Agricultural universities are the main obstacle in promoting sustainable farming

It is business as usual for the agricultural universities. Established under the land grant system of education borrowed from the United States, agricultural universities in India are actually the biggest stumbling block in the regeneration of agriculture, in resurrecting the badly devastated natural resource base so as to restore sustainability in agriculture.

There are more than 45 agricultural universities in India, including five deemed unversities and two central universities. In addition, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has over 75 national institutes and specialised entres.

At a time when a new India is emerging globally, everything else is changing but for the agricultural universities. These centres of research, education and farm extension continue to be mired in inefficiency and suffer from a terrible lack of vision. They remain frozen in time, still thinking they can piggy back on American research. Except for entering into collaborative research under the Indo-US knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, Development and Marketing, which provides scientists an opportunity to travel abroad, nothing tangible is happening in these premier centres of agricultural research.

Agricultural universities are in a state of decay.

A dying institution tries its best to survive on artificial respiration. For the agricultural universities, genetic engineering has come as a shot in arm. Let us face it, it is GM research that is keeping these institutes alive. There is a new found excitement in the corridors of the agricultural research centres. Private sector is pumping in money for research, and scientists find research projects being doled out by the biotech companies essential for their livelihood security. What happens to farmers is not their concern, in fact it never was. Agricultural scientists were always working for the input companies — seed, fertiliser, pesticides and implement manufacturing units — the farmer just happens to be incidental, someone who came in handy to promote these technologies.

When I read news reports like: GM crops make headway despite protests over economic, safety issues (Financial Express, April 10, 2009) stating categorically that In spite of huge opposition to the environmental release of GM (genetically modified) foods, Indian scientific and agricultural research institutions, universities and private sector seed companies are working on developing pest and virus resistant crops for human consumption using the tools of biotechnology and genetic modification, I am not surprised. I am not surprised simply because I know these farm scientists are not capable of anything else. They don’t have the capacity to think out of the box, they will only do what these companies are telling them now or had been telling them earlier.

I had written an article on ICAR in Sept 2002. I am pasting it below. I am sure you will agree that the situation now within ICAR is no better, it is in fact much worse. ICAR has now turned into an outsourcing centre for the biotech companies. Punjab Agricultural University has has turned its facilities and research agenda completely in the hand of the biotech giants Monsanto and Syngenta. Other universities are no better. In fact, these universities are under such strong influence (and surveillance) of the biotech companies that you cannot aspire to become a vice-chancellor unless you sing praises for the risky and unwanted technology. You cannot become a deputy Director General (DDG) and of course the director general (DG) unless you endorse genetic engineering.

There is a terror psychosis that prevails. When I look at the agricultural scientists I feel sorry for them. At the time of the nazi occupation of Germany, whether you liked it or not, you had to say: Hail Hitler. These scientists, and believe me quite a majority is unhappy with the way the research agenda is prescribed, too have to hail GM technology if they have to survive in the university. Don’t forget, it is a question of their livelihood security, their own survival.

The article I mentioned is here:

ICAR Restructuring

By Devinder Sharma

Sept 2002: The other day I asked a senior agricultural scientist working with the premier Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi as to when was the last time he had 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 surely is faced with over-weight, ageing and a terrible research fatigue. Many think that over the past few years, or to be more precise for the past two decades, the ICAR has lapsed into a coma.

With a huge network of research centres the ICAR should has emerged as a formidable agricultural research system of the developing world. Such is the decay that has set in that the ICAR refuses to move its bulk to address the crying problems confronting the country’s vast army of small and marginalised farmers. At a time when thousands of farmers, and a majority of them cultivating cash crops, have been committing suicides year after year, the ICAR remains a mute spectator.

Not only in the harsh dryland regions of the country, which constitute nearly 70 per cent of the cultivable area, the better endowed tracts forming the seat of the green revolution are now gasping for breath. Confronted with second-generation environmental impacts, the intensively farmed States of Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, and parts of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are faced with severe sustainability barriers. Agricultural productivity is on a decline, with soil fertility reducing to pathetically low levels and excessive mining of ground water rendering the lands almost barren. Agriculture has lost the shine.

But then, what can be expected from a research system where merit and innovation have long been given a decent burial. It is a known fact that merit and professional standing no longer counts in the appointment of the top functionaries of the ICAR as well as its institutes. The less said the better about the vice-chancellor’s of the 30-odd agricultural universities. Unless you are a close confident of a chief minister, the chances are that you cannot be appointed as a vice-chancellor howsoever meritorious you may be. The Agricultural Scientific Recruitment Board (ASRB), which was set up as a parallel body to the University Grants Commission (UGC), itself has become a highly politicised place. 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 to even pay for the staff salaries. The upkeep of research infrastructure, buildings, laboratories and the expensive scientific equipment itself has become a major headache. Resource crunch has already cast a shadow on agricultural research. And yet, it is not unusual to find the World Bank-sponsored National Agricultural Technology Project (NATP) fundi

being utilised to send adminstrative 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. At this rate, it is only a matter of time before the ICAR emerges as the biggest producer of joblessness in agriculture.

The crisis that ICAR is faced with has its root in political control and bureaucratic rivalry. But still, much of the fault would rest with the scientific community. The rise of mediocrity since the early 1980’s was the result of too much of political interference. Successive agricultural ministers have used their tenures to promote and place their favourites, essentially caste and the region to which a scientist belongs being the most important qualification. 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 director generals 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 director generals 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. So much so that 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 order.

And if you fail 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 as to 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?

With an annual budget of Rs 1500 crore, and with the World Bank providing a technology package of Rs 1000 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? At the same time, why should tax-payers’ 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 a convenient place to (mis)manage.

The ICAR is surely in need of a major restructuring. More so at times when the private sector has hijacked the biotechnology research agenda, forcing the ICAR to merely prod on. 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, than to blindly follow an industry-driven research agenda. It is time, agricultural scientists begun learning from the farmers. It is high time they start spending more of the research time and effort in the villages.

The research giant can easily be revived from the coma that it has lapsed into. All it needs is a strong political will.

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