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[NEW DELHI] India is to increase its spending on research and development by 8 per cent in the next financial year, which begins in April, with most of the extra funding earmarked for research on alternative fuels and pharmaceutical products.

In particular, a special fund of US$4 million is being created within the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) — one of the top government-funded research establishments — to support research in three areas of alternative energy: solar power, wind turbines and hydrogen fuels.

The budget also gives a boost to research into new drugs by allocating US$31 million for a drug promotion development fund. "This fund has been hanging fire for two years," says CSIR director-general Raghunath Mashelkar, adding that it can now "spur indigenous research in drugs of our interest."

In contrast, however, only relatively small increases have been agreed for medical and agricultural research. Medical research received an increase only of two per cent — with virtually no increase in spending on disease control and prevention — and the budget raises spending on agricultural research by US$315, only 4 per cent higher than last year.

Presenting the annual budget for 2003-2004 last week, Finance Minister Jaswant Singh announced that about US$2.8 billion dollars has been allocated for research across all fields of science next year. As a result, spending on science will amount to almost one per cent of total government spending.

With a grant of $131 million, the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources will receive an increase of almost one third. Another beneficiary is the biotechnology sector, which gets a 24 per cent rise, and will be granted similar tax incentives to information technology.

Other departments that received increases of over 25 per cent include the Department of Science and Technology, India's leading science policy agency, and Indian Systems of Medicine and Health under the Ministry of Health, which researches traditional Indian systems of medicine such as Ayurveda and Siddha.

The relatively low overall increases for research in health and agriculture has provoked mixed reactions. Some critics have expressed concern that although Singh announced health spending as one of the five priorities in his budget, the main focus was in increasing the privatisation of the healthcare system.

There has also been controversy around his call for a second Green Revolution in India to boost agricultural production, and in particular the government's focus on so-called 'precision farming' (in which farmers monitor levels of soil moisture and apply exact quantities of fertilisers and other inputs), hi-tech horticulture, and a shift from cereal to cash crops.

Critics are concerned that precision farming that requires accurate monitoring equipment is impractical for most of the 110 million farming families in India who own less than two hectares of land. They are also worried that a shift from cereal to cash crops will undermine India's self-sufficiency in food — the very goal of the first Green Revolution.

Related external links:

Council of Scientific and Industrial Research
Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources
Department of Science and Technology

Photo credit: NREL

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