The Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) is ostensibly all about being at the helm of co-ordinating, guiding and managing research and education in agriculture, including horticulture, fisheries and animal sciences, in the entire country. One would have imagined that its primary focus would be the farmer. The perils besetting the farming community can hardly be exaggerated and the state of affairs merits introspection on the core contribution of the ICAR.

To begin with an evaluation of the ICAR’s role during the most challenging years of food scarcity, there is the unquestioned green revolution that changed India from a food scarce nation to a self-sufficient food producer; but… There is a very big ‘but’ to this accomplishment. During the prolonged celebratory phase of India having beaten food scarcity, no one checked the abuse of fertilizer and water that the green revolution had pushed in. This failure went on to play ducks and drakes with the fortunes of Indian farming; the price for which is being paid by the generation of farmers 40-50 years down the line.

It is, therefore, time to consider if the ICAR has played its assigned role over the years or has allowed itself to be an extension of the bureaucracy, typically spawned by ministries. In this case it was the agriculture ministry. There is clearly no excuse for scientists not to have understood the environmental implications of India’s triumphant green revolution or their inability to institute corrective measures. For this singular failure, the ICAR should lose its status of the holy cow and be subjected to public scrutiny.

Put to the test, the ICAR exposes its warts; the largest of which is its surrendered autonomy to what is now the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. This makes for a strong case for it to be transformed into a truly autonomous body reporting directly to the prime minister; much like the Atomic Energy Commission. Its functions should be restricted to farm research, education and oversight of non-ICAR agriculture institutes.

Examine 10 areas in which the ICAR falls short though these by no means present the complete picture.
• First, the inadequate performance vis-à-vis farm extension services, which is the source of the greatest disappointment. Technology transfer or farm extension that is shared with the states collapsed once India became a cereal-secure nation. Such complacency and abdication of responsibility by the state public extension system have allowed the private shopkeepers to usurp the role of farm advisories to disastrous consequences for farmers, human health and the ecology. Extension services should be completely delegated to the state governments; they never should have been within the ICAR’s ambit.
• Second — and this emanates from its historical evolution — the ICAR has a strong bias in favour of crop sciences at the cost of animal husbandry. Research that focuses on agriculture productivity with no alignment to its socio-economic consequences and farmer prosperity is passé in the least and dangerous from the perspective of balanced farm growth in all its connotations. For a primarily farming country, there is only one veterinary college graduate per 10 lakh farm animals as opposed to upwards of l0 lakh students annually enrolling for engineering.
• Third, even productivity improvements are not uniform. While yields for irrigated crops like rice and wheat are comparable with the best in the world; research on rain-fed farms, pulses, oilseeds, fruits and vegetables lags considerably.
• Four, evolving consumer preferences that are changing the narrative from farm to food, environmental impact and climate resilient agriculture require a reorientation of priorities and mindsets that the ICAR has failed to inculcate; just as it has failed to develop capacities for market intelligence and forecasting models.
• Five, the ICAR’s own administration is rifled with allegations of manipulated recruitments, inbreeding and nepotism. Salary structures, based on government promotion rules of time-bound promotion, do not recognize research output and talent is ignored.
• Six, there is gender insensitivity with most farmhands being women but women not being recruited in equal numbers.
• Seven, the deterioration in agriculture education in India. While some state agriculture universities even conduct courses in fashion design, there are more than a thousand unregulated private agriculture colleges that have sprouted across the nation, churning out degrees like street food; many even without proper laboratories, infrastructure or farm land.
• Eight, the serious gap in inter-departmental co-ordination within the 71 agriculture universities and the 101 institutes across India. It is time to prune the numbers by as much as a third. Ironically, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), the country’s premier national institute for agricultural research, education and extension, does not have a full-time director for nearly four years.
• Nine, nothing is worse than charges that research is routinely stolen from the ICAR institutes by private companies. Thus, IPR registrations and internal resource generation, as practiced in the developed world universities, are impacted.
• Ten, not bridging the gaps in research courtesy state governments barely funding the SAUs that are forced to augment their resources by seeking research grants, irrespective of the state’s priorities. If a state wants to focus on diversification from paddy in the kharif season, for instance, when much of the co-ordinated research is for rabi crops, it has no access to funds for the specific purpose. This happens because central and state objectives differ and they will in a vastly divergent agro-climatic region like India.

It may be argued that agriculture is a state subject but that does not absolve the ICAR of culpability for, along with the states, it exercises authority and jointly funds the SAUs. Around 700 Krishi Vigyan Kendras funded by the ICAR are designated for capacity-building along with technology refinement and transfer but are neither fully staffed nor equipped.

Similarly, proliferating profiteers masquerading as educators thrive because states have not enacted a regulatory framework. Certainly, the ICAR could have exercised its vocal chords to caution states against such blatantly wrong goings on. The Punjab government has notified a regulatory act; other states would do well to follow suit.

Much would change if the Prime Minister’s Office accepted the responsibility of agriculture research and education. SAU salaries would fall under the central government basket and the KVKs could be transferred to the states. That would free up resources for states to devote exclusively to farm extension.

The larger question is whether ICAR, in its current holy cow avatar, deserves to be taken to the slaughter house? For the time being a serious warning is called for. If India is to reach the promised land of farmer prosperity, it will need more than the ploughshare. Budget allocations for agriculture R&D must be pegged at two per cent of the GDP from the less than one per cent at present.

Most importantly, a matrix to audit outcomes and establish accountability is needed to resolve the current imbroglio. Unfortunately, when decisions are made, the theoretical knowledge of policymakers supersedes the well-grounded experience of the practitioner, allowing these crises to fester indefinitely. All this in a land where the farmer is believed to be fulcrum on which the economy is balanced.

Autarky on Indian farms is, of course, a distant dream even in an India in the 71st year of its Independence. Penury-ridden farmers are still committing suicide by the thousands; a consequence of decades of short-sightedness, while economists and scientists are still equating food sufficiency with farmer sustainability.•