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The classroom and the field

Agriculture education is in a poor state. ICAR must be revamped

Written by Ajay Vir Jakhar | Published: August 8, 2017 1:04 am
Agriculture, Indian farms, ICAR, Indian council of agricultural research, Farmers, farmers suicides, Agriculture loans, agriculture ministry, Green revolution, The Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) mandate is agriculture education, research and farm extension. (Representational photo)

Although autarky on Indian farms is a distant dream, as the 71st year of Independence dawns, penury-ridden farmers are still committing suicide by the thousands— a consequence of decades of short-sightedness, while economists and scientists are still equating food sufficiency to farmer sustainability.

The occasion merits introspection on the core issues of farmers’ distress. We must begin at the apex. The Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) mandate is agriculture education, research and farm extension. It contributed during the most challenging years of food scarcity. Though that success came at an environmental cost we didn’t understand that when we were succeeding. The Green Revolution and a few small triumphs aren’t enough to justify the status quo.

ICAR is no more the holy cow it once was, it can be safely taken to the slaughter house. Far from being an autonomous body, ICAR has become an extension of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. It should be transformed into a truly autonomous body reporting directly to the prime minister like the Atomic Energy Commission. Its functions should be restricted to farm research, education and oversight of non-ICAR agriculture institutes. Farm extension services should be completely delegated to the state governments.

ICAR has historically evolved with a strong bias in favour of crop sciences at the cost of animal husbandry. Research that focuses on agriculture productivity without an alignment to its socio-economic consequences and farmer prosperity is passé. Yields for irrigated crops like rice and wheat are comparable with the best in the world, but research on rain-fed farms, pulses, oilseeds, fruits and vegetables lags considerably. Evolving consumer preferences, changing the narrative from farm to food, environmental impact, climate resilient agriculture require a reorientation of priorities and mindsets. The capacities for market intelligence and forecasting models have not been cultivated.

The deterioration in agriculture education is deplorable. Some state agriculture universities (SAU) are even conducting courses in fashion design. More appalling are the over 1,000 unregulated private agriculture colleges which have sprouted across the nation churning out degrees like street food. Many are without proper labs, infrastructure or farm land. As agriculture is a state subject ICAR/Central government jurisdiction doesn’t apply to these proliferating private profiteers. They thrive because states haven’t enacted a regulatory framework. The Punjab government has notified a regulatory act; other states must follow.

Of the three activities of ICAR, technology transfer or farm extension is shared with the states and is the biggest disappointment of all. Since India became a cereal secure nation, complacency set in and public extension collapsed. The abdication by the state public extension system has allowed the private shopkeepers to usurp the role of farm advisories to disastrous consequences for farmers, human health and the ecology.

ICAR and the states exercise authority and jointly fund SAU activities. Around 700 Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVK) funded by the ICAR are designated for capacity building and technology refinement and transfer but are neither fully staffed nor equipped.

Practically, state governments barely manage to fund the SAUs. To offset the constant paucity of funds, SAUs are forced to augment their resources by seeking research grants irrespective of the state’s priorities. For example, a particular state may want to focus on diversification from paddy in the kharif season, while much of the coordinated research is for the Rabi season crops. This happens because centre and state objectives differ.

Convergence between ICAR and state agriculture agencies has failed. If the PMO accepted the responsibility of agriculture research and education, SAU salaries would fall into the Central government basket and the KVKs could be transferred to the states. That would free up resources for states to focus exclusively on farm extension.

ICAR cannot escape its share of culpability — recruitments are manipulated, inbreeding and nepotism are rampant. Salary structures based on government promotion rules of time-bound promotion do not recognise research output and talent is ignored. Most farmhands are women, but women are not even recruited in equal numbers. Inter-departmental coordination is lacking within the 71 agriculture universities and the whopping 101 institutes across India. It’s time to prune the institute numbers by a third. Worse still, research is routinely stolen from ICAR institutes by private companies. Thus, IPR registrations and internal resource generation like that in the developed world universities is improbable.

To reach the promised land, apart from the stroke of the axe, budget allocations for agriculture R&D must be pegged as 2 per cent of the GDP from the less than 1 per cent at present. But, most importantly, a metric to audit outcomes and establish accountability is needed to resolve the crisis. Unfortunately, when decisions are made, the theoretical knowledge of policymakers supersedes the grounded experience of the practitioner, allowing these crises to fester indefinitely.

The writer is chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj

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  1. M
    Manohar Sambandam
    Aug 11, 2017 at 4:39 pm
    I don't think we can disband ICAR and leave agriculture research to the private sector alone.CICR for example has come up with 40 breeds of cotton suitable for short duration, high density planting with high turnout which can avoid pests. Though we have a large number of private sector in cotton seeds nothing has come out in commercial terms for the problems we are facing in the cotton farming which CICR has done now. Eco-friendly and environmental sustainable practices are not the forte of private sector and has to be done by the government. Most of the problems we have now because of climate changes, population and land shortage will require a lot more concerted research efforts to solve. Private sector will not play an active role for these long term problems. Off course we need course correction with how they operate such as accountability. Here is where we need some ideas and suggestion. We can move agriculture extension services to the states and have KVK under its control.
    1. இரா.செல்வம்
      Aug 9, 2017 at 11:35 am
      Ajay Vir Jakhar had done in depth analysis of functioning of the holy cow that's to be sent to the slaughter house. ICAR for national interests it had done some goods and more damages. Bit to the relevance of farmers its performance is abysmal, more to say negative. Nothing more can be expected from it as being chained in GR mandate. First thing the ICAR should clarify is what's its need for the millions of farmers in difft categories. If it cannot give this clearly its better be sent to slaughter house. The research had already lost its relavances at ground level. Without knowing the ground needs the research works are fixed. More over the cen5ralised kind of ins ution be dismantled and totally decentralized. But in an era of centralisation of every thing to"ONE" we cannot expect such decentralisation. So its better to write obituary to ICAR.
      1. G
        Aug 9, 2017 at 8:18 am
        In a country where politics is assumed as a business or profession agriculture can never acquire real significance until real famine .
        1. D
          Dr Gandhi
          Aug 8, 2017 at 9:57 pm
          Its hightime to introduce agricultural in school educuion and all kvk should be coverted into agrocentric self sustained school to create new generation farmer of next decade
          1. T
            Aug 8, 2017 at 7:52 pm
            I think the writer of this article is an . He doesn't understand the multiple causes for farmers distress?. Agriculture scientist in this country is not devising policies, it's the government which does. Scientists cannot control price fluctuations, it's the govt which has invest in money for storage, processing and remove middleman in marketing, to name some. I request the editor to read about actual causes not to give commentary by sitting in ac room.
            1. இரா.செல்வம்
              Aug 9, 2017 at 11:19 am
              Its the question relavance . Does ICAR is relevant is the main question.
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