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Paul Singh Sidhu, Hindustan Times
February 06, 2013
Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, has completed 50 years. While several events were organised to celebrate its achievements, weaknesses were swept under the carpet. The history of PAU mirrors progress and stagnation of agriculture in Punjab. After a great start in 1962, systemic weaknesses started creeping in the late 1970s and have continued unabated.

Massive expansion spread the limited resources thinly. Back-door ad hoc appointments had sown the seeds of mediocrity. Financial incentives for attracting talent were withdrawn; often, qualifications were narrowly tailored to suit candidates. Selections made by expert committees were rejected when these did not suit the vice-chancellor. Instead of maintaining the painstakingly crafted institutional integrity, the university was turned into an employment agency. Devolution of authority to researchers required by funding agencies was avoided, decision-making was centralised at the top, and heads of departments were systematically disempowered, resulting in demotivation.

The PAU administration became top-heavy. New and complex problems started confronting agriculture, but no attempt was made to reallocate resources for tackling pressing needs. Despite alarming groundwater mining and global warming threatening Punjab agriculture, PAU does not have a small research station which is water- and carbon-neutral. The cookie-cutter approach to performance evaluation and declining empathy for the farming community has reduced emphasis on on-farm and strategic research and encouraged churning out of publications and technologies, many of which have no takers. The home of the first bajra hybrid in the world has not come up with a single truly transformative technology since the turn of the century.

Handicaps of inbreeding

About 90% of the faculty has obtained all three degrees from PAU. Such an alarming degree of inbreeding has created serious handicaps. Unlike well-qualified and turbo-charged scientists mobilising research funding from 1960s to 1980s, the present faculty is unable to generate research funds. With the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) increasingly adopting competitive grants programmes (CGPs), PAU has taken a serious hit. Of the 342 CGP projects under the National Agricultural Technology Project, PAU could get only four. It is a leader in only one project of the 191 under the Rs. 1,330-crore National Agricultural Innovation Project, and has not got the first grant as the leader from the National Fund for Basic and Strategic Agricultural Research since 2006. Performance of its graduates in national examinations is equally disappointing. They have got about five research fellowships per year since 2009, constituting 0.8% of fellowships awarded and less than 9% of fellowships won by graduates of the best performing agricultural university. The number of PAU graduates annually recruited in agricultural research service is five, only 1.9% of the total selections.

The biggest problem today is inadequate funding by the state government and the PAU's inability to win competitive grants. This has serious implications since agricultural research is a long-term process and cannot be switched on and off at will. Employees have to resort to strikes to get what should be paid as a matter of routine. Unlike optimistic and passionate vibes of the 1960s and 1970s, the university is now agog with a pessimistic environment. Punjab was the national leader in research and development (R&D) investments in the 1960s and 1970s, but has fallen behind many states since 1990 (growth rate of 2.4% per annum against 3.8%). This is despite the fact that after rural roads, investments in the agricultural technology system have yielded highest returns.

Stagnating agriculture

The funding of PAU is primarily the Punjab government's responsibility. It requires about Rs. 400 crore a year for meeting committed liabilities against the current annual support of Rs. 260 crore.

Stagnating agriculture is worrying for Punjab. The agriculture GDP (gross domestic product) growth rate from 2001-02 to 2011-12 was less than 2%. The national leader from 1960 to 1990 is now at the number 20 among 21 agricultural states, being only ahead of Kerala. Well-funded PAU generating steady stream of usable agro-technologies is a necessary but not sufficient condition for promoting diversification to regain growth rates of the green revolution days. Provision of additional funds alone is not the solution; PAU's accountability should be improved by linking additional funding with monitorable outputs and outcomes. Another issue requiring attention of the state government, if it wants a well-functioning PAU, is the caution it should observe while appointing the vice-chancellor and members of the board of management.

In the context of intricate problems confronting Punjab agriculture, PAU's Vision 2040 document representing a please-all linear extrapolation of the past into the future, ignoring ground realities, protecting existing turfs without attempting to develop a lean, decentralised and accountable organisational structure is not a pragmatic roadmap for the next 27 years. Unlike the public sector-driven green revolution, agricultural diversification will be largely farmer and private sector-driven.

The Punjab government should, therefore, craft enabling policies, institutions and a friendly culture for promoting private sector participation. The role of PAU should be to develop and disseminate technologies for improving competitiveness of other crops vis-à-vis rice-wheat rotation. The future of agriculture lies in developing efficient, compact value chains linking farmers with consumers. This requires mitigation of serious policy, institutional, technological and cultural choke points in the existing value chains. PAU should also set up a business development centre and agri-business incubator.

Drastic change needed

Complex problems of 21st-century agriculture cannot be addressed by obsolete institutional models of the early 20th century. Drastic structural transformation and reawakening is required inside PAU.

Like the 1960s, rejuvenation and retooling of faculty should be undertaken for broadening and deepening their vision and core competencies. Focus should be on a few areas critical for Punjab agriculture with well-defined performance indicators and timelines.

Instead of continuing as an insular, inward looking entity patting-on-the-back for past accomplishments, PAU must emerge as agile, futuristic university working beyond production agriculture and building alliances with public, private and civil society organisations beyond the ICAR State Extension System. Extension approach must be re-engineered for organising farmers into commodity groups and larger producer organisations; and linking them with multiple sources of information and markets. State policies should be revamped for providing alternative low-cost marketing channels beyond monopolistic mandis.

Simultaneously, the rural non-farm sector and industrialisation should be promoted since agriculture alone cannot alleviate rural stress. Focus and resource allocation must shift towards hi-tech, diversified, value-added and climate-smart agriculture for making Punjab farmers nationally and globally competitive. Continuing with business as the usual approach is not an option. Hard decisions should be carefully taken and implemented in a prompt, fair and transparent manner.