Has Punjab lost affinity for agricultural research?

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Published: April 12, 2019 1:20:45 AM

In the last 10 years, there has been no significant representation from Punjab—India’s first Green Revolution state—to the Agricultural Research Service, nor have students from Punjab been well-represented at central agricultural research institutes.

Illustration: Rohnit Phore

Are Punjab students shunning agricultural research? In the first of two examinations conducted this year (the other is not final) for the post of scientist at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), 179 candidates were selected. Of them, only one was from Punjab. Among the state agricultural universities (SAUs) that sent the maximum number of selected candidates are the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), Bangalore (14); Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (Coimbatore), GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology (Pantnagar) and CSKHPKV (Palampur in Himachal Pradesh) supplied eight each; and five came from UAS, Dharwad.

Forty-nine of the selected candidates for ICAR’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) were from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), Delhi. The Indian Veterinary Research Institute (Bareilly), the Central Institute for Fisheries Education (Mumbai) and the National Dairy Research Institute (Karnal) contributed 37 of the 179 selected candidates. These are national institutes and deemed universities. Seven of the selected candidates came from the Banaras Hindu University.

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The candidates from SAUs are most likely to be from that state because local domicile is a requirement for 85% of their admissions. To the national institutes, students are admitted on an all-India basis, so it is possible that among the candidates selected from them for the ARS, some were from Punjab.

Punjab and Haryana do not figure in the list of top-10 states whose candidates were recommended for selection to the ARS between 2006 and 2016. “In the last 10 years, there has been no significant representation from Punjab,” says AK Srivastava, acting chairman of the Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board (ASRB). “Punjab students don’t like to go out of Punjab. They feel it’s the best,” adds Srivastava, who served for 20 years at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU). The maximum number of candidates qualifying for the ARS during this period were from Tamil Nadu (296), followed by Karnataka (266), Kerala (215) and Rajasthan (208). West Bengal (187), Bihar (168), Uttar Pradesh (167) and Maharashtra (153) also sent significant numbers.

The ASRB recruits all scientists of the ICAR. These include nine levels, from entry-level scientist to deputy director-general. It also does ICAR’s assessments of scientists and their promotions.

The ARS was created in October 1975, two years after the ASRB was set up on the recommendation of a group of ministers headed by Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who later became the President of India. The first examination was held in 1976.

For SAUs, the ASRB conducts the National Eligibility Test (NET) twice a year. Candidates need to pass the test to be considered for the posts of assistant professors in these universities. There are 75 SAUs and 108 ICAR institutes.

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The states that had the highest number of candidates qualifying in the NET in 2018 were Karnataka (913), Uttar Pradesh (720), Tamil Nadu (588), Maharashtra (51), Kerala (491), Rajasthan (426), Odisha (420), Gujarat (359), Andhra Pradesh (333) and West Bengal (325). Punjab is not among the top-10.

Only two of the 207 PhD students admitted to the IARI this year were from Punjab. Last year, too, of the 204 students admitted to the programme, the same number of candidates came from Punjab. The IARI was the seat of Green Revolution in India, and has developed blockbuster basmati rice and wheat varieties that have produced handsome yields and incomes for farmers and export earnings.

A fifth (89) of IARI’s PhD students in these two years came from Karnataka. Nearly a tenth (38) were from West Bengal, followed by Tamil Nadu (37). Uttar Pradesh sent 35 candidates, 32 came from Odisha and Rajasthan each, 25 PhD students were from Kerala, while Maharashtra’s contribution was 20.

Baldev Singh Dhillon, PAU’s vice-chancellor who was recently awarded the Padma Shri for his work in maize breeding, says, “Punjab students do not want to move out of Punjab. They say, ‘PAU is top-ranked, so why move out?’”

He cited students going to foreign countries for higher studies after BSc and MSc as another reason. A third reason was the large number of agricultural graduates recruited by the government in the last two years as agricultural and horticultural development officers. A substantial number of students, mostly from rural backgrounds, prefer to earn rather than learn further.

The PAU was set up in 1962 on the model of the land-grant universities of the US. It had a tie-up with the Ohio State University. It has done pioneering work in wheat, rice, cotton and mustard.

“The top-ranked are going for studies outside India,” says Navtej Singh Bains, PAU’s director of Research, about the university’s students. They prefer to go to the US, Australia and Germany. A few agricultural postgraduates also go to Canada and the UK for higher studies.

The perception that Punjab students were shunning agricultural sciences is not right, Bains asserts. “The intake of students is much higher now than at any time before,” he says, because of the proliferation of agricultural colleges and universities. Punjab has two of them. The PAU is getting more students from other north Indian states for its postgraduate and doctoral programmes, Bains adds.

A reason for the low number of Punjab students in IARI’s doctoral programmes, according to Bains, may be their focus on research rather than on academics. Students from other states were competitively engaged in bagging fellowships, he says.
Interestingly, the discipline with the most number of candidates registering, appearing and qualifying for the NET is agricultural biotechnology. The 948 candidates who qualified last year were from the 4,829 who appeared for the test and the 6,897 candidates who registered for it. This is a huge waste of money, time, effort and talent, because there seems to be no future for them in India. The private sector is reducing its investment in India in agricultural biotechnology research because no genetically-modified crop apart from Bt cotton has been approved for cultivation in India in the past 17 years. There is strong opposition to the technology from across political parties, including the ruling party, but this is not reflected in state-funded agricultural biotechnology research programmes.

Demand for teaching and research staff in this discipline has been the highest in the 10 years to 2018, as evidenced by the numbers who appeared for the test (26,558) and qualified (3,474).

“Sadak par aana ho toh (if you want to be on the streets) start a research department in agri-biotechnology,” says SK Rao, vice-chancellor of the Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia Krishi Vishwavidyalaya in Gwalior. Rao is a chickpea breeder who is known for his work in setting up a seed production system in Madhya Pradesh while he was at the Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya in Jabalpur. “I discourage my students to opt for biotechnology.”

Agricultural entomology, fruit sciences, plant pathology, vegetable sciences, genetics & plant breeding, agricultural microbiology, plant physiology, agronomy, and land and water management engineering also saw interest from significant numbers of candidates who appeared for the NET last year.

In food technology, of the 1,793 candidates who appeared for the test, only two qualified. If the government is serious about food processing to reduce waste, add value and also mop up excess supply in the market (to firm up prices for farmers), pedagogy in this discipline must improve. This can be said of all the disciplines because the share of those qualifying from among those who appeared for the test between 2008 and 2018 has never exceeded a quarter. It was the lowest in 2012, at 8%. Last year, 17% of those who appeared got qualified.

The performance of women has been steadily improving over the past years, from 32% selected who qualified the NET in 2013 to 49% last year.

(The author blogs at www.smartindianagriculture.in)

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