Government's agri-research set-up is undemocratic

Published: Thursday 15 March 2007

Kavitha Kuruganti

I was at the Indian Social Science Congress recently, presenting a paper on genetically engineered crops, raising questions on technology decision-making in Indian agriculture research. The chairperson, an eminent agriculture scientist, intervened and wanted to know what I meant by 'democratisation'. When I said that it was about participation, accountability and transparency, he argued that the National Agricultural Research System (nars) had all of these. There are committees for appraisals of project proposals and rigorous peer review for papers', we were told. That this constituted the sum total of democratisation of the system was amazing.

If democratisation is about empowerment of ordinary citizens--Indian farmers in this case--then the Indian agriculture research establishment may not qualify as such.

Negation of knowledge Various worldviews, experiences and knowledge systems, including socio-cultural value systems that link communities to their agriculture production, exist in the people's domain. But formal agricultural research always chooses to ignore these.

Predominantly top-down Farmers are increasingly seen as subjects and beneficiaries of scientific knowledge generated elsewhere. As more and more specialisations converge on smaller and smaller particles of life and life forms, such research is moving away from farmers and their farms. How can decisions related to technologies in agriculture be taken in a physical and intellectual domain cut off from farmers? How relevant will such technologies be for them? While most of the post-modern discourse around development has recognised that agendas cannot be set some place to be implemented elsewhere in the communities, the agri-research establishment has not caught up with such understanding.

It is not clear what formal mechanisms exist for ensuring that farmers have a say in decision-making in research institutions. Governing bodies of almost all agriculture universities do have a couple of 'progressive' farmers, but it is not clear how their participation is facilitated and ensured. It is also not clear how selection of representative farmers takes place and whose interests they represent.

Down to Earth Political economy of research agendas Research agendas are determined mostly by finance and market interests coupled with intellectual property rights regimes. This applies also to the public sector research establishment which is starved of funding and is entering into what are called 'public-private partnerships'. Is this process democratic?

Accountability mechanisms Democratisation is also about having clear accountability mechanisms. Has there been any internal analysis of the nars's culpability in the recent farmers' suicides in the country? Or is the understanding that it has not contributed to the present agrarian distress at all? Ironically, it's the so-called 'less developed areas' agriculturally that have witnessed the fewest suicides, as data from various reports shows.

Impacts of risky technologies Risky technologies are also being promoted with an eye to short-term gains, as in the case of genetically engineered crops now and toxic pesticides earlier? It is clear that the political economy of risk or impact assessment does not even include comparisons with alternatives evolved out of people's knowledge.

Dissent within NARS Informal discussions show that there are many agriculture scientists who bemoan the fact that dissent is not tolerated in nars. There are many who have opted out. There are many retired technocrats who seem to find their voice only after they come out of the system.

Transparency, sharing of knowledge Much data and knowledge is being withheld in the name of intellectual property rights. What was open knowledge amongst farmers is being enclosed more and more in arenas that are accessible only to a few for commercial gains. The signing of the Indo-us Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture is an example of opaque functioning. Interviews with senior officials in the Indian Council for Agricultural Research reveal that many of them were not consulted about it.

It's unfortunate that while we want to emulate developed countries technologically, our agriculture research establishment has not shown any signs of emulating some democratic processes that are officially being adopted there in policy/programme formulation.

Kavitha Kuruganti is with the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad

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