There is hardly a day when vernacular newspapers in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu, and Maharashtra do not carry reports of a farmer committing suicide. For nearly three decades, farmers have continued the serial death dance throughout the country. Thousands of farmers have preferred to take the fatal route to escape the humiliation that comes along with growing indebtedness following repeated crop failures. Hundreds of others have sold body organs to escape the misery that comes associated with an unattractive and un-remunerative agriculture. Tamilnadu has already assumed the dubious distinction of launching a midday meal programme for its hungry farmers.
And yet, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) remains oblivious to the massive crisis confronting the countryside. For the past three decades, the steep decline in the performance of farm research hasnt moved the agricultural scientific community to even consider launching a time-bound research programme that aims at mitigating the human suffering resulting from the collapse of farming throughout the country. Such has been the callous neglect and indifference that successive director generals (DGs) have spent more time travelling to Rome and Washington than visiting the affected villages to understand the reasons for the farmers ire. With some 34 agricultural universities, 81 national institutes and an army of over 30,000 plant scientists, the second-biggest agricultural research infrastructure in the world cannot look for excuses. There is no need for an alibi to defend the colossal failure.
After the green revolution
Soon after green revolution set in, Indira Gandhi launched the controversial 20-Point programme. She actually placed dryland agriculture on the top of her political agenda. This resulted in a steep hike in research infrastructure for drylands, comprising 70 per cent of the countrys cultivable lands. Several years later, this writer travelled through the dryland regions to look at the impact of agricultural research. At every agricultural institute, including the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) at Patancheru in Hyderabad, scientists claimed that they had the technology that could boost productivity in the dryland regions by 300 per cent.
Twenty years later, there is little hope for these dryland areas. None of these institutes have made any appreciable contribution in ameliorating the harsh conditions and making agriculture an attractive proposition. It isnt difficult to understand why agricultural scientists were unable to make a breakthrough. The reason was simple. It was essentially because of the changed attitudes, resulting from a flawed educational system. The land-grant educational system that was adopted throughout the country, and which still is being blindly followed, has alienated students from their surroundings. Even today, agriculture education is based on the principles and practices of western agriculture. It has little relevance to the local needs of the country.
No wonder, breeding for high-yielding crops along with its related agronomy and pathology dominated the research thrust. Scientists continued developing high-yielding crop varieties, knowing well that a majority of these would not find favour with the farmers. They failed to reorient research programmes to address location-specific needs. The number of plant varieties evolved and the number of research papers published became the criteria for promotions. Agricultural scientists remained engaged in what is called maintenance research trying to salvage the gains of the green revolution crops.
Agriculture research in India therefore continued to look at the advances being made abroad that could be suitably adapted here. Whether it was crop varieties, the hybrids (except for cotton and bajra hybrids) or the improved horticultural germplasm, the technology invariably came from outside.
In brief, farm education in India begins with the premise that Indian agriculture is backward, sub-standard and inefficient. The answers therefore have to come from the modern and sophisticated farming technologies from the western countries. The over-enthusiasm that the ICAR is demonstrating on the transgenic crops also is because of the blurred vision that does not find strength in our own traditions and farming systems. This is rather unfortunate. But talk to an agriculture graduate, and tempers are sure to run high. The young scientists too look for any given opportunity to travel abroad. What happens to the fate of millions of small and marginal farmers for whom they are paid to work is not of their concern.
If the spate of farmers suicides doesnt motivate the scientific community to re-orient its research priorities, isnt it time to question the need for massive annual expenditure on maintaining the white elephant ICAR? Why should the tax-payers hard-earned money be used for funding research activities which can be better undertaken by private companies? After all, if other temples of modern India can be disinvested, what is so sacrosanct about ICAR?