As the discourse in Punjab revolves around the need for a 'second green revolution', a 'white revolution' and a 'rainbow revolution', the cradle of the original green revolution in the state, the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), is instead looking for course correction.
As the university turns 50 on Wednesday, it is concentrating on problems accrued over the five decades -- rising farm debts, receding sub-soil water levels, a struggle to find an alternative to water-guzzling paddy and, the key issue behind most of the problems, lack of funds for research.
In the 50 years of the PAU, the per-hectare yield of wheat has risen from 10 quintals to 51 quintals, and paddy has grown from 15 to 60 quintals per hectare. The figures may look encouraging, but the challenge is to sustain the production and still preserve natural resources. "The objective 50 years ago was to feed the country's population. Now, our goal is sustainable agriculture," says PAU vice-chancellor Dr BS Dhillon, as he shuffles papers, taking a break from rehearsing the speech he would be delivering at the golden jubilee day celebrations on October 17.
NEED FOR ALTERNATIVES
Instead of hybrid varieties, PAU now sees a role in providing genetically modified (GM) seeds that yield more, and endure all kinds of vagaries. "We can add genes of maize into wheat to add endurance to wheat," says the V-C, immediately terming it "a distant dream". "Where would the money come from?" he wonders aloud.
Since the inception of the PAU in 1962, the area under paddy cultivation has multiplied by over 10 times, from 2.4 lakh hectares to 28 lakh hectares. But given paddy's humungous water needs, and the resultant dip in the groundwater table, the Punjab government plans to bring it down to 13 lakh hectares. University authorities say a similar proposal was made back in the '90s when Dr GS Kalkat, now chairman of the Punjab State Farmers Commission, was the V-C. But there is no roadmap.
As the university struggles to pull farmers out of the wheat-paddy cycle, the grouse is that farmers are not receptive to change. The V-C understands the fear behind the farmers' disinterest: "How would they replace paddy with sugarcane, cotton and maize in the kharif season when the government does not set a minimum support price (MSP) for these crops too?"
FUND CRUNCH, STAFF SHORTAGE
"Castles can't be built in the air," remarks V-C Dhillon, who remained director of research at PAU, worked at the Indian Council for Agriculture Research (ICAR) and also as a scientist in Germany.
"Germany has recovered many times out of difficult situations. I think the story needs to be replicated in Punjab."
He lists the key problem, "The university is always struggling to recover its annual salary bill of Rs 189 crore from the state government, plus pensions worth Rs 79 crore. There is no money for research but expectations from the university are very high."
He admits research has taken the backseat, "The grants for research were regular till 2000, but vanished after that. Give us at least Rs 10 crore annually for research."
PAU's research is now undertaken at Balowal (Nawanshahr), Gurdaspur, Kapurthala, Faridkot, Abohar and Bathinda, while seed production is done at Ladowal (Ludhiana), Nabha, and Naraingarh near Amloh.
Likewise, staff shortage is also hampering research. As per university figures, there were 1,589 sanctioned posts in the '90s, of which 88% were filled. Currently, of the 1,050 sanctioned posts, only 50% are filled. Ironically, a grant of Rs 100 crore received by the university in 2006 on being adjudged as the 'best research institution' in the country went into new buildings and new technology.
A LOOK BACK
After the massive Bengal feminine of 1942, India's food security became of paramount concern. Hence, as the country became independent five years later, the plan was to build at least 60 agricultural universities. The undivided - comprising present-day Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh -- also got one in Ludhiana that became operational in 1962.
Initially, the United States Agency For International Development (USAID) funded the universities and also facilitated tie-ups between institutes from the two countries. PAU had a tie-up with Ohio State University that lasted for 15 years.
With the passage of time, the university grew, Punjab was reorganised, and PAU was divided. In 1970, Haryana Agricultural University came up at Hisar and another one at Palampur in Himachal Pradesh. In 2006, the Punjab government separated the veterinary wing of the PAU by making it the Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (GADVASU).
Vice-chancellors so far
PN Thapar 1962-68
MS Randhawa 1968-76
Sukhdev Singh 1976
AS Cheema 1976-81
Sukhdev Singh 1981-89
SS Johl briefly in 1986
KS Gill 1990-93
AS Khehra 1994-97
GS Kalkat 1998-2001
KS Aulakh 2001-07
MS Kang 2007-11
BS Dhillon since 2011
Why PAU lost its glory and what is the way forward. We ask five past vice-chancellors
GS Kalkat: Shortage of funds is one problem that needs to be addressed. And it's not a case of lost glory PAU; a number of other universities are also passing through the same crisis. The way forward for PAU would be to concentrate on biotechnology and genetic engineering, and develop pest-, disease- and heat-resistant varieties. Water conservation is another important issue.
SS Johl: Political interference, inadequate funds and taking away autonomous status caused a setback to the varsity. Extension services of PAU were its strength, which got lost owning to the decrease in number of subject specialists. The university should be allowed to function independently. Vacant posts should be filled at the earliest and inbreeding of talent should be discouraged.
KS Aulakh: Excessive interference of state government in the administration of PAU resulted in infringement of its autonomous status, a major cause that contributed to its decline. The vice-chancellor should be made accountable for his decisions and the state government should provide ample funds to the university. There should be availability of funds under non-plan schemes.
MS Kang: PAU suffered partition twice, first after 1967 when Haryana and Himachal Pradesh's agricultural universities were carved out, and recently when GADVASU was created in 2006 from PAU's veterinary sciences college. While the '60s were an era of integration, now is an era of disintegration. Diversification was overlooked to deal with food security. There was no long-term planning. Now there is a dire need for crop diversification, and the PAU has to take the lead.
Establishment of PAU played a pivotal role in ushering in the 'green revolution', and Punjab helped India become self-sufficient in wheat and rice by the mid-'70s The Land Grant System adopted by PAU was a huge success. Punjab produced so much wheat that it had to be stored in school buildings
In 2008, PAU introduced BSc (agriculture), a six-year programme tat students could opt for after matriculation
Six self-financed graduate and post-graduate courses introduced in 2008, inviting an influx of students from rural Punjab
The varsity is credited for having developed and released 705 varieties of wheat, rice, barley, oilseeds, pulses and other grains
PAU bagged 'best university' award twice, once from the ICAR and also at the Mahindra Samriddhi India Agri Awards 2012 held in partnership with a news organisation
Paucity of funds that causes inordinate delay in payment of salaries and pensions
In 1997, PAU vice-chancellor AS Khera was removed after having been proven guilty of having exchanged varsity land with a private chunk of land in connivance with an industrialist
Controversy over opening of the PAU gate in Kitchlu Nagar, a residential locality, and Sukhbir Badal's sharp retort that made V-C KS Aulakh submit his resignation in 2006
Establishment of Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (GADVASU) from within PAU led to a controversy on division of land. GADVASU authorities alleged discrimination; dispute is still on
PAU 201, a high-yielding variety of paddy made after decade-long research, termed imprecise by agriculture department. Despite being a hit with farmers and having given good dividends, the scientists were asked to rework on the variety, as the grain appeared brownish, leading to suggestions of high moisture content