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Despite objections raised by senior officers, a low-cost digital soil-testing technology developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), has been tweaked by a sister ICAR institute and the licence for its manufacture and sale given to a sole private company.
Since December last year, the private company, Hyderabad-based Nagarjuna Agro Chemicals Private Limited (NACPL), has sold over 5,000 kits and refills worth Rs 83 crore through NAFED alone, without any tender.
Records accessed by The Indian Express show that in 2009, Delhi-based IARI invented the “Digital Soil Test Fertiliser Recommendation (STFR)” technology — under which a farmer could, using an electronic device, test seven soil parameters and obtain specific fertiliser recommendations. This opened up the possibilities of taking soil-testing facilities, traditionally limited to a handful of institutional laboratories, to the grassroots.
The IARI filed a patent application for STFR in 2011 and started issuing licences for its commercialisation in 2012. In July 2014, NACPL was among several companies that obtained a licence from IARI for commercialising this STFR technology. The next month, the company tied up with another ICAR lab, the Indian Institute of Soil Science (IISS) in Bhopal, to ostensibly improve on the STFR technology.
A day before the Prime Minister launched the nationwide Soil Health Card scheme on February 19, 2015, Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh unveiled Mridaparikshak/mini lab developed by IISS in collaboration with NACPL. Despite IARI’s protestations — “a case of copying of Pusa STFR patented technology with a few more elements and parameters added” — the company secured exclusive rights for commercialising the “proprietary item”.
The IISS formally launched Mridaparikshak/mini lab, which could test 10 soil parameters, on April 7, 2015. The same day, K V Prabhu, Joint Director (Research), IARI, wrote to the ICAR Director General, claiming that NACPL violated intellectual property rights by “unauthorised modification and disclosure” of technology to IISS.
In his letter, Prabhu stated that the IARI would have taken action had a sister ICAR institute (IISS) not been involved. “An urgent action is solicited before the same situation extends to independent private-public collaboration based on ICAR technology,” he wrote.
Yet in May 2015, ICAR allowed IISS to apply for a patent for its Mridaparikshak/mini lab and its commercialisation by NACPL alone.
As both IARI and IISS continued refining their respective products, procurement under the soil health card scheme gathered steam when the government sanctioned setting up over 6,000 mini labs in 2016-2017.
In March 2016, the IARI offered an improved STFR technology to its licencees which could analyse 10 of 12 parameters required for the government’s soil health card, and set a December 2016 deadline for adding the two missing parameters which were already available in Mridaparikshak/mini lab of IISS.
As IARI offered those two parameters, NACPL in November lodged a series of complaints with ICAR against other STFR licencees, accusing them of copying the features from IISS Mridaparikshak. Acting on these complaints, the ICAR on February 7 this year handed over the allegations made by NACPL against the licensees to the vigilance section for “necessary action” and stopped further licensing of STFR pending the inquiry.
On February 1, 2017, ICAR director Trilochan Mohapatra wrote to all ICAR institutes to “make use” of Mridaparikshak/mini lab developed by IISS, describing the product as “a proprietary item with exclusive rights of manufacturing and distribution presents with NACPL Agro Chemicals Pvt Ltd, Hyderabad”.
Result: Mini lab remains the only digital soil-tester with 12 mandatory parameters in the market and NACPL continues to enjoy a virtual market monopoly selling the device at a price — Rs 86,000 (plus Rs 17,000 for each refill of chemicals) without tax — fixed by IISS.
IARI scientist emeritus S C Datta, who conceived the STFR idea in 2005, said he was not authorised to comment on administrative issues. “All I can say is that the STFR technology is unique in its electronic aspects which make it a programmable digital colorimeter. Adding as many parameters as required is only a matter of details and such tweaking cannot hijack a patent-applied-for technology,” he said.
For over a week until his retirement on July 31, J S Sandhu, Deputy Director General, ICAR and Acting Director, IARI, did not respond to phone calls and emails for comment.
IARI Joint Director (Research) K V Prabhu said he was hopeful that the “validation process will be completed soon and commercialisation of all parameters of STFR will be made possible”.
IISS director A K Patra declined comment on the charge of modifying the STFR technology into a proprietary item. “Mridaparikshak technology has been applied for IP protection. mini lab has been commercialised as per ICAR guidelines,” he said in an email.
Mukund Maheshwari, Managing Director, NACPL, rejected the allegations: “NACPL is the market leader because we are in this business since 2003 when we started using the technology obtained from A P Agricultural University. I went to IISS with the STFR technology only when IARI refused, verbally, to improve it.”
ICAR Director General Trilochan Mohapatra did not respond to emails and phone calls.