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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.

Down To Earth

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