The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) is one of the oldest scientific institutes in India and perhaps the most outstanding contributor to our grain security. Its research stations play a pivotal role in improving farm productivity which is facing tremendous pressure from climate change and disruptive technological changes.
This premier organisation along with the state agricultural education universities (SAUs) plays a critical role in determining the quality of agricultural higher education in the country.
However, the ICAR and the SAUs are in deep crisis and questions are being raised over their abilities to cope with the new challenges.
The higher education goals in agriculture and its allied disciplines do not reflect the potential it enjoys in an agricultural country like India. At present, there are only 30,000 students in the 50-odd university-level agricultural institutions and there are hardly any institutes that offer courses on agri-entrepreneurship.
The ICAR should leverage its countrywide presence through its Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) to offer diplomas for self-trained farmers.
In the absence of such induction courses conducted in regional languages, agricultural higher education has become a refuge for medical school rejects. Once they get into the system, they prefer office jobs to farm and laboratory assignments.
There is also a scarcity of specialists important to agricultural development like veterinarians, dairy technologists, food technologists and fisheries technologists. The country is short of 35,000 veterinarians, 20,000 dairy technologists, 10,000 fisheries graduates and nearly two lakh food technology professionals.
To overcome this hurdle, there should be a three-fold increase in student intake in central and state universities. A total enrolment of 200,000 in graduate courses and a web, ICT and FM radio-based countrywide classroom for training 10 million farmers per year should not be very difficult.
Agricultural experts are also worried about the quality of staff in these varsities. Since most of the states are cash-strapped, they starve agricultural universities of funds and keep their bench strength below acceptable levels. Often, contractual teachers take classes while practical training is ignored.
Even certain ICAR institutes, the bench-setters, are short-staffed and though it accredits state universities, many of its institutes will find it hard to qualify for such certificates.
The government-centric approach of handling agricultural higher education through states cannot tackle this quality and quantity challenge. In the absence of scale initiatives, agencies like Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) have come out with courses on agriculture.
First, the policy to restrict agricultural higher education to state agencies must be revamped and capital investment by private educators must be incentivised.
Second, ICAR must slowly divest its education portfolio and become a regulator rather than a service provider. Its research stations must get involved in research training for doctoral and post-doctoral students.
The ICAR committee is unduly wary of what it calls "fragmentation of agricultural education". They want to stop the states from forming separate veterinary or fisheries universities. This is wrong since the ICAR institutions are themselves differentiated along functional lines.
Third, ICAR must try to impress the Planning Commission that out of the 1,000 new universities being planned, at least 200 should be for agriculture and its allied sectors.
Today, the question before the ICAR and all those passionate about agricultural higher education is whether its status and current pace-setting would cater to the dynamic growth the country needs in this sector.
B Ashok is vice-chancellor, Kerala Veterinary and Animal Science University, Pookot, Wayanad. The views expressed by the author are personal.