Maya of Indian Science

Lies, denial and outright fraud have become the hallmark of Indian agricultural research because there is no accountability

By Latha Jishnu
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Lies, denial and outright fraud have become the hallmark of Indian agricultural research because there is no accountability

imageWHAT can one say about a scientist who makes claims to a patent that is a figment of his imagination simply to get a prestigious award? It beats belief that a senior scientist of the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI), India’s premier institute for research, education and extension, could make such a brazen claim and get away with it. In 2008, K C Bansal, who was then heading a generously funded research project on transgenic crops at National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB), one of IARI’s star laboratories, managed to wangle the prestigious Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award for “outstanding research” in transgenic crops based on his claim that he had “filed three patents for novel gene discovery”, one of them on genetically modified brinjal.

Since awards, like research projects, are handed out by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) without much scrutiny, a credulous awards committee gave the award to Bansal who used it to good advantage. With connections in the top hierarchy of ICAR—that’s how things work in our scientific establishments—the scientist got to be director of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), a treasure trove of the country’s germplasm.

Worse is to come. It transpires that Bansal left NRCPB in a mess. Students doing research under his guidance have been left high and dry, and the GM seeds that he is supposed to have developed under a `135 crore project have not been handed over to NRCPB despite several reminders, thus stalling research in a major way. Should one be surprised by this case? The Bansals that inhabit ICAR’s warren of research centres and laboratories are legion. This is because ICAR is a fossilised institution that has produced little research of note—none that has helped India’s perpetually-on-edge farmers—despite claiming to employ some of the best brains in the country. ICAR, like other scientific organisations in the country, is nothing but a sinecure for mediocre people who crawl up the ladder of promotions. Or if they are smart enough, they curry favour with the establishment to gain cushy jobs as heads of different organisations. It is a great career path since no questions are asked, research output is not measured and no milestones have to be met. No cost-benefit analysis is ever made of the funds allocated to a project. Instead, however serious the derelictions and lapses, there is a guaranteed reward—promotions if not outright directorship of a prestigious institution under a system of patronage, cover-ups and denials.

Given the general lethargy that marks an organisation like ICAR, how are scientific scandals coming to light? The answer is professional jealousy and rivalry, although in some cases it does appear that inquiries have been initiated by crusading scientists keen on cleaning the Augean stables. Scientists, both retired and in harness, have been using the right to information (RTI) tool to dig out information on projects that have gone awry or have been used to dupe the nation. Two such have been in news in recent months. The Bansal stink is running almost parallel with the case involving another huge scandal involving research on indigenous GM cotton, the Bikaneri Narma Bt cotton. The revelations in both cases make for dismaying reading. What emerges is pretty sordid: devious machinations, official apathy and a total lack of accountability.

Dismaying, too, is the fact that these scandals are several years old and would not have seen the light day if not for the RTIs filed by fellow scientists. While ICAR has just set up a committee to examine the Bansal case, the report of the Sopory Committee that went into the Bikaneri Narma scandal exposes the totally unprofessional and shockingly unethical attitude of senior scientists in some of the decisions they took.

One such is about patent ownership. The Bikaneri Narma project started with a gene borrowed from Illimar Altosaar, a well-known expert on GM organisms. According to the minutes of a meeting held by senior ICAR functionaries, it was decided to simply appropriate Altosaar’s gene because “of the advanced stage of research and the likely economic benefits to Indian cotton farmers and the economy” since Altosaar, who had given the gene for research purposes, was not willing to sign a freedom to operate agreement. “Accordingly, it was felt that for all practical purposes the gene in question shall be called ‘truncated Cry1Ac toxin gene from NRCPB, New Delhi’.” As simple as that! If this does not make the scientific community cringe then nothing will.

Patent ownership, imagined or appropriated, is not the only common thread running through these cases. There is the outcome: nil in both cases. There is no GM brinjal or GM cotton. Science is illusory— in keeping with the Indian philosophy that the universe is all maya. After all, we do not experience the world but only a projection of it that we create ourselves.

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  • The shocking revelations show

    The shocking revelations show that most scientists are after awards and are not genuinely interested in science. This is true for other disciplines in science as well.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Great piece, as always,

    Great piece, as always, Latha! It is a shame that while farmers are dying in thousands, Indian agri-scientists are upto unethical and unaccountable deeds probably much more than ever before.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Latha, you have touched just

    Latha, you have touched just the tip of the ICAR iceberg of mediocrity where manipulation for posts, awards and promotions are routine. The recruitment body of ICAR and its top officials are probably to blame for this slip in standards.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Thorough enqiry should be

    Thorough enqiry should be conducted on the genuineness and fate of patents filed by ICAR scientists which in many cases are are not properly scrutinised.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Every thing has a political

    Every thing has a political root. The political bosses interfere everywhere to try to fish in troubled waters.
    All institutions with any connections to the Government have the property of turning to ashes as they have ensured that the institutions should atrophy and they have the last say in the matter.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks DTE for this excellent

    Thanks DTE for this excellent expose. Such disdain for due diligence has been in the making for a long time. The animal husbandry and dairy sector activities also have similar underbellies and Latha/DTE must bring it out in a similar effective manner. Unfortunately, the vitiated atmosphere has its Godfathers. The Prime Minister pleaded with these scientists during his ICAR 83rd Foundation Day Lecture to get their research agenda from the farmers. And yet at the same platform he awards scientists for ecologically damaging research and performance. Obviously, PM proposes and agriculture ministry disposes.

    The classic case of this apathy is witnessed in RKVY, NFSM and ATMA where the scientists have found outsourcing a new ally. Indeed, the complicity of the Planning Commission too cannot be overlooked.

    In spite of these tribulations,the Indian farmers have a better resilience. But it also has a limit and must move the Krishi Bhawan mandarins immediately.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Just because of one man, an

    Just because of one man, an entire organization (ICAR) should not be bad-mouthed.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • There are several skeletons

    There are several skeletons in ICAR's cupboards. I uncovered some of them by invoking RTI. I learnt that none of the patent applications filed by Dr Bansal had been signed by the Director. The 'Bt brinjal patent' application was filed after getting the Kidwai Award. Dr Bansal coordinated ICAR's GM crops project from 2005 to 2010. The Annual Reports gave in detail the Field tests and Biosafety tests of BNBt. Tall claims were made in 2009 report about BNBt, which turned out to be Mon531 event. Dr Bansal was shielded from the inquiry made by Dr Sopory. Dr Datta protected him by not heeding to the repeated requests made by the Director, NRCPB. Dr Datta released to RTI activist false and unauthenticated proceedings of BNBt meeting held in December 2009. A terrible violation of RTI Act. I found out that Director, CICR distributed spurious seed of BNBt to farmers during the period when Dr Datta was DDG (June-July 2009). Dr Datta saved himself and Dr Bansal by releasing false "proceedings" and keeping themselves out of the Inquiry. The RTI replies I gathered speak the Truth.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • ICAR is a public institution

    ICAR is a public institution and needs public debate. They do not have the luxury of hiding behind the "Anonymous" template and thanks to RTI for this. DTE did expose the wrong-doing and provided voice to all those scientists who did respond to the clarion call given out by the Prime Minister. PM did not 'badmouth' but merely articulated his grave concern at the expected and forewarned outcome of the knowledge initiative in agriculture (KIA).

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks to DTE and Latha for

    Thanks to DTE and Latha for this critical summary. Sadly this situation might not hold true only for the ICAR or its related institutions.
    As a part of the scientific research community I sincerely feel that Indian science policy makers will have to look beyond ' make a policy - disburse funds- give an award' simultaneously while scientists and researchers should try to break through from the circle of 'get some funds- finish a project- publish as soon as possible- get the next round of funding'.
    Science research which should be a field propelled by a high sense of curiosity and a chance to accumulate meaningful information for the betterment of fellow humans is sadly becoming any other kind of business.
    I wonder if the cause of malpractices at such levels is just an excuse for successful survival in academics/research or is it a reflection of generally falling moral standards in our society?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Congratulation Dr Sanguan.

    Congratulation Dr Sanguan. You have revealed the truth of these type of false scientists who have destroyed the reputation of Indian science and taken key positions without deserving.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply