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Agricultural Research in India

Centre for Education and Documentation

07 / 2009

India’s agricultural research system has contributed in a large way to increasing agriculture production and productivity. Development of high yielding and disease resistant varieties has been its major hall mark. The country has one of the largest Public Agricultural Research Establishments in the world. With Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) at the top, we have 30 State Agriculture Universities, 46 Institutes including 4 Deemed Universities, 4 National Bureau, 9 Project Directorates, 31 National Research Centres, 158 Regional Stations and 80 All India Coordinated Research Projects. However, despite having such a huge manpower and infrastructure, the predominant critique has been that it is very weak in transfer of technology and does not benefit small farmers.

The Agricultural and Technology Management Agency

In order to disseminate research and technological improvements in agriculture at the district level the government has set up the Agricultural and Technology Management Agency (ATMA). ATMA is a publicly funded programme 90% by the centre and 10% by the states. This initiative rests on the belief that the application and diffusion of knowledge account for the resulting output as much as labour and capital. Thus technical progress is seen as the engine of agricultural growth and the emphasis seems to be in bringing in so called advanced technology and taking it to the farmer.

The design of the ATMA initiative envisages public private partnerships (PPP) involving all relevant stakeholders. Thus, in Gujarat, ATMA initiatives involves partnership with state agricultural universities, seed and land development corporations, state fertiliser companies, flower grower associations, private sector agro businesses and even with agricultural media organisations. The model is being spread to other states. In Maharashtra for example, the ATMA initiative has led to encouraging results in horticulture, and in introducing the cashew crop and related processing activities. This is bringing new dynamism to parts of Maharashtra which have traditionally been laggards. (Asher)

The capacity to undertake PPPs with multiple stakeholders on part of the ATMA directorates at the state level is therefore given importance rather than build up on knowledge existing with the farmers, and non-technological solutions which have served the farmer earlier. A similar model is being pursued at the international level. The Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture is one example of this trend.

The Indo US Knowledge Initiative

The first phase of the Indo US Knowledge Initiative (KIA) focuses on recasting agricultural research and education; food processing, use of by products and bio- fuels; biotechnology, including transgenic; and water management. The thrust is to shift Indian agricultural research to basic and strategic research from applied research.

The Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture emphatically advances the private sector’s role in technical assistance and funding for agricultural research. The governing body of the Indo-US KIA has the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry as members, the two biggest industry organisations of India. And joining them are the notorious names of Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland Corporation (ADM), the biggest agro chemical and biotech US multinational corporations apart from Wal-Mart. It is evident, through the five board meetings held so far, that US’s commercial interests are seeking to make changes in regulatory regimes that govern Indian farming in the fields of genetically modified organisms, contract farming, food retail sector etc

The Indo-US KIA has nothing to do with food, agriculture or farmers: its only agenda is trade. The KIA proposals are certainly not in tandem with other dominant policy discourses that have found their way into policy documents like the National Policy for Farmers 2007 (See the sheet on Indian Agricultural Policy in the Reform Years) which puts more emphasis on organic and low external input agricultural technology and research.

The research agenda of at least half a dozen Indian Council of Agricultural Research institutions is also clearly neo-liberal, running after big bucks. Two prestigious agricultural universities, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, are working with American agencies like Monsanto and AMD to produce genetically modified vegetables and fruits. These US companies totally destroyed the indigenous varieties of papaya in the Philippines, potato in Peru and maize in Mexico. In India, they are targeting brinjal.

Moreover the government has passed an order enabling researchers even in public institutions to sell their findings to the highest bidder in the private sector, thus making this group of scientist more vulnerable to private commercial interest. Whatever knowledge of modern bio-technology that is generated is thus being privatized.

Critical analysis by Indian civil society

There are several critiques available on mono- disciplinary, reductionist, top-down and undemocratic agricultural research models. The Centre for Science and Environment, an NGO think tank in New Delhi feels that such a shift could push scientists further into laboratories and away from farmers and link research only to commercial interests while ignoring socio- cultural and ecological concerns.

P.V Satheesh, Director of Deccan Development Society, Hyderabad feels strongly that if this insidious game plan is not nullified, agriculture in India will be enslaved by big business and farmers will become labourers on their own farms, serving the interests of the global biotech industry.

His NGO is spearheading a movement called ADARSA — Alliance for Democratising Agricultural Research in South Asia. Supported by the International Institute for Environment and Development, UK, ADARSA includes a network of farmers, scientists, ecological groups from Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka and India. It has brought out a research-based fact-sheet on the agenda of several major Indian agricultural universities and the collaborations they are entering into. It shows that the focus of agricultural research is shifting to biotechnology and bio fuels and is changing farming into ‘pharming’. On the contrary it is lacking in rain fed agriculture which represents 70% of Indian agriculture, and on minor crops, particularly those which grow in multi-cropping, interdependent systems.

Dr G. V. Ramanjaneyulu, Director of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture reminds us that “most of the Agricultural Research in India is based on the US model of research. Further the content and the institutional systems are all based on US conditions whereas the climatic situations, the economic conditions, the size of the farms and the soil situations are very different in India.” This agricultural science suits larger farms with less manpower where one can not have multi-crop systems, as the machines which replace people can only deal with standardized mono-crops. In turn the large mono-crop requires chemical oriented pest management practices and soil fertilizing methods. But in India a majority of farms are small sized, and the majority of the people work in agriculture. There is a mismatch between the science of mono-cropping and mechanical agriculture if superimposed on these condition.

All the more since, as Shambu Prasad of Knowledge In Civil Society stresses, the high-input model is now facing serious challenges due to its unsustainable use of resources, the pressure on the environment, and its inability to address the needs of small farmers. The rising costs of farm inputs and the falling prices of some agricultural produce have increased income inequalities, and have added to the burden of impacts on rural communities.

Two possible directions

The choice is therefore between two different opposing technological trajectories. One is the genetic engineering path to further growth, and the other an agro-ecological approach:

Technological paradigmsGenetic engineeringAgroecological engineering
Basic definitionDeliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by the manipulation of its genetic materialApplication of ecological science to the study, design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems
Implicit objectiveEngineering plants: modify plants to our best advantage by making them productive in adverse conditions or by designing them to fit new objectivesEngineering systems: improve the structure of an agricultural system to make every part work well; rely on ecological interactions and synergisms for soil fertility, productivity and crop protection
Scientific paradigm underlying the technological paradigmReductionismEcology and holism
Examples of sub-trajectoriesBt insect resistant plants, herbicide-tolerant plants, virus-resistant plants etc.Biological control, cultivar mixtures, agro-forestry, habitat management techniques etc.

The genetic engineering tends to dominate the agroecological engineering in the mainstream economy. It benefits funds, though its backward linkages to big industry, capital, international trade, infrastructures (such as the European Molecular Biology Laboratory) and a workforce trained in molecular techniques.

In contrast, agro ecological engineering has not been linked to growth and competitiveness goals. Sustainable agriculture only featured more noticeably on research agendas from the late 1990s onwards. Similarly, genetic engineering has benefited more from PPPs than agro ecological engineering, because PPPs were only launched on technological trajectories in which private firms had an interest.

Lobbies (providers of agricultural inputs, consumer groups, environmental conservation groups) also influence strategic and technological choices. Genetic engineering has received the backing of strong industrial platforms such as Bio in the US or Europabio in the EU. Their lobbying has considerably influenced public policies such intellectual property rights (IPR) regimes in the framework of the World Trade Organization, as well as research framework programmes at the European Commission.

The activity of green lobbies on agro ecological engineering is not as straightforward. Environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace or the Soil Association have put more energy into banning transgenic crops or securing strong regulations than into promoting a research agenda for alternative technological paradigms such as agro ecological innovations.

For small farming

As Dr Malla Reddy, who heads Accion Fraterna, a large NGO working with farmers in Andhra Pradesh, tells us, the current research method can only understand and measure systematic inputs, whereas in nature, rain, weather and soils nutrients occur in diverse changing and complex ways.

Modern farming is no more integrated with other aspects of rural livelihood like dairy, livestock, trees, other habitat services. For two generations now, the interconnectedness between all these elements of livelihood has been lost. So the first task of research is to bring back that traditional knowledge and develop it further as it is the real pillars of sustainable agriculture.

These efforts should be based on the tripod of Research, People and Disseminating organization. Research has to be taken away from the labs to the farms with the farmers in a participatory method because technology must be within the reach of people. This is where NGOs can play a very important role.

Key words

agriculture, sustainable agriculture, GMO and agriculture, agricultural policy, research institution, research policy

, India


Small scale farming in India


This sheet is available in French: La recherche agricole en Inde

Further readings:

• Mukul G. ASHER, Azad BALI, “Energise the ATMA initiative for strengthening food security”, DNA, 18th Feb 2009

• Kavita KURUGANTI,« Government’s Agri-research set-up is undemocratic » et Shambu PRASAD « Democracy to the core-Reflections on S&T policy » at workshop Policy Matters: Insight from Civil Society Engaging with Science and Technology,Knowledge in Civil Society

Devinder SHARMA‘s blog, food policy analyst based inDelhi

See the following websites :

Centre for Sustainable Agriculture

ADARSA, Alliance for la Democrating Agricultural Research, South Asia

Department of Agricultural Research and Education

ICAR-Indian Council of Agricultural Research


Original text

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