The crisis in farm research

Never before has India’s agricultural science community been as demoralised as now

Written by CD Mayee , Bhagirath Choudhary | Updated: March 3, 2016 1:48 am
budget 2016, budget argi research, agri research funds, budget rural funds, farming insurance scheme, india news, latest news, The budgeted Plan outlay for the Department of Agricultural Research and Extension has barely risen from Rs 2,800 crore in FY12 to Rs 3,691 crore in FY16. (Source: Express Photo by Sahil Walia)

Everyone knows Indian agriculture is in deep crisis, impacting around 115 million farmers and an equal number of landless cultivators. Two consecutive bad monsoons and falling commodity prices have resulted in the imports of edible oils and pulses touching all-time-highs, even as its exports of agri-products — from basmati rice, soya meal, sugar, milk powder and tea to guar-based products — have registered significant dips. From being an exporter of maize, we are now importing for animal feed production.

How much would the Narendra Modi government’s initiatives, including the recent Budget, help address the problems?

Some of its new flagship programmes like the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana and the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana can certainly boost agricultural growth and farm incomes, subject to proper implementation. There are others such as the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, Rashtriya Gokul Mission (for conservation of indigenous cattle breeds) and soil and animal health cards, whose scope currently does not extend beyond general statements of noble intent apart: how these will realistically enable “doubling of farmers’ income in five years” isn’t clear.

On the other hand, there are some interventions showing this government’s thinking to be no different from that of the previous one. As CM of Gujarat, Modi had, very rightly, criticised the then government in New Delhi for lack of cohesion and allowing individual ministries to become a law unto themselves. Unfortunately, that is precisely what is being seen today in agriculture.

Under this government, there have been minimum export price restrictions on onions, stockholding limits on pulses and an order to control cotton seed prices. There is even a panel under the agriculture ministry now to decide the maximum sale price — a different kind of MSP — for cotton-seeds. This, despite the latest Economic Survey identified the order as regressive and unproductive. Also, it goes beyond the Centre’s mandate to fix prices under the Essential Commodities Act, by interfering with contractual agreements signed between the licensor and licensees of a technology.

The Cotton Seeds Price Control Order is a manifestation of the growing hostility to technology innovations that benefit farmers directly by increasing incomes through higher crop yields — as Bt cotton has done. The same demonising of scientific endevours explains state governments turning down applications for even conducting field trials of GM crops.

Such indifference, apart from reducing agricultural R&D to mere rhetoric while demoralising the country’s bioscience academia and industry, is a contrast to the of the first NDA regime under Atal Bihari Vajpayee that took a proactive step to approve India’s first biotech crop, Bt cotton, in 2002. We know how it led to India’s production rising more than two-and-a-half times.

The subsequent period has largely been marked by apathy, bordering on aversion, to agricultural technology development and the private sector’s role in this. Proof of it is the Seeds Bill and the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill, both stuck since 2004. There is absolute lack of coordination on policy not just between the Centre and states, but even within the Centre (note the discordance between the agriculture ministry and finance ministry’s Economic Survey on the desirability of the Cotton Seed Control Order). The delay in clearance for even GM mustard, a public sector product developed by Delhi University with support from the National Dairy Development Board, further confirms this absence of clarity and vision. Today, we have a massive laying-off of PhD and MSc researchers, along with skilled technicians, happening across private plant science and seed/biotech firms.

The situation has been made worse by stagnant public sector investments in R&D. The budgeted Plan outlay for the Department of Agricultural Research and Extension has barely risen from Rs 2,800 crore in FY12 to Rs 3,691 crore in FY16. If one takes the Rs 3,000 crore that would actually be spent as per the revised estimates for this year, it amounts to a decline in real inflation-adjusted terms. The 2016-17 Budget has allocated Rs 3,700 crore; how much of it actually gets spent is anyone’s guess. This again is contrary to the Vajpayee-led NDA government’s pledge to hike R&D investments to 2 per cent of GDP over five years.

India cannot afford the current policy and regulatory uncertainty in farm research, which will ultimately put its food security permanently in the hands of Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Australia, Malaysia or Indonesia. A return to the pre-Green Revolution era is neither in farmer nor national interest.

 

The writers are founder directors of the South Asia Biotechnology Centre.

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