Deccan Herald Friday, July 11, 2003
Agricultural research in the country a colossal failure
Reorienting priorities
Having failed to meet the challenges of the post-green revolution era, agricultural research has reached a dead end 
By Devinder Sharma

There is hardly a day when vernacular newspapers in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra do not carry reports of a farmer committing suicide. For nearly three decades, farmers have continued the serial death dance throughout the country. Thousands of farmers have preferred to take the fatal route to escape the humiliation that comes along with growing indebtedness following repeated crop failures.

Hundreds of others have opted for sale of body organs to escape the misery that comes associated with an unattractive and un-remunerative agriculture. Tamil Nadu has already assumed the dubious distinction of launching a midday meal programme for its hungry farmers. 

And yet, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) remains oblivious to the massive crisis confronting the countryside. For the past three decades, the steep decline in the performance of farm research hasn’t moved the agricultural scientific community to even consider launching a time-bound research programme that aims at mitigating the human suffering resulting from the collapse of farming throughout the country. Such has been the callous neglect and indifference that successive director generals (DGs) have spent more time travelling to Rome and Washington than to visit the affected villages to understand the reasons for the farmers’ ire. With some 34 agricultural universities, 81 national institutes and an army of over 30,000 plant scientists, the second-biggest agricultural research infrastructure in the world cannot look for excuses. There is no need for an alibi to defend the colossal failure.
Agricultural scientists cannot go on patting their backs for the success of green revolution to justify their failure to meet the challenges of the post green revolution era. They have been lauded enough for their role in the great saga of green revolution. Many of them, who led the team effort in the past, have been decorated and awarded. It is now time to hold others accountable for the great lapse, for their failure to save thousands of farmers from sure death. 

After Green Revolution
Soon after green revolution had set in, Indira Gandhi had launched the controversial 20-Point programme. She had actually placed dryland agriculture on the top of her political agenda. This resulted in a steep hike in research infrastructure for drylands, comprising 70 per cent of the country’s cultivable lands. Several years later, this writer had travelled through the dryland regions to look at the impact of agricultural research. At every agricultural institute, including the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) at Patancheru in Hyderabad, scientists had claimed that they had the technology that could boost productivity in the dryland regions by 300 per cent.

Twenty years later, there is little hope for these dryland areas. None of these institutes have made any appreciable contribution in ameliorating the harsh conditions and making agriculture an attractive proposition. It wasn’t difficult to understand why agricultural scientists were unable to make a breakthrough. The reason was simple. It was essentially because of the changed attitudes, resulting from a flawed educational system. The land-grant educational system that was adopted throughout the country, and which still is being blindly followed, had alienated students from their surroundings. Even today, agriculture education is based on the principles and practices of western agriculture. It has little relevance to the local needs of the country.

No wonder, breeding for high-yielding crops along with its related agronomy and pathology dominated the research thrust. Scientists went on developing high-yielding crop varieties, knowing well that a majority of these would not find favour with the farmers. They failed to reorient research programme to address the location-specific needs. A number of plant varieties evolved and the number of research papers published became the criteria for future promotions. Agricultural scientists remained engaged in what is called as maintenance research — trying to salvage the gains of the green revolution crops.

Agriculture research in India therefore continued to look at the advances being made abroad that could be suitably adapted here. Whether it was crop varieties, the hybrids (except for cotton and bajra hybrids) and the improved horticultural germplasm, the technology invariably came from outside.

For instance, a majority of the horticultural crops are mere introduction into the country under a popular local name. But beyond this, agricultural science failed to look at the specific requirements of the farming communities in their own neighbourhood. Farm research continues to revolve around NPK — nitrogen, phosphorous and potash — the three major plant nutrients that the soils are largely deficient in. Even when it comes to irrigation and water conservation, agricultural scientists have ignored the time-tested systems prevalent in the harsh drylands and have instead tried to superimpose alien technologies. 

Flawed premise
In brief, farm education in India begins with the premise that Indian agriculture is backward, sub-standard and inefficient. The answers therefore have to come from the modern and sophisticated farming technologies from the western countries. The over-enthusiasm that the ICAR is demonstrating on the transgenic crops also is because of the blurred vision that does not find strength in our own traditions and farming systems. This is rather unfortunate. But talk to an agriculture graduate, and tempers are sure to run high. The young scientists too look for any given opportunity to travel abroad. What happens to the fate of millions of small and marginal farmers for whom they are paid to work is not of their concern.

If the spate of farmers’ suicides doesn’t motivate the scientific community to re-orient its research priorities, isn’t it time to question the need for massive annual expenditure on maintaining the white elephant — ICAR? Why should the tax-payers’ hard-earned money be used for funding research activities which can be better undertaken by private companies? After all, if other ‘temples’ of modern India can be disinvested, what is so sacrosanct about ICAR?  

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