One of the key conditions for the rejuvenation of Indian agriculture is a significant increase in crop yields. Data show that India was on a par or even ahead of countries like China or those in South-East Asia in terms of yields till the 1960s. It now lags behind by a large margin in many important crops. Research and development in agriculture is a crucial requirement for meeting these future challenges.

A paper published on the basis of work done by the task force on agricultural development constituted by NITI Aayog, the government’s think tank, suggests that the existing system of agriculture research and development is failing to live up to the task because it has spread scarce resources thinly. What is intriguing is that the paper does not cite any facts to support its claim.

A report released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in December suggests that NITI Aayog’s task force could have been harsh in assessing the contribution of agriculture research and development in India. Every dollar spent in such research between 1980 and 2008 generated $18.34 in benefits, the report says. These findings are in keeping with other studies which have noted the important contribution of research and development in Indian agriculture.

The USDA report concurs with the NITI Aayog’s expert group finding that the rate of return from agriculture research and development has been declining in India and there has indeed been a proliferation of state agricultural universities (SAU) in recent times.

However, this is where the similarity ends. The USDA report cites figures to show that there was a 20.8% decline in the number of full-time equivalent scientists working in SAUs between 2000 and 2008, primarily on account of inadequate resources. Seen against this backdrop, NITI Aayog’s claim about the proliferation of SAUs and a subsequent thin spread of resources being the main reasons for diminishing agriculture research and development returns does not seem credible. Instead, looking at the reason for the resource crunch and comparing India’s agriculture research and development spending—which is less than 0.5% of its agricultural gross domestic product (GDP)—with other countries would be useful.

India remains at the bottom of the ladder compared with countries such as China, Brazil and South Korea. While public agriculture research and development spending has increased significantly in India during 2000-08, it is just not enough. Interestingly, the Planning Commission, the NITI Aayog’s predecessor, had set a target of increasing this spending to 1% of agricultural GDP during the 12th five-year plan that ends in March 2017.

Like all research, the bulk of agriculture research in the world is also carried out in developed countries today. In 2008, high-income countries accounted for 51% of public expenditure on agriculture research and development. China accounted for 13%, while India’s share was 7%. A 2006 study by the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, argued that unlike in the past, the developing world’s option of adapting agricultural research being done in developed countries might be coming under strain due to the changing nature of that research and a squeeze on funding for international research organizations. This only underscores the need for the rejuvenation of such research in the domestic economy.

As far as the point about focused research against resource-thinning proliferation is concerned, it needs to be kept in mind that extension services are more important in agriculture than anywhere else. The soil health card mission, one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship projects, is a classic example. The scheme targets covering 140 million farmers in a span of three years beginning 2015-16. Data as on 13 January shows that only 257,000 soil samples have been tested so far. Paucity of funds and human resources are key factors affecting the successful implementation of the scheme. One hopes that those advocating a top-down model of agriculture research and development do not expect expert farm scientists to issue soil health cards to millions of Indian farmers.

Roshan Kishore is a data journalist at Mint.

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