Science under siege

Agricultural science has ossified in India. Despite a vast network of public research institutions and agriculture universities across the country, nothing of significance has emerged from this system to galvanise farming in recent decades, barring perhaps new strains of basmati rice. Weak basic research, excessive centralisation and control of the national research system by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research are the root cause for this state of affairs but underpinning it all are harmful government policies rooted in ensuring food security. Caught in these bureaucratic rigidities are the science and scientists. Lax standards, poor monitoring and unpunished scientific fraud have destroyed ambitious research projects and shaken the morale of the public research system, find Latha Jishnu and Jyotika Sood

 
By Latha Jishnu, Jyotika Sood
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Science under siege

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Subbanna Ayyappan has recently returned from a trip to one of the farthest outposts of his vast empire. He flew to Guwahati, from there drove to Tezpur and then to Dirang in Arunachal Pradesh, where the National Research Centre on Yak is located. The last lap was a tortuous climb to Nyukmadung at an altitude of 2,750 metres where the Dirang centre has its yak farm. Ayyappan, director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), confesses he was “a little out of breath” during the last stretch of the journey.

The Dirang centre is engaged in making sure the yak numbers do not decline and it is illustrative of ICAR’s mandate. Practically every farm animal, from the mithun, the unique bovine species of the Northeast, to the pig has been accorded its own research centre or a project directorate, like every crop from litchi to sorghum. It all adds up to 98 institutes of one kind or the other, institutes that have been set up or were subsumed by ICAR after it was given control over all research institutes under the Ministry of Agriculture in 1966. As a result, ICAR boasts one of the largest national agricultural systems in the world, if not the largest.

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As the apex organisation for coordinating education and managing research and its application in agriculture, agro-forestry, animal husbandry, fisheries and allied sciences, the council has an exhaustive and curious collection of institutes and project directorates dedicated to the study of such things as foot-and-mouth disease and weed science.

In addition to 95 research institutes, ICAR funds and oversees some 56 state agricultural universities (SAUs), apart from four deemed universities and one Central Agricultural University for the north-eastern region. Together these constitute the national agriculture research system or NARS. It is a huge enterprise involving some 24,000 scientists, of whom close to 4,800 are with ICAR institutes and directorates; the rest are with the universities. It is a research establishment that dwarfs the number of laboratories its counterpart in industrial research, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, boasts.

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What has all this contributed to India’s agriculture? The typical response of the ICAR top brass is to reel off a long list of successes that focuses on the improved crop varieties that have led to greater food security in the country, the jump in production of vegetables, eggs and milk. Rice and wheat, predictably, are the starred items in this report card, with the Pusa Basmati varieties topping the list. Critics tend to dismiss this as “repetitive and ritualistic applied research” but the ICAR chief insists the increase in food production from 50 million tonnes in 1950 to the current 259 million tonnes has to be seen as the “most beneficial contribution of R&D not just in the form of improved food security but in total factor productivity”.

The fact of the matter is that ICAR has no choice in this matter. “Cereals are a high-volume, low-value commodity. We have been mandated with researching these and we are doing it. They are the basics for food security in the country,” explains Ayyappan. In sum, development of crop varieties (open pollinated seed that can be reused) is left to the public research system, while private companies focus on hybrids (see charts), which is where the money is to be made since hybrids have to be bought afresh for each sowing.

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Ayyappan is from the Agriculture Research Service, a special cadre of scientists created in 1973, and has been with ICAR for close to 35 years. This true blue product of NARS has made history of sorts by becoming the first non-crop scientist—he is a fisheries expert—to head this sprawling network. That is something he takes pride in, but his tenure has come at a time when agricultural science in the country is battling serious problems of relevance and integrity.

The director general is the first to admit that the current challenges to Indian farming are tremendous, almost unprecedented. Soil degradation and fatigue have been plateauing yields in major crops since the 1990s, and looming over all this are the hazards of climate change, to which Indian farming is particularly susceptible. “The weakness of the system is that it is not prepared for the coming challenges and needs time to build its responses,” he admits candidly. “There will always be some unexpected disaster from biotic and abiotic stresses.”

Subbanna AyyappanWorse, for Ayyappan, have been the unethical practices of some leading scientists. A series of research scandals that had been gestating for long blew up in his face just as he took office in January 2010, leaving him to look for ways to salvage the reputation and credibility of the system that had taken a knock globally. The first of these unsavoury events involved the prestigious National Research Centre for Plant Biotechnology, along with a leading academic institution, the University of Agricultural Sciences-Dharwad, and top-ranking scientists of ICAR (see ‘Untangling India’s Bt cotton fraud’, February 1-15, 2012; ‘Cleaning the cotton stain’, February 16-29, 2012; ‘ICAR’s shoddy science’, January 1-15, 2013, Down To Earth)

That episode involving research of over 10 years to create a public sector Bt or genetically modified (GM) cotton was supposed to herald India’s entry into the hi-tech league. But soon after its commercial release in 2009 there was gloom in the scientific establishment. India’s “completely indigenous Bt variety”, the Bikaneri Narma (BN Bt), failed and was withdrawn after one season. In fact, it turned out no gene, as claimed, had been developed by the public research project, launched under the World Bank-funded National Agricultural Technology Project (NATP) that pumped $200 million into NARS along with a grant of $50 million from the Indian government.

Swapan Kumar DattaIndia’s foray into GM crop research appears to have gone nowhere. The tragedy is that the research bungling, to put a kinder inference on this discreditable episode, was investigated only after unseemly details about the cotton project were made public by some rival scientists who had filed right to information (RTI) petitions on the project and leaked the details to the media. That no action has been taken more than one-and-a-half years after the fraud came to light has resulted in a deep sense of betrayal and a deepening sense of cynicism among young scientists (see ‘Lies, exposes and cover-ups’,).

But the scandals are just part of the problem. Many see NARS as a sclerotic organisation incapable of undertaking the research challenges before the country. A reason for this can be found in the way ICAR functions. The director general functions concurrently as secretary to the Department of Agriculture Research and Education of the Ministry of Agriculture. The post was created in 1974, ostensibly to smooth the interface of the autonomous ICAR with the policy-makers in Delhi’s Krishi Bhavan, ministry headquarters. But this has created an anomalous situation for ICAR, which although set up as a registered society functions as an adjunct of the government.

imageLack of original thinking and encouragement for out-of-the-box ideas for problem solving is an underlying cause of the rot in agri-science. “Almost all institutions build their research programmes on previous routine projects based on inputs from scientists and there are hardly any attempts to push towards pathbreaking science,” points out the director of a national crop research centre. He believes lack of “think-tank” to prioritise “immediate national challenges” and envisage “long-term research investment” at the national level is a major reason agri-science is going nowhere. Currently, prioritisation is carried out at the institutional level within the allocated budget, which has become a self-defeating exercise. Another is the “wasting of scientific talent by scattering many young talented scientists across less important institutes which cannot harness their potential.”

imageThe problems that beset NARS were summed up best by Dayanatha Jha, a scholar who wrote on the problems of R&D in agricultural research more than a decade ago. “Any scientist in ICAR will endorse that bureaucracy and associated evils are the root cause of inefficiency. Obstructive rules and procedures, complete absence of accountability, stifling centralisation, lack of a performance-based incentive system and monitoring and evaluation processes, are some examples.”

This is why scientist G V Ramanjaneyulu, who worked with ICAR from 1996 to 2003, quit the organisation to do something more meaningful. Ramanjaneyulu was working with the Directorate of Oilseeds in Hyderabad at a time of increasing reports of suicides by farmers. He says that’s when he took the decision to leave a well paying job where no questions were asked about non-performance. “I didn’t find much scope to work as the system was caught up in a technology-driven framework. There was also lot of inbreeding depression within the system as it was closed to learning anything from what was happening on the ground.”

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Ramanjaneyulu took the plunge and set up the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad which works with farmers. Interestingly, the issue of farmers’ suicides, which has now crossed a mind-numbing figure of 285,000, has never figured in any discussion in ICAR nor in any of the SAUs. Nor have they researched the agro-ecological approaches tried by farmers who are tired of the unsustainable nature of the heavily input-driven model of farming promoted by NARS, laments the scientist. The fact is that none of these models, even the non-pesticide management method that has spread across Andhra Pradesh, has been studied in detail by ICAR, although its own assessment reports show that such models bring in ecological and economic benefit to farmers. “Now several of us working in and outside NARS are forming a professional society to publish a peer reviewed journal on agro-ecology,” he says.

imageIs there growing disillusionment with agricultural science promoted by NARS? Rajeswari Raina, economist and principal scientist with the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (Nistads), thinks so. Raina, who has closely tracked agricultural science in India and written extensively on it, says, “The agri-research system refuses to respond to the fact that the contribution of agriculture to the national GDP has been declining steadily. It is 15.8 per cent and is expected to slide to 8.5 per cent by 2015.”

TENSIONS WITH STATE

There are emerging tensions between the research system and government. The Eleventh Five Year Plan had sought a (surprising) change in the direction and research content of NARS to make a dent in poverty, hunger, malnutrition and the environment: “Thus far, research has tended to focus mostly on increasing the yield potential by more intensive use of water and biochemical inputs. Far too little attention has been given to the long-term environmental impact or on methods and practices for the efficient use of these inputs for sustainable agriculture. These features are widely known but efforts to correct them have not been adequate; at any rate they have not made much of a difference.”

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  • Private sector accounts for 80 per cent turnover in seed
  • Almost a third of these companies have a global technology/financial partner
  • Private seed companies are spending 10-12 per cent of their turnover on R&D
  • R&D budget of medium-sized companies is growing at 20 per cent annually. It has 100 per cent of the vegetable seed market for chilli, tomato, watermelon, gourds, brinjal and okra

Source: R S Paroda and National Seed Association of India (NSAI)

imageThis, says an old-time scientist, is “a complete turnaround by the state”, which had itself encouraged such research and promoted policies that have focused almost entirely on increasing cereal production (rice and wheat, in particular) and provided subsidies that have degraded the environment to an alarming degree.

And the twelfth plan approach paper is even more critical. It says: “Public sector technology generation often fails to take into account farmers’ needs, perceptions and location specific conditions for each crop, leading to significant gaps between the varieties released by public sector institutions and the number of varieties actually used by the farmers. Private sector research and the seed industry often focus on those crops and varieties which have adequate scale (massive markets) and scope (repeated sales). As a result, some crops/crop groups get little research attention. This phenomenon is most visible in predominantly rainfed crops like pulses and some oilseeds, which are in crying need for a technological breakthrough.” The irony, though, is that the Centre is again perpetuating the mistakes of the Green Revolution by transplanting the same policies in the eastern region.

Increasing imports of cooking oils and pulses reflect a certain failure even in the traditional lines of research followed by NARS. H S Gupta, director of IARI, explains, “The Green Revolution focused on cereals and since there was already a way forward in wheat and rice with dwarfing gene we progressed very fast. Pulses did not enjoy that kind of research intensity and were also relegated to marginal lands.”

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How NARS will meet the coming challenges is a tough question. Years of repetitive research and a fossilised syllabus in SAUs have cramped the system’s ability to be nimble. One crippling deficiency is shortage of scientists and a marked lack of specialisation in critical disciplines such as genomics. The sanctioned strength for scientists is 6,470; as of last year 4,745 posts had been filled. According to ICAR sources, at any given time 30 per cent of the posts remain vacant.

PAUCITY OF FUNDS

But above all is the question of funds. While ICAR’s R&D budget has increased from Rs 1,760 crore in 2009-10 to Rs 3,415 crore for the current year, there is huge disappointment with the funds allocated by the government for the twelfth plan.

“Everybody knows that our budget is very small,” says Swapan Kumar Datta, deputy director general, crop sciences, ICAR. “In the Twelfth Five Year Plan we demanded Rs 50,000 crore but got only Rs 25,000 crore. That is Rs 25,000 for five years for close to 100 institutions and 56 agri-universities!” Datta, unlike Ayyappan, is a lateral recruit. He joined ICAR in 2009 after working for 20 years in institutes in Europe, and he chafes at the bureaucratic controls.

Shortage of funds is a gnawing issue for the plant biotechnologist. “If I have to develop a big platform on genomics I would need Rs 10,000 crore. That is big money. I need to develop that platform today but the money is not available.”

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The head of crop sciences division is a powerful satrap with 12 national institutes, nine project directorates, three bureaus and two national research centres under his control. In addition, 27 all-India coordinated research projects and India-wide network projects are under his supervision, and in ICAR he is viewed as the man to watch. But as yet he has done little to shake up the system, although he is known to have said openly that “science can’t be done the way we are working”.

How this small pie is shared among the many research institutes is also a sore point. The Dirang centre, for one, gets Rs 6 crore per year for the current plan period, not different from what research centres on major crops receive. Likewise, there is little to show that funding is based on the importance of a crop to the farming community. Take what cotton research received in the past 12 years. The plan fund—the allocation for research (contingencies, works, renovation, equipment)—was about Rs 25 crore. External funding from the department of biotechnology, the World Bank’s NATP and its newer avatar National Agriculture Innovation Project (NAIP), added another Rs 6-7 crore. This has given rise to resentment among scientists who question the rationale for allocations. Criteria such as economic importance of the crop, employment potential and emerging challenges should determine budget allocation. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

India’s GM cotton revolution has bypassed the public sector, while private companies are raking in huge profits as cotton farmers take almost entirely to the GM hybrids developed by private Indian companies and multinationals. US technology provider Monsanto has harvested a reported Rs 2,000 crore in royalty rates from these firms.

“Cotton,” says an agriculture ministry official, “is a good example of what is happening in agriculture science. Pitted against companies with a turnover of Rs 4,000 crore, our research has faltered and fallen by the wayside.”

If agriculture fails nothing will succeed, warns the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences’ (NAAS’) president R B Singh who has been campaigning for an overhaul of the research system. ICAR, he says, needs to be transformed to ensure integration of activities and sub-systems. “Accountability is the need of the time. There was seriousness of purpose in our time. Scientific temper was high in those early days when we were taking the best of science to agriculture.”

In short, the siege mentality has to end.

 

Linkage between science and public policy has weakened
 
MS-SwaminathanM S Swaminathan, popularly known as the father of India’s Green Revolution, has been associated with national agricultural research system (NARS) since 1947 when he was a student at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). After getting PhD from Cambridge University, he joined IARI, of which he became director, and then director general of ICAR.

A believer in the need to articulate clear, goal-oriented research, Swaminathan tells Latha Jishnu what has changed since his time. Excerpts


Can you tell us how research priorities have changed?

Research is always dynamic and, therefore, priorities will change over time. In the 1950s and ’60s, our major goal was improving crop productivity. Currently, the emphasis should be on improving the income of farmers as well as the environmental sustainability of agronomic technologies. I see two changes: in the linkage between science and public policy, which was very close, and in the strong relation between the scientist and farmers, where the former would go to the farmer’s field and demonstrate the technology.

How did this linkage become weaker?

One reason is that scientists don’t express their views. Today the GM debate is going on and you hardly find scientists from ICAR, the top most institute, talking about GM science. They should express their views. In 2004, I suggested an All India Coordinated Research Project on biosafety. Today there are over 1,000 (GM cotton) hybrids and farmers are confused. ICAR should have forced all companies to test under bio-safety precautions.

Is it because scientists are scared?

Yes, it is about being a government servant. In our time our strength was communication with the media. When the whole world was saying ‘these guys are going to fail in Green Revolution’, Indian media was saying the opposite because I got them to the field.

How the research environment changed?

Scientists today are better paid and laboratories are better equipped. A sense of complacency has set in; there is no longer the pressure to do something urgently to improve the wellbeing of farm families.

Has the quality of scientific manpower changed significantly since your time?

The quality of scientific manpower varies widely from institution to institution. Most of the agricultural universities have become highly inbred. Appointments to senior positions are also made on the basis of political influence. There is more emphasis on bricks than brains. Achievements are measured by the number of buildings built and money spent and not by the improvement in the wellbeing of farm and fisher families.

There is a general perception that ICAR’s role and research has declined. Do you agree?

ICAR has not declined in terms of money but there is a need to strengthen national research system and not hand over our responsibility to international institutions. There must be well-defined milestones. When I was in IARI we had small groups and we had a very clear idea about what has to be done. There were clear goals, five-year plans and we got results.

The Chinese appear to have done much better than us.

The Chinese have done a much better job because they are able to generate team-based and focused work. They also have a strong bond between scientists and farmers. In a small way such bonds were developed during the Cultural Revolution, but have now become organic and ingrained in the system. This is why China could spread technologies like hybrid rice very fast.



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