What ails ICAR?

10 committees and 30 years on, nobody knows

Published: Thursday 15 September 2005

-- The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (icar) is the world's largest agricultural research system, but the government does not know what to do with it. In the last 30 years, 10 committees (including sub-committees, working groups and task forces) have meandered through its faults, proferring correctives. The most recent one has raised a storm in the agricultural research fraternity. Headed by R A Mashelkar, Director General, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (csir), the committee has submitted a report on re-structuring icar. The report has found icar a poor organisation in terms of research, publication excellence and fellows in the Indian National Science Academy. Based on the science citation index (paper presentation), icar scientists have presented 327 papers in 2004, with impact factor per paper at 1.071 -- a poor show compared to csir, which has presented 2668 papers with impact factor per paper at 1.899. Even institutions like the iits and department of atomic energy are ahead, with 1,829 and 687 papers in 2004. This has been a continuous trend since 1995, informs the committee.

Agri-scientists livid "The estimated rate of return on research per year is 218 per cent in all crops, which is rated one of the best in the world," says Mangla Rai, director general, icar. Adds R K Singh, secretary, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences: "This is no criterion to decide research excellence as icar serves the needs of 60 per cent of the Indian population, which lives in rural areas and cultivates predominantly small and marginal farms. Therefore there is no scope for frontier research in agriculture, as is possible in industry-specific science and atomic research. This is bound to reduce the number of publications." A senior retired icar official provides further perspective, and a hint of conspiracy: "Though icar has always been a thorn in the eyes of peer research organisations for receiving higher funds, they could never raise a voice against it in an era when food production had great political implication. But in the last two years there has been a severe onslaught, with four committees reviewing the organisation to restructure it." It may be noted here that the Tenth Five Year Plan (2002-2007) outlay is Rs 5,368 crore for the department of agricultural research and education (dare), the research wing of the Union Ministry of Agriculture (moa) -- it controls icar -- while that for the department of scientific and industrial research (dsir), the research wing of the Union ministry of science and technology (most) is a mere Rs 2,575 crore. Which leads to a question: is the latest committee report another attempt to discredit icar in a way that facilitates industry's intrusion into agricultural research, and so agriculture?

Who reviews? One thing is common to all the committees set up to review icar so far: a turn away from people-centric agriculture towards concepts like industrial research and private-public participation. Most committees that have reviewed icar contain people that have no background in agriculture. The Mashelkar committee, too, has recommended icar -industry interface and a scientist-entrepreneur tie-up.

Equally interesting is how the process of 'recommending' changes to 'restructure' icar has taken on a bureaucratic life of its own. Each committee makes suggestions; the next one junks it, replacing them with its own suggestions. The 1972 Gajendra Gadkar committee found there wasn't enough linkage between icar and m o a, and asked for dare to be established. Then came the 1988 G V K Rao; it found the link not complete enough and so suggested the functions of all icar institutions be controlled by a set of deputy director generals with the help of assistant director generals. The present Mashelkar committee has found this system unnecessary; it suggests removal of all such positions and instead suggests a direct link between the director general and the directors of the respective institutions.

Complaints about icar an its functioning are legion. In 2002, a working group on agricultural research and education for the tenth five-year plan was set up. Chaired by S K Sinha, former director, Indian Agriculture Reasearch Institute, New Delhi, this 'working group' found state agricultural universities good for nothing, and suggested an alternative based on the us department of agriculture (usda) system, where there is no agriculture university but only usda centres at usual universities, thereby cutting costs to a great extent. But this is shortsighted thinking; it amounts to dismantling a research infrastructure, opening the doors for industry to come in.

Most of the recommendations of various committees, except those of the Gajendra Gadkar committee and G V K Rao committee, have not been implemented; they were found lopsided. The Mashelkar committee, too, seems to be out of favour. Union minister for agriculture Sharad Pawar has started scouting for a new committee comprising of members from inside icar and agricultural faculty to come up with answers to: what's really wrong with icar. Now, is this a trick question?

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