May 2, 2009

Who controls agricultural science in India?

Walk into an agricultural university or an agricultural research institute being run by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and you come back dismayed. Gone are the days when agricultural scientists were somehow free and independent to plan their research priorities. When at least you could sit with them and have a free discussion on what was happening in their own laboratories. You could talk to them about the politics prevailing in the university, and how a particular scientist was being benefitted for what he was doing, and so on.

Today, when I walk into an institute or even meet some of these scientists outside at a conference/workshop, I can see their level of discomfort, the uneasiness that settles in the moment you try to find out what is happening in their universities, forget about their laboratories. They are tight-lipped, and if I may say so they are simply terrorised.

And when in the US, a group of 25-odd scientists wrote that now well-known letter saying they were no longer being allowed to conduct any meaningful research, I wasn't surprised or shocked. What actually came to my mind after having read that letter was that how could these scientists muster the courage to say this now. Nevertheless, I think it was very admirable on the part of these scientists to call a spade a spade, and this should inspire more scientists to come out of the GM shackles that is keeping their mouth shut. After all, for how long can you keep a good scientist in a box? For long can you bar a scientist from doing any meaningful research?

I wish someone in India also demonstrates the same kind of courage.

It all begins at the top. The entire research system is so well entrenched in the hands of these biotechnology companies that nothing moves without their tacit approval. We are aware the present Chairman of the Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board (ASRB) is also on the board of ISAAA in India. The biotechnology industry therefore has made it openly clear that they have in the past and will in future be overseeing all the selections to the top posts being made. And once this is done, it is easy to ensure that the scientifc community in the university and ICAR institutes fall in line.

Isn't it strange that when Mulayam Singh's government appoints thousands of police personnel, the next government removes them saying that these were political appointees. This didn't happen only in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab too has been faced with a similar controversy. I wonder when will a similar question be asked about all the appointments that the ASRB has made in the tenure of the present chairman?

Denials notwithstanding, such is the terror psychosis that prevails that you cannot aspire to be a dean or director or a vice-chancellor in a university unless you join the GM chorus. Some of these scientists can go to any extent to demonstrate their loyalty. I remember the former vice-chancellor of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, had in a debate with me said that if we have accepted Microsoft, what is wrong with Monsanto. I still wonder what is the correlation.

Once the management of the institutes has been adequately managed, these centres become an open field for the company officials. I am amazed at the way the private company officials, move around in the corridors of not only the ICAR but also the universities and institutes. You have to see the easy access and the confort levels with which these company officials operate. Sometimes I wonder whether these company officials are on a deputation with the university. No wonder, you don't hear of many examples of a revolving door in India. Who needs a revolving door when the university doors have been opened completely to private companies.

Take the case of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). It is loaded with scientists who are actually the cheerleaders for the biotechnology industry. And when Dr Pushpa Bhargava, the Supreme Court nominee to the GEAC, began to ask questions that challenged the unscientific cover the GEAC had very conveniently provided to the companies, the GEAC actually wanted him to be removed from the committee!

I thought any apex committee with good intentions would have drawn from the experience of Dr Pushpa Bhargava and set its own house in order. In fact, Dr Bhargava tells me an interesting story that should tell you for whom is the GEAC actually working for. Although I have been saying for quiet long now that GEAC is basically a rubber stamp for the industry, but still let us listen to what Dr Bhargava says. He only substantiates what I have been saying.

The Bt cotton varieties approved by the GEAC were all hybrids. The Central Cotton Research Institute (CCRI) at Nagpur, has recently developed a non-hybrid Bt cotton which means the gene is now in a variety from which the farmers can save seed and replant the next year. In case of hybrids, farmers have to buy seed for every sowing since the hybrid vigour is lost in the second generation. The CCRI application for approval for this variety had come before the GEAC several times, and yet it was not taken up.

Dr Bhargava says that he finally asked the GEAC chairman as to why it was not being taken up. The chairman replied that this will invite objections from them. Who is them, Dr Bhargava asked, and replied, you mean Monsanto. The chairman is reported to have said yes.

With the appointment of top administrative and scientific positions being overseen by these companies, and with the GM regulatory system virtually in their pocket, these companies have nothing to fear. That is why they are not even remotely concerned at the political stand against GM crops taken by every major political party except for the Congress. If you read the election manifesto of the political parties, it seems very clear that the majority is against the unbridled introduction of GM crops in the country, and yet the industry is not bothered. They know for sure that with agricultural scientists rallying faithfully behind them, they have nothing to fear.

While agricultural scientists never get tired to swear in the name of GM technology, I wasn't amazed when I asked at a recent workshop if any one of them had heard of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), I was only faced with blank stares. Ironically, India is a signatory to the IAASTD, and yet our agricultural scientists do not know anything about it. If only agricultural scientists had started working within the sustainability parameters outlined in the IAASTD, the future of Indian agriculture would be ever-smiling.


Anonymous said...

To think that such a transparent and lively subject as agriculture has reached this state!


Anonymous said...

Those are exactly my observations from my visits to India during the last two years. For instance, while attending the International Conference on Toxicology at GAD Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (October 15-17, 2009), I was horrified to observe both local and some NRI scientists to convey that India cannot survive on growing purely organic food, i.e.: without the use of pesticides and GMOs. Similar statements were made by the vice-chancellor and other university authorities. Since I was also an invited speaker at this conference I contradicted them without the opportunity for a follow-up discussion at or after the conference. Apparently, the same situation prevails at other Indian centers of higher learning. These are the institutions which are listened to by the current IMF-imbued policy advisors to the Gandhi-worshiping politicians in both the state and central government(s) of India while the chemical companies laugh all the way to their banks.

Shiv Chopra
(from Punjabeco list)

Sridhar said...


The situation is worse, devinderji. Can you ask the scientists in this country, about the act and rules that regulate Insecticides and whether they have read this. I am sure the answer will be NO. And this is about an Act which is 40 years old, and which ensured that all water, food, and life forms are contaminated with the insecticides these scientists tested and recommended for the poor farmers to use.

These scientists are simply not bothered about anything except their pockets, their labs that earn them fame and money and what not...Infact, I now strongly believe that they all like Fritz Haber are not even bothered about their own families, who are also going to be killed by their own research applications.

The more I see some of these scientists, the more I recognise that this technology is making them behave like Canibals. They know that this technology applied into food could be a killer, yet they seem to revel and indulge in it like Canibals...

devinderji, we need to save the food, nature and our future generation from these canibals...

Anonymous said...

I think you would all be interested in an initiative of the Deccan Development Society in collaboration with the International Institute for Environment and Development, UK called ADARSA - ALLIANCE FOR DEMOCRATISING AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH IN SOUTH ASIA. We are working with more than 35 networks in South Asia on this. The ADARSA initiative would go many steps ahead of the question of who controls agricultural research in India. We believe that farmers especially the small and the marginal, adivasis, dalits and women should be at the control ofagricultural research. Otherwise current agresearch is a puppet in the hands of neo liberal forces and the scientists willingly or unwillingly have become pawns in their hands.

Therefore the initiative would like to demonstrate that if we either hand back the reins of agricultural research in the hands of the excluded, a significant and explosive perspective that would alter the course of life sapping, suicide-motivating agriculture and move it towards life affirming, hope generating farming that had formed the food, farming and cultural history of South Asia for millenia.

For any more details on this, please visit our website:

deccan development society
pastapur village, medak district, andhra pradesh

(from punjabeco-crisis list)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Sharmaji

Question: Which is the most cruel thing you faced in your political carrier?

Gandhiji: The iron-like hearts of educated Indians.


Anonymous said...

Having covered Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana for The Tribune newspaper for a number of years , I think I agree with you all completely. The scientists have been feeling they were not allowed to work freely. There were immense pressures from all quarters. The fact that research in this university that heralded the country into the era of green revolution suffered due to incapable scientists getting plum postings by pleasing their political masters. The latter too wanted incapable people as they could only prove to be the yes masters. Their incapability and insecurity did not allow the capable scientists to work. Instead such circumstances were created for them that they could not do anything productive and ended up frustrated. Many of them even left India so that they can get conducive environments. But now research institutes abroad are also ailing as is evident from Mr Devinder Sharma's write up.

Kanchan Vasdev
Senior Staff Correspondent
(from Punjabeco-crisis)
The Tribune

Devinder Sharma said...

I may have once met Satheesh Ji in Canada but I have not yet visited him and his associates in India. So, I am not fully conversant with the work being done at ADARSA. However, I am fairly familiar with the excellent work being done at Beej Bachao Andolan by Vandana Shiva and her associates at NAVDANYA in New Delhi and Dehradun. In October last year, I spent a week there as part of an international faculty. I am equally familiar with the tremendous amount of work being done by Umendra Dutt, Kavitha Kuruganthi and their associates at Kheti Virasat and Punjab Eco-crisis. In addition, I am familiar with the exemplary work being done by Dr. Inderjit Kaur and her associates at Pingalwara Charitable Society, Amritsar. I am also familiar with the work being done by Jatan Trust on whose behalf Kapil Shah took me around a few months ago to visit many vidyapeeth institutions deep inside Gujarat. It gave me visions of what the salt march undertaken by Mahatma Gandhi and only 78 of his most ardent associates achieved in just three weeks and what followed hence changed the course of history for a better India. That many present NGOs are doing fantastic work along similar lines is without a question. But there is something amiss in that as far as I know no one is paying attention to construct a national education program in food and agriculture that should be introduced in every primary and secondary school, along the lines that Mahatma Gandhi proposed as Nai Talim but which he unfortunately had no time to widely implement. This is the kind of andolan that in my humble opinion needs reflection by all concerned. If properly done, I doubt if we will need another salt march but in the event we face resistance from the current powers that be then we know what to do. Some of these ideas I have discussed with Dr. Sudarshan Iyengar, Vice-Chancellor, Gujarat Vidyapeeth, which I understand was personally established by Mahatma Gandhi in 1921. I would like to do the same with others. To discuss these issues I would like to propose a one or two day roundtable conference at a mutually agreeable venue in the not too distant future. The main purpose of this conference should be to develop a standard curriculum which the central and state governments would be asked to introduce throughout India. Meanwhile, I would like to start a preliminary discussion.

Shiv Chopra

Anonymous said...


I feel myself fortunate for having heard Sri Devinder Sharma speaking impromptu in Bangalore two years back about the plight of farmers in India. He spoke for nearly an hour and a half in English but the audience, many of whom were not so well-versed in English, remained glued to their seats and maintained a pin-drop silence.

Since then I started reading him. The moderators and members of the JK Forum should feel honoured that Sri Sharma is writing in this forum. The point he raised in this article is very serious in nature and the government of India should understand the spreading tentacles of the MNCs in the universities. I always felt that the agriculture universities never proved helpful to the farmers but the MNCs did. However their help came with many conditions and sanctions.

I wonder when people say there are number of research works happening in the agriculture universities but is the research work reflecting in the fields anywhere in any part of India? The answer is a big no. Instead of universities, the solutions to the farmers' problems are offered by the MNCs. How the MNCs, sitting seven seas away know the agriculture related difficulties faced by the farmers in India is something very intriguing. Apparently there is a big nexus between the agriculture universities, government agriculture departments, research scholars, MNCs and the governments of the developed nations.

Some eight years back attempts were made to sell hundreds of varieties of rice collected by Dr Richharia in the Indira Gandhi Agriculture University (IGAU), Raipur many decades ago. Hail the IGAU authorities who mixed all the seeds and now no one knows, which rice variety is known as what. As this was not enough, a conspiracy was hatched to sell the entire rice bank to an MNC. Timely action by the rights activists saved the bank from going into the hands of the MNC.

The university was again in the news for the bad reason around three years back when the germplasm of a rich Jatropha variant was 'smuggled' out. The scientist, who was doing research work, suddenly quit the job and joined an MNC, which was also doing 'research' on Jatropha.

(from Jharkhand Forum)

Anonymous said...

The plight of Agri Scientists in India is more pathetic than described . The ICAR/ASRB recruits scientists to top management positions by taking huge soums of money. You can hear to the murmers in Krishibhavan or any other institute , they tell you how much is paid for each post. No decent scientist is occupying these posts.

Sangeetha Sriram said...


Could you please provide a link to this letter by the US agricultural scientists that you've talked about?

Sangeetha Sriram