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
Science under siege
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Worse, 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.
India’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.
Lack 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.”
The 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.”
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.
Is 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.”
- 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)
This, 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.”
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.”
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
M 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.
Lies, exposés and cover-ups
Dirt is piling up as rivalries between scientists lead to tit-for-tat exposés of research frauds
In the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) a lot of research is just hearsay. Some of it is imaginary. In some cases very little evidence remains of “significant breakthroughs” that scientists claim to have made. Sometimes scientists leave the organisations, do not hand over the material and no questions are ever asked. At other times, research centres manage to lose the research material. It is all very lax and conveniently so.
Some years ago, S K Raina made waves when he was professor at the National Research Centre on Plant Biotechnology (NRCPB). This premier research facility of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute at the Pusa complex in Delhi became the first in the country “to develop an efficient genetic transformation system for elite Indica rice cultivars”. His group was also the first to conduct contained field trials of transgenic Bt Rice in 1999, according to his profile on the Indian National Science Academy website. In 2004, Raina sought voluntary retirement from NRCPB to join a private seed company, Nath Group at Aurangabad, that offers Bt cotton technology.
If you ask NRCPB about what happened to the Bt rice they have no answer.
Other curious instances of scientific breakthroughs also involve the NRCPB, which appears to be an extremely lax organisation. In October 2011 when principal scientist K C Bansal left the centre to become director of India’s gene bank, he appears to have forgotten to hand over the research materials he had been working on: seed of GM mustard, slow ripening tomato and chloroplast transformed mustard.
The then project director of NRCPB P Ananda Kumar wrote several letters to Bansal about the missing material and finally to his boss Swapan Kumar Datta, deputy director general (crop sciences) of ICAR. Ananda Kumar complained that Bansal’s failure to hand over the project files and provide genes, clones, sequences, etc had caused problems while reporting to promoters of the three externally funded projects: the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) of the Ministry of Science and Technology, the World Bank’s National Agriculture Innovation Project and the Network Project on Transgenic Crops.
Bansal’s portfolio of research breakthroughs is impressive. Listed by him are transgenic tomato developed with improved tolerance to drought and cold stress; transgenic mustard; transgenic wheat; transgenic tomato with delayed fruit ripening; transgenic mustard with Zat12 and Dhsp genes and transgenic tomato with improved texture. However, there is no sign of these in the research pipeline and Bansal has not responded to Down To Earth (DTE) queries on the current status of the projects.
There are also the contretemps over the scientist’s application for a patent for his breakthrough on plastid transformation in brinjal. In December 2012, ICAR began a formal investigation of charges that Bansal had made false claim about a patent application for the transgenic brinjal having been filed in 2007. Based on this and two other patent claims, Bansal was awarded ICAR’s top prize, the Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award for 2007-2008. However, investigations showed that although two patent applications had, indeed, been filed, no application relating to the transgenic brinjal patent had been made till July 16, 2009, when he was given the award. ICAR director general S Ayyappan told DTE inquiries are still under way.
Ironically, Ananda Kumar’s involvement in the GM cotton fraud was investigated by a committee but no action has been taken on its report. “We are still waiting for responses from the parties,” says Ayyappan. All of this has left a trail of unanswered questions—and deepening cynicism among younger scientists about the lack of accountability in the system.
ICAR systems, unlike those in CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) and DBT, leave a lot to be desired. For one, its research institutes do not maintain the laboratory file. Instead, it swears by the Research Project File (RPF). The difference between the two is this: while the RPF is a dossier on a project, it does not have the detailed day-to-day notings of what transpires in the laboratory or field as the lab file does. “We were shocked to learn about this omission in 2009,” says Rajeswari Raina, principal scientist with the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies. She was part of the team put together by the Knowledge Commission of India to suggest measures to tackle the crisis in agriculture research.
In a letter sent to the prime minister and the agriculture minister, commission chairperson Sam Pitroda had made a pointed reference to the lab file while listing steps to improve the organisation of agricultural research. “The Research Project File (RPF) system in ICAR institutes has fossilised and does not assist the conduct or management of relevant research. The lab/project file must be made mandatory in SAUs (state agriculture universities) and ICAR institutes and computerised on a priority basis, preferably by 2009-2010. This will enable the creation of a research database within the organisation and at the national level,” he had said. Based on this lab/project file system, there should be an annual scientific audit of each programme/project.
The lab file is yet to be made mandatory and the old ways of keeping an RPF continue in ICAR. Says one cynical young scientist who has worked as an assistant on a transgenic project: “I have found senior scientist manipulating inconvenient data on field trials. If you keep a lab file which has to be signed every day this kind of manipulation is not possible.” However, increasingly, scientists who wish to be published in reputed journals abroad find that such detailed data records have to be provided before research papers are accepted.
Plagiarism is the other hallmark of Indian science. Sometimes entire papers have been reproduced, at other times, the crucial parts. These instances, exposed usually by fellow scientists, are dealt with in ad-hoc fashion. Then there are retractions. A recent change in a vector map was made almost 12 years after the paper was published and could undo the original thesis.
Cases of malfeasance are increasingly coming to light thanks to rivalries and jealousies within the scientific community. Claims which reek of dishonesty or outright fraud are being verified through a spate of right to information (RTI) applications. As one scientist confided to DTE: “The system prefers to turn a blind eye to such instances for several reasons. For one, it is embarrassing to have a senior colleague exposed and for another, the processes are so slow and convoluted that the top brass appears to think that it is pointless. But RTIs allow you to get information and force these cases into the open.”
One suggestion for weeding out bogus claims on research comes from a project director who has had a long experience of handling young teams. Since awards, incentives and career promotions are given to scientists based on applications, he suggests a change of approach. “It is ambitious scientists who apply for these awards and manage to get them. The genuine ones are rarely recognised. To overcome this, the top management of different divisions should identify outstanding scientists for awards or additional increments and promotions without them having to ask.” Assessment could be based on impact of the outstanding research publications, varieties released, production strategies, patents granted, technologies commercialised and novel methods. “This can set up a system that motivates excellence,” the project director says.
BEST PAID SCIENTIST
Others, however, are sceptical whether it would work given the cushy terms of the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) which put these scientists on a higher footing. Modelled on the University Grants Commission scales, agriculture scientists get time-bound promotions irrespective of vacancies or performance and retire only at 62. All other scientists are on a government scale and as a result, there’s a scramble by those working in laboratories of the science and technology department to get into ARS. Says the director of a research institute: “It is a secure job with great pay. In nine years ARS recruits become senior scientists and in 15 years principal scientists. After this, there is nothing to stop them from just sitting pretty. Increments will continue regularly.”
Many scientists complain that corruption is rampant in the system and that many heads of laboratories are facing vigilance investigations. But this is a problem that cuts both ways. Sometimes, scientists are penalised on seemingly flimsy grounds, such as travelling abroad without the necessary permissions.
Datta of ICAR has another take on this. He says, “Our trust system is weak.” There is too much paper work and too many bureaucratic processes, says the scientist who worked abroad for 20 years. “In Switzerland, I would just email my boss and get his go-ahead to go on a trip. That allows you to spend all your time on research and work. Here scientists spend so much time getting clearances and orders from different ministries.” He rues the absence of a robust system that allows scientists to work according to strict principles and regulations. In Switzerland, for example, everybody retires at 60 and nobody gets extension. But in India, even in their 70s scientists hold on to office irrespective of their physical fitness, competence and capability. “This flexibility could make you corrupt. Why should we encourage this?” Datta asks.
But there are other kinds of corruption, the most common stems from tendering for equipment. This stems from the way funds are released in ICAR. Says a scientist who has observed the system for a couple of decades: “The bulk of funds are spent in February-March, the fag end of the financial year, so open tenders are called for urgently and a purchase committee is set up. Three quotations are sought not necessarily from different suppliers; it could be from just one.”
According to him it is a lovely racket since most of it is on technical material and there is no one to question it. On the other hand, scientists complain that the system is fixed and one is forced to accept the lowest quotation no matter how inferior the quality of equipment and how seriously it could impair research. “We worry all the time about vigilance inquiries, RTI queries and departmental probes,” says Datta.
Little wonder that so little science gets done in the system.
| Whimsical moves
OF the many odd decisions taken by ICAR chiefs that reveal the unscientific tendencies of its bosses one relates to the National Bureau of Agriculturally Important Microorganisms (NBAIM). It is a story that senior scientists recount with sardonic humour. NBAIM was set up in 2001 at an estimated cost of Rs 5.33 crore by the Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE) under the Ministry of Agriculture in the Ninth Five Year Plan. The basic goal of the bureau is to promote and coordinate systematic research on microorganisms that would improve agricultural productivity.
It started functioning on the old premises of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) in the Pusa complex, Delhi, and was all set to expand its infrastructure when the then director general of ICAR decided to shift it to a location that its staff had a tough time locating on the map: Mau Nath Bhanjan in Uttar Pradesh. It appears that the then DG was from those parts. Accordingly, in 2004, NBAIM was relocated in a building vacated by the National Institute of Sugarcane and Sugar Technology (NISST) at Kushmaur village, which is 12 km from the town and devoid of public transport. The only way to reach NBAIM is through hired taxis. Mau Nath Bhanjan itself is about 120 km from Varanasi.
In this remote fastness two dozen scientists and technical staff have put together a microbial collection that the Biodiversity Authority of India recognises as a national repository. NBAIM’s mandate is to act as “the nodal institute at national level for acquisition and management of indigenous and exotic microbial genetic resources for food and agriculture, and to carry out related research and human resource development, for sustainable growth of agriculture”.
The location would not have mattered too much but for one crucial factor. There is no power in this particular backwoods of Uttar Pradesh. The bureau requires high quality power to maintain its culture collection: at minus 80 degrees centigrade for long-term preservation, and at 4 degrees C for short-term storage. So NBAIM runs on huge generators to conserve its rare collection and its power bill is whopping. Scientists here say that the use of generators would in all probability be ruining much of the equipment at the repository which preserves and conserves the microbial diversity of the country. The collection has a wide diversity of fungi, including more than 700 species belonging to 250 genera apart from bacterial collection of more than 100 species belonging to 35 genera.
The irony is that given the operational constraints, NBAIM may be forced to return to Delhi. In September last year, a regional meeting of ICAR held in Patna decided to send a duplicate set of the microbial cultures to be maintained at NBPGR so that collection remained safe. Right now there is a vigilance inquiry over corruption charges at the bureau.
ICAR’s shoddy science
Untangling India’s Bt cotton fraud
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