive flap, it also needs to reorient its lost sense of direction in research, which becomes meaningful and is relevant for the country's vast population of small and marginal farmers. Many of the national institutes, universities and the regional centres need to be simply closed down for having become redundant. Most of the other institutes need to be merged and reduced in size to make them more productive and effective. And surely, if the ICAR is also to follow the misguided path of biotechnology to remove hunger, it will be better to shut it down. But the challenge before the nation is to make ICAR refocus on the country's agricultural research needs. A beginning must be made by re-looking into the great inherent strengths of traditional agriculture, and not blindly follow an industry-driven research agenda. It is time, agricultural scientists begun learning from the farmers. It is time they start spending more of their research time and effort in the villages.

    The research giant can easily be revived from the coma that it has lapsed into. It needs strong political will. Agriculture Minister Ajit Singh will do a great service to the nation if he were to stand by the legacy left behind by his father and a former prime minister, the late Chowdhry Charan Singh.

    Devinder Sharma
    September 2002

    Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Among his recent works include two books GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap