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Indo-US Knowledge Initiative

In an era of rapid changes in modes of knowledge production and utilisation, enslaving the formal scientific components of the Indian agricultural knowledge system to the demands of the US Land Grant colleges/universities and US multinational corporations will destroy scientific capability in the country.

Indo-US KnowledgeInitiative

Need for Public Debate

In an era of rapid changes in modes of knowledge production and utilisation, enslaving the formal scientific components of the Indian agricultural knowledge system to the demands of the US Land Grant colleges/universities and US multinational corporations will destroy scientific capability in the country.


he recently signed ‘Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agricultural Research and Education’ demands some careful analysis. We explore the scope for public debate and more informed decision-making on the generation and utilisation of knowledge for agricultural and rural development in India.

The Indian agricultural research and education system is a predominantly public sector endeavour. Its main components are (i) the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) with its national institutes, central research institutes, national research centres and co-ordinated programmes, (ii) the state agricultural universities (SAUs) – now 32 in number, (iii) a few general universities and some institutes under the union ministry of commerce, or the union ministry of science and technology.

The current “knowledge initiative” is presented as a necessity. It is to be “a shot in the arm” to revitalise Indian agricultural research. This is to address the new challenges such as “global warming, new pestdisease complex, resource depletion and degradation, household nutritional security, slow growing farm profitability, and increased competition”. This, the governments’ (Indian and US) claim, will herald India’s second green revolution!

We highlight a few points that are disturbing about this proposed collaboration. The Indian agricultural research and education system does need reform, but pawning it off to the US markets is not a solution.

The Indo-US “knowledge initiative” document is based on “a consideration mechanism” among senior ICAR officers, select VCs of SAUs, directors of national institutes, representatives of APEDA, private organisations and other stakeholders. There is no mention of consultations with farmers or state or other local governments, or any non-research organisation/individual. It is a normative document, which states what scientific knowledge perceives and intends to do in order to solve India’s agricultural problems.

The collaborators are mainly the public sector research organisations in India, and in the US some Land Grant universities/ colleges (quasi-public sector) and the corporate sector (including some multinationals). Having started with six areas of collaboration, the final agreement covers four areas: (i) human resources capacity building, (ii) biotechnology, (iii) water resources and technology, and (iv) postharvest value addition and market development.

The first draft Indian proposal is available for public reading. The latest document finalised and signed during the US president’s recent visit to India, is not available for public perusal. Its contents relate to simple things – like the food we eat, the crops we grow, the soil and water that sustain these crops, etc. Yet, the document is guarded much like a nuclear or military strategy. Shouldn’t every farmer, every consumer who wants to know be given this information? How do we exercise our right to information in this context?

Comparisons with Green Revolution

Indo-US collaboration during the 1950s and 1960s is flaunted as the legitimising background to this “knowledge initiative”. The context of the green revolution in the 1960s was food scarcity. This is history

Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006

now. India now produces enough food. The current context is one where hunger and malnourishment are an accepted part of our rural reality. There is realisation that many farmers were left out of the green revolution, a large section of the rural workforce was affected negatively by the limited opportunities in agriculture and in non-farm rural employment. There are lopsided subsidies and resource degradation problems. Increasing rural poverty demands a different nature of engagement of the agricultural sciences with rural realities. It is also known that in the 1960s when the Land Grant model was accepted as the model for Indian SAUs, the USAID and government of India made a conscious decision to exclude “the Land Grant philosophy” and “work with elites in a top-down fashion”. The critical factors which were instrumental in the final acceptance of Land Grant model SAUs in Indian states during the late 1950s and early 1960s were (1) technical assistance and aid from the US, (2) expert advice from the foundations (Ford and Rockefeller), (3) poor state financial resources, and (4) mis-interpretation of the Land Grant concept.

The message or mission of the Land Grant colleges and universities in the US had evolved over time, involving the entire farm/rural population, to effect rural change. When the model was transferred to India to establish the SAUs, USAID’s “expressed goal was to effect rapid social change in developing countries by working with elites in a top-down fashion” (to quote L Busch’s 1988 Universities for Development Report of the Joint Indo-US Impact Evaluation of Indian Agricultural Universities, USAID Project Impact Evaluation No 68). Regional political accountability and participation in local research and education was a major feature of the US Land Grant colleges. This thus resulted in the US Land Grant colleges evolving in different ways, with public and private sector support for R&D, education and extension, in different states/interest group domains. The SAUs in India were governed by the Model Act of the ICAR, with no local or regional accountability – except petty politicking to achieve stated middle class goals of assured jobs, transfers, pay hikes, etc, which had nothing to do with rural change, the farming community, or interest groups in agro-industries or trade. Thus, dissociated from its rural clientele, the SAUs are now under a second order centralisation under the aegis of the ICAR.

The deployment of knowledge to cater to the agricultural/food industry takes place without addressing any of these persisting problems.

The green revolution in India is a classic case of innovation that took place in a context of wide-ranging dynamic partnerships fostered by several organisations; national and international, scientific and philanthropic, public and private. Though only the technological changes (HYVchemicals-irrigation) are given credit, these technologies of the 1960s and 1970s were accompanied by institutional changes (with new price policies, PDS, infrastructure development – roads, credit, rural markets, input supply, targeted agro-industry (fertilisers) subsidies and policies) and some organisational changes (the reconstitution of the ICAR, the establishment of the SAUs, etc).

Drivers of Change

Even in the highly food insecure context of the late 1960s, the government of India had substantial control over and choice about the decisions it wanted to make for its farming community and food production. The consolidation of the ICAR in 1966 and its reorganisation in 1974 were undertaken with a national interest of putting R&D to effective use in society. Now national interests are equated with international trade and a place in the highly skewed (and uncertain) global political space.

The drivers of change in this “knowledge initiative” do not include ‘stagnation in research’, accusations of “repetitive and ritualistic research”, “weakening expertise in the agricultural sciences”, etc, that are stated in the ICAR’s reviews (internal and external). Several review committee recommendations, conferences/workshops, research papers and other esoteric research outputs have demanded reform of Indian agricultural R&D. But little effort has been made to reform public sector agricultural research, education or extension. The current political context is one that condemns public sector organisations to wither away – a striking contrast to the 1960s when we had faith in and demanded the best from the public sector.

In the 1960s the desire to prevent a red revolution was a key driver of the green revolution. Today, with the assurance of booming consumerism among the masses, the likelihood of a red revolution is no longer a driver of change. The market is.

Interestingly, some private stakeholders (including multinationals), besides the Land Grant colleges (many of whom are funded by private corporations) are listed as potential collaborators in the knowledge initiative. All the partners from India are SAUs/ICAR institutes. Indian industry, which does gain from industrial/export opportunities arising from the agri-hortilivestock sector, is not included in this knowledge initiative.

In a bilateral agreement of this sort, it is the responsibility of the government to provide (at least) a level playing field for the rural farm and non-farm actors, when they partner with unequal partners – national or international. The knowledge initiative does not mention any such safety nets/processes – but mentions that Indians must pay for their own “training” in the US, and the norms for using Indian R&D organisations as test facilities/trial plots for US technologies, etc.

The lack of mention of intellectual property rights perhaps deserves special attention, especially in the light of biological and chemical technologies that are proposed to be developed jointly by Indo-US teams. Will these technologies be governed by Indian or US patent laws? Will our farmers or processing industries buy these technologies from the American firms who are project partners? When a project included here demands “assessment of the impacts of a strengthened IPR regime” on agricultural biotech industry, does it mean that the Indian and US collaborators have agreed to adopt/implement a particular IPR regime? Is this why the document is such a closely guarded secret?

Technology as Solution?

India has lessons from successful cases of rural innovation involving the actual generation and utilisation of knowledge in socially, economically and ecologically progressive ways. These cases reveal how the content of science itself can be shaped by real felt needs and coalitions of local/ relevant actors. There are thousands of potentially good technologies in the field and in the shelves of research labs. They work or become innovations only when institutional arrangements are conducive.

Given the history of the lack of reform in the agricultural research and education establishment over the past three decades, this knowledge initiative will certainly nail the coffin. This will let the US firms and

Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006 Land Grant colleges (who are vertically integrated with their agri-business sector) use the physical and human resources in SAUs/ICAR institutes as trial plots and technicians. Two components of this knowledge initiative are generation of technologies (biotechnology, food processing/value addition technologies, water/ resource management technologies) and capacity building (a new breed of technically qualified human resource). It is important to recall here that the lack of technologies or scientific research is the least of the problems accounting for the poor growth of value addition, employment opportunities and incomes in the agricultural and rural non-farm sector.

Projects and Their Content

Even if blinded by technological determinism, the projects listed in the first draft reveal a singular lack of understanding of the strengths of technical knowledge (natural science and social science) and the needs of the country. All the projects assume that very little expertise (technological or institutional) is available on the particular topic within the country – within the scientific establishment and among the other stakeholders (farmers, dairy industry, plant breeders, seed industry, pesticide manufacturers, IPM practitioners, environmentalists, etc).

For instance, the project to develop biobased products may appear ideal for rural value addition in India. But is this what we need most in rural value addition? To create sustainable rural enterprises and industries that can provide rural non-farm employment? And if yes, do we need new chemistry from the US to do this (especially when Indian chemists trained in India are working in these US labs)? Is it the lack of this chemistry that is withholding rural value addition in bio-based products in India? The chemistry for much of this is available in India; the capacity to utilise this knowledge (the norms/ways of working and facilities in laboratories) is lacking. Chemical research with US Land Grant colleges and firms will not lead to bio-based product development until the two countries learn from each other, and include other local level partners, needs and processes – including mutual trust. In the conceptual framework given, it is not even acknowledged that biopiracy is among the greatest risks that we face. This project in the knowledge initiative is about using Indian plants and US expertise to produce bio-based products for consumption in the industrialised west.

The biotechnology projects and water research projects also reveal a lack of appreciation of existing strengths. Genetic engineering seems to be the key element in most of these projects – whether it is to engineer plants to produce desirable chemicals for bio-based products, or genomics for discovery of novel genes and molecules with fungicidal and herbicidal properties, or protocols for site-targeted integration of transgenes in crops, etc. All the biotechnology projects assume the same linkages among research, industry and politics in India as they have in the US biotechnology industry!

India is teeming with water-saving technologies; few are adopted. This is mainly for want of better local partnerships, rules defining rights/access and profiteering from public wealth, learning capacities within the research and extension organisations, more decentralised policies and empowered community based organisations that can conserve and manage water resources. The knowledge initiative does not seem to consider options like changing cropping patterns, policies that encourage water saving technologies, effective water and land management (leaching/drainage/ ponding and recycling, etc), water harvesting, etc, that go beyond the reductionist crop-based solutions. Water management for rainfed/dryland agriculture (over 60 per cent of Indian farming) is not included here. Instead of seeking genetic engineering solutions (GMOs for stress tolerance) and water expertise from the US, an organisation like the ICAR should be seeking answers from within – asking itself what went wrong in our water management. But evaluation remains the weakest element in Indian agricultural R&D.

Models for Using Knowledge

The Indian research system has been repeatedly asked to adopt a systems perspective and assess research linkages and outcomes (not outputs – technologies or published papers) for development. For instance, it is not hard to see that rural value addition (post-harvest operations) will demand energy efficient and environmentfriendly devices. Post-harvest success stories reveal brilliant scientific research projects/results, technologies and designs of gasifiers/other equipment, village level entrepreneurship development models, etc. Recent advances in selling fuel efficient devices without subsidies, at prices affordable to the rural poor for establishment of economically and ecologically sustainable enterprises, carry major lessons for agricultural and rural innovation, and the role of innovation capacities in rural development.

The answers for agricultural and rural development do come (increasingly) from non-farm sources. But the systems perspectives needed to draw out these answers does not exist within the agricultural research establishment. Moreover, the pro-poor institutional arrangements that go with these systems do not find favour in the current political climate. Mass adoption of these technologies is limited for want of better policies/incentives, appropriate financial arrangements, capacities for innovation, marketing, etc. Unless these are addressed, these technical projects with the US universities/institutes are bound to fail, perhaps even as massive private enterprises owned and operated by foreign investors.

The problem solving normal science (in the Kuhnian sense), whose results could be extended from the lab to the land, to control and produce more from natural resources, is no longer an adequate scientific framework to handle poverty, malnutrition, agrienvironmental problems. Post-normal science, of the day and age we live in now, goes beyond the qualified normative assumptions in science and science policy. “Uncertainty and value conflict” are highlighted as the critical aspects in a postnormal science policy. Here, science recognises its weaknesses, its need for social, political and ecological legitimisation over and above economic legitimisation, and the complex nature of decision-making as well as the stakes involved. But, the problem with agricultural science, its institutions and organisations is that they tend not to recognise this phase of post-normal science.

Globalisation is like a double-edged sword – critical advantages in a changing global market and political relationships demand appropriate domestic reforms. It is not too late yet for the government to show the political willingness to reform public sector agricultural research, extension and education. Let us reiterate that in this new era of rapid changes in modes of knowledge production and utilisation, enslaving the formal scientific components of the Indian agricultural knowledge system to the demands of a globally powerful player will destroy scientific capability in the country.



Economic and Political Weekly April 29, 2006

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