The Green Revolution (GR), which began in the late 1960s, ushered in high yielding varieties of crops, irrigation facilities, fertilisers, good agronomic practices and robust agriculture extension.

Credit goes to our agricultural research infrastructure (Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), and State Agriculture Universities (SAU), Central and State Governments. Before the GR our total foodgrain production was about 50 MT; it is now about 330 MT.

But the post GR-era poses new challenges. If we have to mount a second GR — to address some current issues like scarcity of natural resources, indiscriminate use of agri-chemicals and toxic residues on our food, nutrition deficiency in our staples, erratic monsoons, climate change, in the midst of global uncertainties — we need to re-look at our agri-research infrastructure. Food and nutrition security are the bedrock.

Our agricultural research infrastructure comprises ICAR and SAUs. ICAR runs over 100 agriculture research stations in all agro-climatic regions. Its budget is about ₹9,500 crore and has about 15,000 staff. In addition we have about 74 SAUs. They each run about 50 research stations based on the State’s size, geography and requirements. Their annual budgets are around Rs 300-400 crore and they have about 4,000-5,000 staff each.

Typically 50 per cent of ICAR and SAU staff are scientific and technical. Staff costs take away a considerable slice of the budget for these organisations.

What is expected of this elaborate system? Key performance areas could be — recruit better scientists and provide the right education; conduct research useful to farmers; develop and release crop varieties acceptable to farmers; be trusted troubleshooters and solution providers to farmers; provide useful agriculture extension, among others. Surely, the authorities use more nuanced and improvised metrics.

Per a recent ICAR publication, “every rupee spent on research pays back ₹13.85”. A good reason, then, to reimagine agri-research infrastructure on a 25 year time-scale to coincide with India’s Independence centenary in 2047. Here are some key questions that need to be posed:

Key questions

(i) ICAR funds research projects in SAUs. Should it still engage in research directly? Can’t it move into research funding, review and coordination, like US’s National Science Foundation and other such agencies in US and Europe?

(ii) Aren’t there research overlaps between ICAR and SAUs since they operate in the same crops and agro-climatic regions?

(iii) What percentage of research projects directly solve farmers’ needs? Why do farmers keep using the same varieties? Sona Masoori rice and Banganapalli mango have been around since time immemorial.

(iv) Farmers use a considerable amount of seeds from private sector companies. Some put it at 75 per cent. Can’t we think of PPPs?

(v) ICAR recruits through the Agricultural Research Service Board and SAUs through their administrative headquarters. The basic requirement is a PhD anyway. When ICAR recruits and posts a scientist in a faraway research station from his domicile, it takes time and effort for that scientist to adjust and deliver research. But a PhD hired by a SAU would be better off and can ‘hit the road running’. Once ICAR moves into funding research, it could reduce the room for complaints on research quality.

(vi) Shouldn’t we transform the agriculture curriculum? Learning through a experiential approach, entrepreneurship training and industry mentorships may help. Students’ research dissertations must become ‘lighthouse’ projects, by choosing real issues concerning farmers.

(vii) Agriculture and water will become strategic issues. Isn’t time we consider moving agriculture out of the ‘State’ list?

The writer is former deputy managing director, Nabard. Views are personal