Dealing with crop stresses and scandals

Subbanna Ayyappan has made history in the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (IACR) by becoming the first non-crop scientist to head this hoary institution. His is not an enviable task. Presiding over a network that has close to 100 institutions but with limited funds, he has the difficult task of juggling finances, ensuring that his 4,000-odd scientists are achieving national objectives and coordinating with the government as secretary of the department of agricultural research and education in the Union Ministry of Agriculture. Climate-proofing Indian agriculture against the biotic and abiotic stresses that crops face is a major challenge for the head of one of the world’s largest research networks that has had little to show for its efforts in the past several decades. To tone up ICAR’s operations, Ayyappan has been visiting every kind of research institute that the system boasts, making difficult trips to remote cyclone-prone islands in the Sunderban to livestock research stations perched in the mountains.  To make matters worse for this scientist, who is a fisheries expert noted for his work on limnology and aquatic microbiology, are other stresses related to scientific ethics and professionalism. Since he took charge in January 2010, Ayyappan has had to deal with major serious research scandals and misconduct by senior scientists. In an interview to Latha Jishnu and Jyotika Sood, the soft-spoken director general explains how he is handling these difficult assignments at a time when Indian agriculture is under threat from factors as diverse as depleted and ravaged natural resources to dramatic change in rainfall patterns. Excerpts:

Published: Thursday 17 October 2013

Subbanna AyyappanWhat are the current research priorities of ICAR, and have these changed in recent years?

Research concerns are evolving all the time. Till 1970, we were focused on meeting the challenge of food shortage, in the 1980s it was factor productivity, in 1990s, it was natural resource management, then in the decades of the 2000s, it was profitability and farmers' income. Now it is intellectual property management and technology commercialisation.

Our major concerns now are water crisis, soil degradation and fatigue, genetic erosion, the increasing abiotic and biotic pressures, energy management, pests and diseases, weeds, harvest and post harvest losses What is also worrying us is the migration of rural youth and how to retain them in agriculture.

How are you dealing with these new challenges?

We have established a National Fund for Basic Strategic and Frontier Application Research in Agriculture with main objective to build capacity for basic, strategic and cutting edge research for generating knowledge needed for solving existing and emerging or future agriculture problems. We have also set up the National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA), which aims to identify at least 15-20 heat/drought tolerant promising cultivars of different crops and reduce production losses by 25-30 per cent. It is being demonstrated in 100 districts of 27 states.

There is also the consortia research platforms (CRPs) on agro-biodiversity, genomics, molecular breeding, bio-fortification, nanotechnology, farm mechanization, phytochemical, fish health, etc to network all India institutes for coordinated researches.

On the farmer front, we have launched a programme called Farmer First which is expected to enrich farmer-scientist interface on new technology applications. We also have Student READY (Rural entrepreneurship and Awareness Development Yojana) to provide students with the grass-root level experience and entrepreneurship skills. This is a 12th Plan project to build the capacity of rural youth so that they learn while they earn.

What are ICAR’s major achievements in the past decade?

ICAR is apex body for frontline research in the country. We work on all aspects of agriculture like crops, fisheries, poultry, resource management, engineering, soils, etc. It also acts as a network institute that coordinates 60 plus state agriculture universities, over 600 Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs). Our main focus is to enhance productivity. We release around 60-70 varieties of crops every year which is our strength.

Apart from this, we have developed GIS-based soil fertility maps for 500 districts in 21 states of India. In some areas, these soil fertility mapping is for macro, secondary and micronutrients at district level. It’s because of public research that production of grains has increased tremendously since 1950-51 till date. For example, wheat production has increased from 6.46 million tonnes to 94.88 million tonnes; rice has increased from 20.58 million tonnes to 105.31 million tonnes; maize production has risen from 1.73 million tonnes to 21.76 million tonnes.  And highest increase is in eggs where our production has increased from 1.8 billion to 66 billion which is around 36 times.

Why do you rate these highly?

The most beneficial contribution of research and development is seen in the form of improved food and nutritional security and secondly improvement in total factor productivity. This gain in turn reduces cost of production in real terms, contributing to resource saving and lowering of price for consumers. The highest gain is in wheat, which experiences 2.3 per cent annual decline in cost of production. Similar decline was in barley, jowar, bajra and mustard, while for rice, moong, groundnut and gram, the annual decline was around one per cent.

ICAR has produced no remarkable breakthrough nor has all the research of the decades helped the public sector to dominate the seed market. Why is this so?

For public seed sector, it depends on state government’s indents. We have been saying that seed chain in public sector is not getting stronger. We give breeder seeds to the seed corporations and they make foundation seed and multiply it and give it to farmers. Now the indent of a seed corporation depends whether they want seed from some old variety or some new. So production of breeder seed cannot be criteria to measure success.

But our research seems to have yielded nothing significant except routine varietal releases…

That’s not true. In cereals, only the public sector dominates. The private sector is present only in hybrids, and that too in vegetable crops and maybe maize. Genetically modified cotton is where the private industry has edge over us. We also work on hybrids and GM crops. Frankly speaking, I’m often asked by institutes and universities why we focus so much on cereals which are high-volume, low-value commodities. I make it clear that we do not have a choice. We are mandated to do so by the government and we fulfill that.

Is GM research shelved after our disastrous experience on developing our own cotton varieties based on our own gene?

At present, we have six GM crops from public research institutes ready for commercialisation. But that will be possible only when the bill on regulation, that is, BRAI is passed  (see 'Stage set for GM crops').

We understand the same gene that was at the centre of the cotton controversy, the gene that was used in Bikaneri Narma cotton, has been used in the development of GM vegetables and other crops

I don’t believe so but we will look into this. There is also the question of the patent on that gene having expired.  So we are not sure if it matters.

How are you dealing with Bikaneri Narma scandal that involves top research institutions, universities and senior scientists?

We have taken action. We set up the Sopory Committee, which has submitted its report and that report is in the public domain. Everything is transparent.

That was more than a year ago.

We have asked the scientists involved to respond. After that we will decide what is to be done.

There is another scandal involving the award of ICAR’s most prestigious research prize to K C Bansal (head of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources). The scientist’s claims on which the prize was given are said to be false. Does it not reflect badly on ICAR and it scientists?

Whenever such things come up we write to the division, then take either administrative action or seek an explanation. Now the point is the complaint has to been seen by a scientist at the higher level. It depends on their judgement and response of the scientist involved.

Many scientists have complained that these cases affect the morale of the institution and that it shows the complete lack of accountability in ICAR.

That is not true. Due processes are being followed so there is no need for scientists to feel demoralised. As and when such instances come up, we act on them instantly. Unless things are proved we cannot take action.

One reason why there so few research outcomes is because there is no monitoring of the research work. How do you evaluate scientists?

We have six-monthly monitoring of targets and achievements of individual scientists apart from the annual assessment reports. There are other institutional monitoring mechanisms and we also look at the institute’s performance indicators.

There are a number of cases where scientists are leaving ICAR and its affiliated institutes to join private companies?

ICAR is one of the best institutes to work with in India. In the last three years, at least 32 scientists from abroad have joined us. If ICAR was not pro-science, pro-skill, they would not have joined us. As far as remuneration is concerned, ICAR is the only public institute that has University Grants Commission pay package since 1986, while other organisations like DRDO, CSIR still follow government pay scales. When you join ICAR as scientist, you become a senior scientist in eight to nine years and then principal scientist in another 15 years. Monthly package of a principal scientist varies from Rs 1.2 to Rs 1.6 lakh per month. Apart from this, we have special research schemes like National Professor Scheme where a scientist gets Rs 50 lakh for five years to pursue his research. Similarly, we have National fellow Scheme also where you get Rs 40 lakh for five years. I feel it’s the best institute when it comes to research freedom and remunerations.

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