May 26, 2009

Stem the rot in agricultural research -- save the Vice Chancellor

The rot had set in quite sometime back. It is now like the last stage of a cancerous growth. What was once viewed as an institution in itself -- much above the institute that he/she would be heading -- and I am talking of the prestigious position of a Vice-Chancellor, is in an advanced stage of decay.

If there is one educational institution that needs to be urgently resurrected, it is the office of the Vice-Chancellor. The future of Indian education is directly linked to the survival of the VC as an institution.

You have probably followed the controversy surrounding the appointment of VCs of ten Central Universities just prior to the general elections. The urgency with which the then HRD Minister Arjun Singh made the appointments certainly was enough to raise eyebrows. In any case, general universities are faced with a terrible crisis in educational integrity given the way the VCs are being appointed. Private universities are much worse. The top slot often goes to people whose only qualification is proximity and loyalty to the promoter of the university.

In Madhya Pradesh, the selection committee for a Vice Chancellor also includes a builder from Indore. A former minister is also in the race for becoming a Vice Chancellor. Another is trying to push the name of his wife for the coveted post of Vice Chancellor.

I am more worried about the fate of agricultural universities. The future of agricultural science and research primarily depends upon the kind of leadership that is demonstrated by the VCs. It not only determines the usefulness and utility of the kind of research being conducted, but also in a way is responsible for the country's food security and the livelihood security of its 600 million farmers.

The appointment of a Vice-Chancellor of an agricultural university was for quite some time viewed as a political exercise. For a number of years now I have seen a number of VCs whose only qualification for the coveted job was his/her proximity to the powers that be. There may be some exceptions, but by and large the entire process of nomination and selection of a VC has over the years been reduced to a scientific farce.

Take the case of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) in Coimbatore. As a young student of agriculture, I remember the prestige attached to this premier institution. TNAU was one of the most respected of the agricultural universities. Like most of the educational institutions in the country, research and educational standards in TNAU too have fallen. But I didn't expect that it would stoop to such a low level that the PS of an Agriculture Minister would be able to get himself almost appointed as the VC. It was only after an uproar from the TNAU faculty that the move was reportedly shelved.

TNAU is no exception. Most of the agricultural universities get the VCs they don't deserve.

Gone are the days when students and faculty would have respect for the VC. I remember several years back when Dr D R Bhumbla suddenly resigned as VC of the Haryana Agricultural University in Hisar, the students had gone on a strike. This was something unusual. As a journalist covering agriculture, believe me I had never heard of the students wanting the VC not to go. In fact, I can cite several instances when the students had gone on strike demanding the removal of a VC. I still remember vividly my column in Indian Express, wherein I had analysed this unique development, surely something to be appreciated and applauded.

The distinguished administrator, the late Dr M S Randhawa, who himself had served as the VC of Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, told me an interesting story. One day he received a call from the governor of Himachal Pradesh seeking his advise for the selection of a VC for the Y S Parmar University of Horticultural Sciences and Forestry at Solan. The governor mentioned three names, and Dr Randhawa picked up who he thought was more suited for the job. A few days later, he was surprised to read in the newspapers that someone else had been appointed.

If you are wondering how are the VCs selected, let me explain. At the face of it, the selection process appears to be based on merit. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) shortlists generally a panel of three names. These names are then forwarded to the State Governor (where the agricultural university is situated), who by virtue of being the Chancellor of the university, is called upon to make the final selection. In reality ofcourse it is the Chief Minister of the State who has the last word. To tell you the truth, the Chief Minister's choice is conveyed to the ICAR much in advance, which takes care to short-list the candidate.

Merit and professional competence have for quite sometime been thrown out of the window. But what worries me is that the once coveted position now comes with a price tag. Political proximity is not the only criteria, how much you can pay is also what determines the final selection. Like at the time of elections, agribusiness companies are moving in fast to lobby for particular candidates. No wonder, the research agenda and priorities is then suitably modified to suit the company's commercial interests.

This may not be true of every appointment, but the grapevine tells us that many a VCs have carried a money bag. I certainly do not intend to denigrate the office of the VC, but keeping the wrong doings under a wrap is also not going to be helpful. I am not sure who will stem this rot, but you will definitely agree that there is a dire need to save the dying institution.

The sooner it is done, the better it will be for the future of this country. Is Rahul Gandhi listening?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As long as caste, money, regionalisms are ruling the country nothing can be done to improve the present status of agricultural research in the country.
No Gandhi can bring about any change in this system. Let us pray GOD for change