It should be seen as worrisome that the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) has not had a full-time director for almost eight months now. India’s Green Revolution owes its origin to the high-yielding Kalyan Sona and Sonalika wheat varieties that were bred from this institute in the mid-Sixties. Even in recent times, IARI scientists have developed blockbuster varieties like Pusa-1121 rice (generating annual export earnings of over $ 3 billion) and HD-2967 wheat (planted in an unprecedented 8 million hectares this year). Given the challenges before Indian agriculture — be it from climate change, growing land and water resource constraints, or limited scope for minimum support price increases — the importance of publicly-funded research in boosting crop yields and reducing production costs is obvious. It is all the more surprising, then, that an institution like the IARI is headless. Worse, the agriculture ministry claims it hasn’t found anybody “suitable” to be director after taking eight months to conduct the interviews from the time the post was advertised.
The IARI’s is not an isolated case, though. The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research — India’s largest R&D organisation — is without a regular director general since January 2014, while about a quarter of the 38 laboratories under it have “acting” heads. The Centre is yet to appoint a chief for the Defence Research and Development Organisation after the “termination” of the Agni missile systems architect, Avinash Chander, on January 14. Nor did it seek a timely replacement for V.M. Katoch after he retired as Indian Council of Medical Research director general last month. No less illustrative of the mess in the country’s premier scientific research and higher learning institutions is the recent resignation — which the ministry says he has since withdrawn — of Anil Kakodkar as chairman of the governing board of IIT-Bombay, following a similar move by IIT-Delhi director R. Shevgaonkar in December. The apparent trigger in both cases was “disagreement” with the human resource development ministry.
Such a leadership vacuum, resulting from indifference or political interference, should be seen to be unacceptable for national institutions that have contributed enormously both in terms of research and high-quality manpower generation. The Narendra Modi government must, first and foremost, ensure that the autonomy of these institutions, extending to the selection of their chiefs, is protected. Why should the HRD minister be part of a search-cum-selection committee for choosing IIT directors? We need publicly-funded institutions for cutting-edge research and technology development, but these should be more on the lines of Germany’s Max Planck Institutes or the Argonne National Laboratory in the US, which are independent as well as world class.