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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Seeds of Hope

India’s premier farm research and education institute has a full-time director after nearly four years.

Written by Harish Damodaran | New Delhi | Updated: January 23, 2020 7:44:34 am
New IARI director Ashok Kumar Singh with a farmer

It is an institution whose blockbuster varieties account for more than 95% of the country’s Rs 32,800-crore annual basmati rice export revenues, nearly half of its total wheat area, and a quarter of that sown under mustard. Yet, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI, better known as Pusa Institute) has an annual research budget of just over Rs 111 crore and, moreover, was without a regular director for almost four years until late last week.

Scientists at this premier constituent institute of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) are behind the development of improved basmati paddy varieties such as Pusa-1121, Pusa-1509, Pusa Basmati-1, Pusa-1401 and, more recently, Pusa-1718 and Pusa-1637 that are resistant to bacterial blight and blast fungus diseases.

According to Commerce Ministry data, India’s basmati rice exports were worth $ 4.71 billion (Rs 32,804.30 crore) in 2018-19. Out of the total estimated 19.39 lakh hectares (lh) area planted under basmati in 2019, the major share was of IARI varieties, including Pusa-1121 (9.41 lh), Pusa-1509 (4.86 lh), Pusa-1401 (1.57 lh) and Pusa Basmati-1 (1.49 lh). Their combined contribution to basmati shipments in value terms would have exceeded 95%.

No less has been IARI’s role in breeding the dwarf wheat varieties that produced India’s Green Revolution — from Kalyan Sona and Sonalika in the mid-sixties to HD-2285 (released in 1982) and HD-2329 (1985) — and also the newer generation high-yielding and rust-resistant HD-2967 (2011), HD-3086 (2013), HDCSW-18 (2016) and HD-3226 (2019). The last two “climate-smart” varieties have been specifically bred for conservation agriculture — sowing directly on fields containing leftover paddy stubble without recourse to burning — and are also amenable to early sowing (by last week of October) for harvesting by end-March (to withstand any spike in temperatures or premature onset of summer).

The IARI wheat varieties, again, cover some 140 lh out of the country’s average area of 300 lh. These include HD-2967 (70 lh), HD-3086 (30 lh) and others grown in 20 lh each of Central (HI-1544, HI-1605, HD-2932, HI-8663, HI-8713, HI-8759 and HI-8737) and Eastern India (HD-2733, HD-2851, HD-3059 and HI-1500). Given their higher yields, they would easily have a more than 50% share of India’s annual wheat production of 100 million tonnes.

Green Revolution legends M S Swaminathan (left) and Norman Borlaug at Pusa Institute’s research field.

IARI’s research fields have, likewise, given a host of rapeseed-mustard varieties (Pusa Bold, Pusa Jaikisan, Pusa Vijay, and Pusa Mustard-25, 26, 27, 28, 29 and 30) that cover 25% of the roughly 65 lh area under this most widely-cultivated indigenous oilseed. A more recent breakthrough has been Pusa Double Zero Mustard-31, a “canola-grade” variety whose oil contains very low levels of glucosinolates (the source of pungency) and erucic acid (linked to cardiac muscle impairment risks). If the IARI varieties in other crops are included — chana or chickpea (BG-256 and BG-3062, which yields 2.4-2.5 tonnes per hectare and is also suitable for mechanised harvesting), vegetables (Pusa Ruby tomato, Pusa Purple Long brinjal and Pusa Sawani okra) and mango (Amrapali and Mallika) — it adds up to a substantial and tangible contribution.

The irony, however, is that IARI’s budget for 2019-20 is a mere Rs 570.35 crore, of which only Rs 20.65 crore is dedicated towards research and the rest going towards meeting salary, pension, maintenance and other administrative expenses. Apart from the budget support of Rs 20.65 crore for research, IARI is raising Rs 91 crore through externally funded projects — mainly from other government bodies (Department of Biotechnology, Science & Technology and Council of Scientific & Industrial Research), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and some private contract research.

The silver lining is that the venerable institution — which also has a post-graduate school with about 820 PhD and 320 MSc & MTech students — is not headless now: Ashok Kumar Singh was appointed as full-time director on January 18, nearly four years after Trilochan Mohapatra had left to become director-general of ICAR on February 22, 2016.

Previously head of IARI’s Division of Genetics, Dr Singh is primarily a paddy breeder who was actively involved in developing the basmati varieties — especially Pusa-1121 (the world’s longest cooked rice grain) and Pusa-1509 (the most water-saving high-yielding aromatic rice, with a seed-to-grain duration of just 115-120 days) — that have led to India’s exports zooming from $ 433.73 million in 2003-04 to $ 4.71 billion in 2018-19.

“Resource generation is going to be a priority for me,” Dr Singh tells The Indian Express. He identifies three sources from where this could come. The first is royalty on seeds from IARI-bred varieties. “For wheat, farmers generally sow 100 kg per hectare and the seed price is about Rs 40/kg. In paddy, it is 15 kg per hectare, with the price at Rs 70/kg for basmati and Rs 40-50/kg for non-basmati varieties. Why cannot we be given some part of that price as royalty?,” he asks.

IARI supplies breeder seeds of its varieties that are multiplied into foundation and further to certified seeds for sale to farmers. One quintal of breeder paddy seeds typically results in 150 quintals of foundation, which, in turn, yields 22,500 quintals (150*150) of certified seeds. “Right now, the indents from state governments and seed companies, both public and private sector, come to us through the Union Agriculture Ministry and we have to make the breeder material available accordingly. There should be a Pusa Beej (seed) royalty. Even if it is small, the potential revenue is huge, given the sheer area covered by our varieties,” points out Dr Singh.

A similar mechanism can be worked out for levying a cess on the produce of Pusa varieties arriving in mandis and on export of basmati rice from the country. “The monies from all this would ultimately be ploughed back for breeding and research work. Farmers will be the last to object,” he adds.

What are going to be IARI’s new research focus areas? “Breeding for nutrition will certainly receive attention. We have recently released Pusa Vivek QPM9 Improved, a hybrid maize rich in pro-vitamin A as well as lysine and tryptophan (essential amino acids). There is also Pusa-1201, an iron and zinc fortified bajra (pearl-millet). Normal bajra has 30 mg/kg of iron, which is twice in our bio-fortified variety. Instead of spending Rs 4 on an iron capsule containing 20 mg, you can get thrice that from bio-fortified bajra. The government can incentivise farmers to grow the variety by paying a higher minimum support price and include it under the public distribution system,” suggests Dr Singh.

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