Intangible assets and Indian agriculture
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 14 Jan 2015 6 Comments

Now that the heat and dust kicked up during the 102nd Indian Science Congress has died down, it is time to introspect, not just on all those controversial subjects, be it interplanetary travel in “aeroplanes”  during vedic times or building an “air plane” by an Indian prior to the feat of the Wright brothers et al. The Science Congress had an exclusive session on GM technology, and, coincidentally, three scientists, a former director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, (ICAR); a former Vice Chancellor of Delhi University, and a retired senior scientist of the Indian National Science Academy, pleaded for genetically engineered crops.


They vouchsafed Bt cotton, saying that the number of farmers’ suicides in Vidarbha district, Maharashtra, “was not due to the fault of the Bt cotton”, (contrary to what this author observed during extensive travels in the region). They recommended GM crops as the panacea for all ills of Indian agriculture, and a sure shot to “ensure the country’s food security”.


By design or oversight, this author was not invited to the Science Congress, neither were any activists or scientists who have a different opinion on GM crops. The voice of the lone journalist who stood up in the auditorium to object to the stand of these pro-GM crops scientists was silenced by the Director General when the former raised the valid point why the session had no scientists who held a different view. But they had to ultimately agree that there is need to foolproof biosafety monitoring system on GM crops, subsequent to their commercial release for cultivation! The principal subject of this article is not GM crops, but something far more vital pertaining to Indian agriculture.


Ever since the Prime Minister’s public meetings and his earlier pitch on the subject “Make in India”, we have been hearing innumerable statements from persons of authority in the government that India needs to “innovate”. We have heard the Prime Minister on this subject several times. The latest comes from Jayant Sinha, Minister of State for Finance. The occasion was the release of the book “Story of Tata Chemicals”.


Mr Sinha said, “There is no contradiction in being both a pro-business government and a government of the poor”. This statement prodded me to write this piece, because, as of now, and as has been always the case, India’s poor are still occupied in agriculture, more than 65 per cent of the population, to be precise.


Microsoft chief Bill Gates once famously said, “Our primary assets, which are our software development skills, do not show up on the balance-sheet at all”. Obviously, he was referring to the intangible assets of his empire - the human skills, which do not show up in rounded figures running into billions of US dollars in profits, which create colossal fortunes for Microsoft. Extending this logic, can it be said that if India should draw up a balance-sheet on its farm sector – juxtaposing investments in R&D, especially in biotechnology, with pay-offs – we can come clean with a statement akin to what the “Computer King” made?


In other words, why is it that despite the thousands of crores of rupees being spent by the Union Government’s Department of Biotechnology, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research  (ICAR), 31 agricultural universities spread across the length and breadth of the country (some engaged in “serious research” in cotton), 81 national research centres (some of which are also doing research on cotton, like the Central Cotton Research Institute in Nagpur), endless “commissions” (the important one being the National Commission on  Agriculture), and Parliamentary  Panels, and the now defunct Planning Commission, India could not dream up a Bt cotton of its own, which could have pre-empted the  American MNC Monsanto’s onslaught on Indian soil?


This would have saved thousands of crores of Indian money paid as royalty to this company to obtain the commercial rights for the first Bt cotton released for cultivation in India in 2003. All Indian agricultural institutions involved in cotton “research” only copied what Monsanto did, and what was done in Nagpur can only go to the “hall of shame” rather than the “hall of fame”.


The same is true of Bt brinjal, where the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore clandestinely did “research” in transposing the Bt gene to native brinjal with disastrous consequences. It became a disgusting court case of clandestine “scientific plagiarism” and the vice chancellor and top functionaries of the university were hauled up by the court three years ago.  


Both Merck and DuPont are chemical giant MNCs. Monsanto, which pioneered Bt cotton, is well into life sciences. A study by Mr Randall Morck of the University of Alberta, Canada, and Mr Bernard Young of the University of Michigan, US, showed that the share price of American MNCs that spend heavily on R&D rises when the company involved buys up foreign subsidiaries, but falls when the MNC with low R&D spending buys a subsidiary abroad.


This has a lesson for us in India. It is the substantial R&D investments by Monsanto in Bt technology that helped the scrip rise by 8 per cent the day after India’s Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) gave clearance to the commercial cultivation of Bt cotton to Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company, the Indian arm of Monsanto.


This clearly shows that it is excellent R&D that powers public confidence. Can any of publicly-funded State agriculture enterprise in India spur such confidence? This is something the publicly-funded agriculture scientists might ponder. If one looks critically at the scientific manpower of enterprises like the ICAR and the investments from the national exchequer that goes in maintaining an army of scientists, with similar structures that of the US, China and Brazil, India has far less to show in terms of contribution to Indian agriculture. Even a small country like Brazil has much more to show. 


Buying Better People


This naturally leads to the question: How to buy better people so that the intangible assets in Indian agricultural R&D enhance to a globally competitive level? Some years back, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Kwan Yu, who transformed the island nation’s economy to superlative levels, said “If you pay peanuts, you would get only monkeys”.


Is our reward system appropriate to contemporary needs? Do we set goals when we hire personnel to run establishments or just allow people to sail along the “bureaucratic” tunnel? Is there a strong mid-course correction when accomplishments fall short of expected goals? Or, more appropriately, is sycophancy an irremediable canker in our professional structures that can do damage to the detriment of the few brilliant to the advantage of the great many undeserving? Or, more pertinently, is the dictum, “neither accolades for excellence” nor “boot for sloppiness” the rule, rather than the exception, in publicly-funded R&D in agriculture in this country?


Those who guide the nation need some deep introspection on the above lines. If not, more Bt cotton examples will follow. And India can stay put when its inherent wealth, which should be equitably enjoyed by all Indians, gets siphoned offshore and “Make in India” remains a pipe dream. Mr Modi rather tangentially said, during the birthday celebrations of the ICAR last year, that, “agricultural scientists while conducing conferences in air conditioned rooms should think of what they owe to the poor Indian farmer”. He couldn’t have said it better.                                    

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top