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Meanwhile, this farm-fresh deal needs to be debated

The changed face of agricultural research and the complete lack of space for farmer innovation and creation has sent out a clear message, write Kanchi Kohli and Shalini Bhutani.

india Updated: Sep 17, 2008 20:26 IST

The Indo-US nuclear agreement has been debated since 2006. What, however, has remained on the sidelines is another deal signed around the same time between the two: the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agricultural Education, Research, Service and Commercial Linkages (KIA).

What the agreement set out to do was reinforce private players in agricultural research and put US private interests in the driver’s seat, which would determine the future priorities of the Indian Council for Agricul-tural Research (ICAR) and state-level agricultural universities. The joint declaration of 2005 presented the philosophy, that of “public-private partnership where the private sector can help identify research areas that have the potential for rapid commercialisation with a view to develop new and commercially viable technologies for agricultural advancement in both countries”.

The stage was set. Indian agriculture was to move towards a business orientation with increased US penetration. For this to happen, inroads needed to be made in the public sector research areas. Not only would there be a directive for scientific expertise to re-construct research as the industry demands it, but there was now also an argument for its introduction on farmers’ fields. The vast Indian national agriculture research system and its extension services network provided a readymade framework.

In many ways, this is not a new reality. The Green Revolution was sponsored by the US and other corporate interests. Initiatives like the KIA only further the private sector’s involvement in shaping India’s agriculture.

The KIA process is inching close to achieving its objectives. The activities include internships in arenas of biotechnology or through collaborations like Bharti-Walmart. The last meeting in April 2008, in fact, set out an express mandate of exploring public-private internships for students. The objective around biotech has managed set up a Pigeonpea Genomics Initiative and organised collaborative research projects on rice and wheat looking at their drought and wheat tolerance. It has also encouraged research projects around cassava, papaya, banana and potato.

When it comes to the thrust area of agro-processing and marketing, the KIA builds on contract farming and value-added products. Fellowships have been instituted on the subject. The focus on next-generation biofuels is also an important component of this area of work.

But what if the very basis of all this is questionable? What if one finds that small and marginal farmers have been left by the wayside in this haste to ‘reorient’ agriculture? The changed face of agricultural research and the complete lack of space for farmer innovation and creation has sent out a clear message. But contrasting it stands a small yet vehement demand challenging it. It demands that research needs to be farmer-led and scientist-assisted rather than carried out with a politically savvy face of farmer participation.

At another level, this approach also seeks to de-institutionalise research. This in the long term will mean research institutes to give up their controls on restricting research within institutional set-ups. Like the ‘other’ deal, this Indo-US agriculture deal needs to be debated.

Kanchi Kohli is a member of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group
Shalini Bhutani works with the NGO, GRAIN