Agriculture research low in priorities

                   Stuck in time
Agriculture research remains low on the priority list of
the authorities concerned
By Tahir Ali

Agriculture research in Pakistan in general and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in particular is being undermined by scant funds, negligence by the government and private sector, and some procedural hitches.

Agriculture research expenditure in Pakistan is just 0.3 percent of its gross domestic product while it is 2, 0.5 and 0.4 percent in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh respectively. In 2002, research expenditure in China and India was $2.6bn and $1.4bn but it was only $0.17bn in Pakistan. It is much less than the average international expenditure of $10bn for that period. And this meagre allocation too is on the decline for many years in actual terms.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, agriculture research has received only Rs0.24bn while livestock research Rs0.27bn, just around 0.3 per cent of this year total ADP of Rs 85bn. And almost 90 percent of this meagre amount is consumed by establishment/operation and management expenses while expenditure on operational research is restricted from 3 to 10 percent.

In terms of expenditure per research scientist too, Pakistan just spends $0.05mn on its each scientist while Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh spend around $0.35mn, $0.1mn and $0.09mn in this head. For a population of one million, United Kingdom has 1400, the United States has around 2400, India has 64 but Pakistan has only 44 scientists. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with around 25mn population has only five PhDs for this number.

Institutional autonomy and increased flexibility with accountability for research institutes, robust role for private sector, special focus on small-scale farmers and marginal areas, conservation of the natural resources and ecosystems, recruitment of scientists/workers on merit, career structure for scientists, review of mandate of institutions and their rationalization, mechanism to constantly consult the relevant stakeholders for setting up research agenda,  establishment of research coordination fund, operational funds for research-extension linkage and endowment fund for agriculture research and development are some of the steps needed to be taken.

There is an acute shortage of research personnel in the provincial agriculture research directorate. The shortage of senior researchers is particularly serious which, according to an official of the ministry of agriculture, can be disastrous for the directorate, agriculture and for the people in the province.

“Many researchers are performing their duties under compulsion but waste no time when they get an offer from private companies which pay them hefty amounts. Most of the officers are performing their duties in the same scales for the last 30 years despite being qualified,” said the official, on the condition of anonymity.

He said while the researchers at the Pakistan agriculture research council get regular opportunities for promotion, the ones in the province retire in their initial grades despite being as much qualified.

Links between universities and agricultural research institutes and farmers and extension agencies improve performance. But there is still huge room for better coordination between universities, research institutes, and farmers’ and non governmental organisations.

Agricultural education and research is controlled by agriculture universities worldwide. But these were looked after by the KP government till 1986 and then under the USAID funded project for transformation and integration of provincial agricultural network (TIPAN), these were handed over to the Agricultural University Peshawar as agriculture research system (ARS). But in 2006, it has been again given to the government department.

The decision has, experts say, has deprived the research sector and agriculture of plentiful financial resources, technical and material support and close liaison with foreign universities and other research bodies available to university-supervised ARS in the province.

According to Muhammad Khalid, an agriculture expert, the ARS worked pretty well before it was disbanded. “1980s was the golden period for agriculture development as funds, transport, equipments, machinery and foreign trainings were available for research. Most of the technologies being cherished by the province were built then. The research sector should be given back to Agriculture University and the entire extension directorate be left at its disposal to help it transfer the technology to farmers,” he said.

“Scientists respect their teachers and thus coordination would be better and work speedier. Again, it will minimise corruption in project formulation and implementation as university professors and technocrats are usually honest. Universities also have close collaboration with foreign universities and, therefore, get research grants, projects, and technology more for their good reputation and credibility than the government/department which are suspected by international aid agencies. This cannot be denied at least for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where out of a total of Rs16bn of foreign funded projects in the ADP, there is no single project for agriculture,” Khalid argued.

This is due for another reason. Provinces account for 50 percent of agriculture scientists but 18 percent of PhDs against agriculture universities which account for 23 percent agriculture scientists without PhD and 50 percent with PhD. Out of 350 Punjab’s agriculture PhDs, around 270 are from universities while around 90 percent in Sindh are from universities. There are around 130 agricultural scientists having doctor of philosophy in one or the other disciplines of agriculture. Of these, 90 are working in the agriculture university Peshawar while the rest are at institutes.

Twenty five new varieties of different crops, fruits and vegetables were developed during year 2003 while 17 during year 2004 but in subsequent years the pace of development remained sluggish on these fronts.

When another official was asked had that trend subsided after the 2006 decision, he, wishing anonymity, claimed research work had continued and new seeds and technologies had been introduced but also conceded that financial resources at the disposal of researchers had considerably decreased, impacting research work and even maintenance of the precious machinery and technology obtained during the TIPAN had become a major headache for the sector.

The earlier official, however, said rather than association with universities, it is commitment, leadership and internal working of the people in it that matter most.

“ARS, no doubt expedited work, improved fund availability and performance of the sector. But the research staff of the department was not dealt at par with their research fellows in universities. We were neglected in foreign training, education and other benefits as professors had the upper hand in decisions. The reason, thereof, was that the merger was not complete but half in nature for opposition in provincial assembly. So, administratively the department was given to university but for financial needs it was dependent upon the government,” an official said.

However, he conditionally endorsed the handing over of agriculture and its related sector to university. “There should be complete merger. The department officials should be given opportunities for promotion, education and better grades like those available to university professors. If this is ensured, there cannot be any better mechanism for agricultural development,” he said.

National and provincial agriculture research system in Pakistan is multi-departmental like agriculture research institutes Tarnab or single commodity oriented ones like cereal crops research institute, Pirsabak. In all there are six federal and 13 provincial research institutes which are assisted in research work by 13 agriculture/veterinary sciences universities.

The now defunct federal ministry of food and agriculture and that of science and technology and Pakistan atomic energy commission each have four agriculture research establishments while water and power development authority had two such bodies.



About Tahir Ali Khan (Official)
I am an academic, columnist, and a social worker.

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