Will Dr Mangla Rai be the last chief of an independent ICAR?

World’s second biggest research infrastructure in the public sector, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), is head hunting. A search committee, chaired by a former Minister of State and a former vice-chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Dr Y K Alagh, is likely to meet in the next few days.

The search committee has been formed to look for a successor to the present Director General, Dr Mangla Rai, who is due for retirement in June 2009.

The search committee comprise the former deputy Director General of ICAR, Dr M V Rao; the chairman of the Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board (ASRB) and a board member of ISAAA-India, Dr C D Mayee; a former vice chancellor of the Andhra Pradesh Agricultural University, Hyderabad, Dr Subba Rao; and of course the Secretary, Agriculture and Secretary, Animal Husbandry, Govt of India.

Looking at the composition of the committee it is quite obvious that the Ministry of Agriculture hasn’t learnt any lesson from the unprecedented farm debacle the country is witnessing. In all fairness, I think this was an appropriate time to include a prominent person of letters and some important social reformers in the committee. After all, the country is faced with a terrible crisis in farming, and to expect a technocrat without any social moorings to take up the top job, will fail to provide a new direction aimed at taking agriculture out of the present morass.

I remember a few years back, I met Dr Mangla Rai at a dinner where most of the vice-chancellors of agricultural universities and the deputy Director Generals (DDGs) of ICAR were present. Dr Rai asked me a question: “How do you see the future of ICAR?” I thought for a moment, and knowing it was a loaded question, I replied:”Well, I think the days of an independent ICAR are over. In my opinion, ICAR will soon turn into an outsourcing research centre for the multinational corporations.” After a few silent moments, aware of the stunned silence around me, I added: “Dr Rai, in my understanding you would be the last DG of an independent ICAR.”

With Dr Mangla Rai preparing to leave ICAR, you would be wondering whether what I said at that dinner will turn out to be true. Well, let us wait and watch.

The new DG comes at a very crucial time in Indian agriculture. The Green Revolution has already turned grey. We are faced with dying farmers and crying fields. Unrepenting, the ICAR has already abandoned subsistence farming in favour of commercial agriculture, and appears visibly excited at the progress under the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, Development and Marketing. The focus has shifted to public-private partnership which is an euphemism for outsourcing the public sector research facilities for private good. Already, the research focus has shifted to getting more consultancies (more consultancies means more money for the institutes), and the small farmer has been all but forgotten.

The incoming DG, and if you have carefully looked at the composition of the search committee, will be a strong supporter of genetic engineering and corporate agriculture. The three non-official members of the committee — Dr Mayee, Dr M V Rao and Dr Subba Rao — are all blind supporters of GM research. And you guessed it right, otherwise they wouldn’t have been in the committee in the first place. You will see them talking a lot about sustainable farming and small farmers, using the right vocabulary but pushing for wrong actions.

As I wrote a few days back, the ICAR is on its last leg. Much of the blame should rest with the people who headed this organisation. I haven’t seen a DG in the recent past who after taking over as chief, turned his attention to the villages. Successive DGs have only been jet setting betwen Washington DC, Geneva and Rome. I wish somebody could file an RTI seeking information about the foreign travels undertaken by successive DGs. Whatever little time they are left with after returning from the foreign jaunts, they have to at the service of His Master, I mean the Minister of Agriculture. Where is the time left for the poor farmers?

And after they retire, even then they have no time to work with farmers. We know, in the last year of their career, many have been drifting and working towards getting an international job. They look for cushy jobs in the CGIAR/UN or the World Bank. Rumours are that Dr Mangla Rai is taking up an international assignment after he quits ICAR. His predecessor, Dr R S Paroda, had also accepted a CGIAR opening. Why blame the DGs of ICAR, even the Agriculture Secretaries have been eyeing international appointments. Of course, not everyone is lucky.

Denials notwithstanding, a former Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), Dr Eduard Sauma, had once told a distinguished Indian agricultural scientist something like this: “Your secretaries lick my boots.” He was talking about the agriculture secretaries. What he said clearly tells us the low pit many of our secretaries (and I am not talking of each one of them) stoop to in quest for a job in the FAO.

Well, coming back to the selection committee, the four names being talked about in the corridors of Krishi Bhawan include the four DDGs : Dr Ayapan (Fisheries), Dr Baruah (Animal Sciences), Dr H P Singh (Horticulture) and Dr A K Singh (Natural Resource Management). All I can say at this juncture is that be prepared for a surprise!

Whatever be the decision, and whosoever takes over, one thing is sure. The acronymn ICAR will for all practical purposes in future stand for: Industrial Council for Agricultural Research.

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