India urged to revamp top crop research body
[NEW DELHI] For the second time this year, a committee appointed by the Indian government has urged it to restructure the country's main crop research body.
The committee made its recommendations regarding the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) in a report submitted to the agriculture ministry in July.
It said many ICAR scientists believed that "for all practical purposes the organisation had become bureaucratic and centralised".
ICAR coordinates agricultural research, education and training across India. It acts as a central repository of information, communicates with equivalent agencies in other countries, and helps to bring the applications of research findings to farmers.
The scientists said the ICAR headquarters in Delhi micromanaged its various institutes and "did not seem to inspire the confidence" of institute directors and staff.
The committee was chaired by Raghunath Mashelkar, director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
In January, another committee, led by M. S. Swaminathan, chair of the National Farmers Commission and head of ICAR from 1972 to 1979, submitted its own report to India's Planning Commission.
It also said bureaucracy was a problem, adding that "the political and administrative tinkering with the staff selection process leads to [the recruitment of] subordinate scientists, rather than scintillating ones".
While Swaminathan's committee was tasked with recommending ways of improving India's entire agricultural research sector, of which ICAR is just a part, Mashelkar's focused specifically on ICAR.
Among the problems reported are delays in distributing grants and research permits, as well as the multiple levels of permission needed for project activities, or even simple foreign travel to attend conferences.
It recommended that scientists — not bureaucrats — should have a greater say in how ICAR is run, and that the council should be more project-minded, with clearly defined goals, timelines, and ways of monitoring progress.
The "multiple command and control centres should be done away with," the committee recommended, saying directors of the institutes should report directly to the ICAR director general, instead of to several deputies and assistants, which leads to enormous red tape.
It also suggested that, like CSIR and the space and atomic energy agencies, ICAR be headed by India's prime minister instead of the agriculture minister.
The committee believes that putting the prime minister at the head of the council would help integrate India's economic and agricultural policies.
Senior ICAR officials privately admit some restructuring is necessary. But they reject the call for ICAR to remodel itself to be more like the CSIR.
This would mean fostering more public-private partnerships and getting rid of several senior posts in the council to trim its size.
ICAR "desperately needs" a revamp, agrees Suman Sahai, head of Gene Campaign, a non-governmental organisation that works with Indian farmers.
Sahai says the council's leadership has recently "shown itself to be incapable of rising to the challenges of the agrarian crisis in India or the future anticipated challenges of climate change".
But, points out Sahai, ICAR cannot follow the model of CSIR as the two have completely different mandates.
ICAR's role is to coordinate agricultural research and promote rural development, while CSIR promotes scientific and industrial research and development, often involving private-sector participation.
"Service to the farmers, and not commercial profits, is the key goal of ICAR and there is sometimes a conflict between industry and small and marginal farmers," points out Sahai. "Bureaucrats and controversial private sector companies should be kept out."
In January, the Swaminathan committee warned that a "serious crisis is developing in agricultural research … The scientific strength is dwindling, with the result that a critical mass of scientific effort is lacking in many projects."
It recommended setting up a 'National Board for Strategic Research in Agriculture', that would act as an umbrella organisation and coordinate the several government agencies that fund research in overlapping areas of plant and animal sciences.This overlap has led to the duplication of efforts, in biotechnology for instance, alongside serious gaps in research in fields such as post-harvest technology.