Bangalore: With a crisp Gandhi cap on his head and a bundle of brochures under his arm, S.C.A. Patil is a modern-day farmer searching for new farm technologies at the annual Krishi Mela in Bangalore.
Lab-to-land: A farm machinery demonstration at Krishi Mela which was held in Bangalore from 13-16 November. Government agencies say extension of innovations to farms is the biggest bottleneck. Hemant Mishra / Mint
When asked what he is looking for, he also speaks on behalf of 10 other farmers who’ve accompanied him: “We want to grow crops only with scientific methods; we want to do away with labour(ers).”
Patil, director of the farmers’ group Krishak Samaj in Dharwad district, was among thousands of farmers who roamed the University of Agricultural Sciences, or UAS, campus last week during one of the largest farmers’ fair in the country looking for innovative solutions to their agricultural problems. And like many others, he didn’t seem to find too many.
The reason, as noted agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan says, is that “the lab-to-land (technology) transfer has gradually eroded”.
A 2007 report on the impact of science and technology on Indian agriculture by the Chennai-based MS Swaminathan Research Foundation said, “There has been no breakthrough in technology in the 1990s even to sustain the growth levels of the earlier decade.”
Agricultural research has contributed significantly to improvement in productivity and, with the marginal internal rate of return on research and investment, is still very rewarding. “A 10% increase in public sector expenditure on agricultural R&D (research and development) would induce agricultural growth by 2.4% at constant prices, and overall welfare by 3.8%,” according to an Asian Development Bank report written by C. Ramasamy and K.N. Selvaraj of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, or TNAU, in Coimbatore.
Still, there is severe under-investment in agricultural R&D, which has fallen from 20% of all research funded by New Delhi in 1960-80 to under 12% in early 2000s, says Ramasamy, vice-chancellor of TNAU. “Major increases in allocation have gone to the department of science and technology and space.”
The government, on its part, hasn’t quite walked the talk of agriculture renaissance: agriculture and allied activities’ share in the 11th Plan outlay at 3.7% is down from 4.9% in the ninth and 3.9% in the 10th Plan. Experts say it’s impossible to achieve the 4% growth rate target of the 11th Plan. The rate of growth in agricultural productivity is alarming, just about 2%, which is marginally above the population growth, says P.G. Chengappa, vice-chancellor of UAS, Bangalore. “With almost two years of the current Plan over, achieving 4% growth is impossible,” he adds. According to Swaminathan, the production target of even the 10th Plan has not been achieved.
But this productivity gap isn’t just a measure of food insecurity. Scientist Pushpa M. Bhargava, former vice-chairman of the National Knowledge Commission (NKC), says he believes “if agriculture, food and, rural sector security aren’t taken care of, India could face a bloody revolution in the coming decade.” He says he has communicated his assessment to the Prime Minister and the national security adviser. While Swaminathan calls the scenario a consequence of “technology, policy and extension fatigue”, Bhargava thinks agriculture science and technology suffer from misdirected priorities.
Fallout of fatigue
“The Green Revolution did not happen due to hybrid varieties, yet we are expecting the second Green Revolution to come out of hybrids…Why don’t we use molecular biology to introduce hybrid vigour into pure varieties,” says Bhargava, who says current seed practices have “concentrated power in the hands of a few companies”. In his two years at NKC, he says, 21 agriculture-related areas, including seeds, were identified for immediate attention, but the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, or ICAR, did not pursue them.
He thinks using marker-based seed technology can even prevent production and marketing of spurious seeds. With 48% of farmer households purchasing seeds, and 47% using farm-saved seeds, according to the latest National Sample Survey Organization study, seeds indeed form the cornerstone of farming.
The hybrid push has not yielded breakthroughs in many essential crops either. “Pulses, oilseeds, millets and other crops have stagnated,” says Ramasamy. What is worrisome is that there is technological stagnation in irrigated agriculture, which rode on the wave of high yielding varieties but there is no research investment in dry-land agriculture. “Hybrids for these areas are still not available,” says Ramasamy. At least 80% of coarse cereals, pulses, oilseeds and cotton are grown in dry-land or rain-fed conditions.
Predictably, funding for research has steadily, if not spectacularly, increased. According to the National Centre for Agricultural economics and Policy and research, or NCAP, part of ICAR, the total government funding for agricultural research and education has risen to Rs2,500 crore in 2000, a 10-fold increase over the last four decades. But, if research publication is any indication, Indian agriculture is on a precipice. There has been a drastic decline in the number of Science Citation Index publications in the 1990s and early 2000s—the publications from all ICAR institutes fell from 696 in 1980 to 299; in state agricultural universities, it dropped from 758 to 231. “This clearly shows depletion of upstream or strategic research,” says Suresh Pal of NCAP.
If declining research is a blow, the teetering public extension system is a double whammy, caught in the Centre versus state debate as extension is the state responsibility. “We do research, develop and validate technologies; the public extension system is supposed to take them to the field but it hardly works now,” says Chengappa.
From drought-tolerant varieties of cereals and pulses to new varieties of aerobic rice, that saves 60% water, to farm equipment such as groundnut de-shelling machines and seed-cum-fertilizer drill, there are innovations galore, but they are gathering dust at research campuses. “Somebody has to come forward to take these technologies to the farm,” says Chengappa, who believes thinner profit margins don’t make manufacturing of these equipment profitable.
The Central Institute of Agricultural Engineering, or CIAE, in Bhopal, the only government agency devoted to building farm equipment, faces similar problems—lack of extension and apathy of manufacturers. “The efficiency of extension network is very, very low,” says its director M.M. Pandey, whose institute has developed the entire range of farming equipment but most of them do not reach the farmers, even though it has a national network of 50 centres.
“You have to appreciate that machinery is a complex thing, compared to fertilizers or seeds,” he insists, though he agrees that despite the annual Rs50,000 crore farm equipment market, few small and medium enterprises come forward to try new technologies. However, CIAE has started a manufacturing facility and builds equipment in small batches. It has also begun engaging manufacturers at the R&D stage to save time.
The government’s answer to this crisis is setting up Krishi Vigyan Kendras, one in each district but TNAU’s Ramasamy says that’s not sufficient; we need at least one more in each district. Maybe he is right; several visitors to Krishi Mela at UAS said these kendras were not popular.
“Given their response and technologies offered, I think I am better off with my bullocks and old-style agriculture,” says K. Hanumanthappa of Davangere, whose coconut plantation has been affected by mites for five years.
Fewer state government appointments don’t help either. “We don’t get enough and good students because the state government hardly has any sanctioned posts,” says Arup Kumar Bhattacharya, professor of extension education at Assam Agricultural University in Jorhat, one of the four such institutes in the country.
Government agencies admit extension is the biggest bottleneck. For instance, a few models developed under the World bank-supported National Agricultural Technology Project (NATP) were implemented in 250 districts.
“But they got utterly distorted in form and spirit in implementation,” says Mruthyunjaya, national director of the ongoing National Agricultural Innovation Project (NAIP), a Rs1,200-crore World Bank-funded programme, which has so far disbursed Rs670 crore on 103 projects.
Mruthyunjaya, who uses one name, says learning from NATP, NAIP will stop funding projects in next six months to focus on monitoring. Citing the apathy of personnel involved, he says, “My hidden agenda is to change the change agents.”
For these reasons, some are bypassing the extension system to leapfrog to the farm. For instance, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics, or Icrisat, has developed a Geographic Information System-based micro-level drought vulnerability assessment framework. Colour-coded maps that come out of this framework are easily understood by farmers and can predict drought conditions to the precise village level.
Having tested this in 17 villages in Mehboobnagar district of Andhra Pradesh, Icrisat plans to engage with the universities in drought-prone areas of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, but not with the state agriculture departments.
“The idea is to be able to predict it to the single plot at the farmer level,” says V. Balaji, head, knowledge management and sharing, Icrisat, who thinks his bottom-up approach isn’t in tandem with the government’s top-down.
Whichever approach catches on, agriculture needs a “management revolution”, says Swaminathan.
“Even in this financial meltdown, our economy will depend on farm efficiencies…you can live without everything but not food.”