Beyond supply driven science


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UNDER the National Food Security Mission (NFSM) farmers in select districts, including seven in Punjab, get seeds of pulses and wheat at 50% subsidy. In the Deccan plateau, in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, every landowner can install a tube well if he so decides, with a subsidy. Nathaa, the protagonist in the movie Peepli Live, the farmer who, on announcing his decision to commit suicide, is given a hand pump by the administration. The story is the same whichever sector one looks at; development goods are supplied by the state, mainly as artefacts and at times as intangible products, like services. This essay considers how science is used to support this supply syndrome, the state’s understanding of development and the way it organizes itself for delivering development.

Schemes are delivery mechanisms. They may be for rural roads, literacy, electrification, pre- and post-natal care, child development, mid-day meal, fertilizer use, market access, export promotion, education, or pollution control or anything that the state decides to deliver to its citizens. Designed to address problems like poverty, inequality, malnutrition, un- and disguised employment, agrarian and artisanal livelihoods, gender biases, and other indicators of limited capacities for economic opportunities, schemes embody problem cognizance and relevant cause and effect relationships. The state’s understanding and articulation of development problems, including the contexts and nature of evidence, as well as the causes and solutions available to address the problems, are all mediated and constituted by knowledge, techno-scientific knowledge. Present as the technical capacities of the developmental state that sets goals, formulates plans, designs policy instruments and implementation mechanisms, monitors and evaluates the same, using scientific concepts, criteria, data and human resources, the state is infused with science. Science is no longer ‘what scientists do’, when experimental economics is used to design vaccination programmes, when the bureaucrat sets targets and measures adult literacy achievements, or when scientists dilute, exaggerate or plagiarize findings about genetic engineering.

This essay explores how the pervasive presence of science and the shaping of statecraft for development, is legitimized and used by the state. It asks if this is healthy for science and for development in the country. The purpose is not to illustrate how the politics of science works in India, but to explore the political contract between state and science in the country and ask where society is located in this relationship. Development schemes present an absolute embodiment of state and science, and help us explore the presence of the state or politics in problem perception, policy goal and choice of instruments, and design of implementation mechanisms.


India’s ‘scholar prime minister’ promised a massive increase in funding for science in the 12th five year plan.1 The demand was that scientists should help the state achieve its planned targets for inclusive growth. In particular, scientists were asked to work on rural problems, generating solutions for water management, communicable diseases, and dryland agriculture. This is, as accepted in some versions of science policy, a ‘customer-contractor’ relationship between the state and its public sector research system. If that is indeed the case, it is expected that knowledge producing S&T organizations will cater to the knowledge users (the patron state) with two types of products; (i) sharp and insightful problem analyses of the history and changing contexts, causal factors and location-specific facets of rural India, and (ii) new or modified knowledge and technologies that can address or solve the problems thus analyzed. It is then the role of the knowledge user – the policy maker – to convert and incorporate these problem insights and solutions into policy goals, instruments and implementation mechanisms that will deliver solutions to society, in this case, the rural population.


When S&T and policy makers work together in this mode, changing the content and direction of S&T (to gain a better understanding of problems and generate more knowledge, productivity enhancing, location specific, cost effective, environment- and gender-friendly technologies) and the content and direction of policies (to alter existing patterns and relations of production, distribution and consumption), then the relationship is not strictly a customer-contractor one. Some characterize it as a ‘partners in development’ approach, where the state and its public sector S&T system are tuned to specific problem perceptions and analyses, shared cause-effect understandings, and employ common methods of validation. They are one epistemic community2 embedded in and maintaining similar cognizance and experiences of technical and socio-political conditions.

When the state and its policy makers demand that S&T cater to their policy goals which are formulated based on a misinterpretation or flawed understanding of the problem context, when the policy instruments or schemes remain staid and pick S&T that fits into and legitimizes policy specifications, then science becomes a mere tool. Science is then party to: (i) policies that are based on or draw upon flawed or inadequate analyses, and (ii) analyses that cater to flawed or preconceived policy frameworks (solution paradigm).


Both are problematic. Both are detrimental to the advancement of science, the search for excellence and relevance. Unless the politics of this co-production of knowledge and policy are made explicit, there is limited scope for change. At best, the scientific evidence generated to present an alternative problem perception may lead to a new policy instrument, say a specific scheme for rainfed agriculture or for the protection of the Western Ghats. But the same shared norms will govern science with continued upward accountability to the state. The assumption being that the social contract of science, to enable economic development and social progress, will prevail only through and by the state.

The ideological and functional cohesion of the state and its public sector S&T, represents a central feature of what Raj3 calls the intermediate regime (drawing on Kalecki’s work). When the S&T professionals become part of the social classes (the middle class and rich peasantry) that stand between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, they work with the state to create the ‘new forms of political and economic organization, various technological advances and... international political alignments’,4 that continue to maintain state capitalism. Noting how their knowledge and skill makes them a propertied class (as ownership of land, capital, financial assets etc, would), Raj suggests that if the organization of higher education, scientific research, and the application of scientific research for production we see today had existed in the 19th century, Marx would have included ‘the knowledge industry’ in his schema of social reproduction.5

Science and technology based development schemes are the ideal instruments to maintain the profits or quasi-rents from knowledge, and keep state capitalism steadily growing with increasing subsidies for the middle class. This essay is not centrally concerned with the ways in which the knowledge industry today adds to its quasi-rents with patents, contracts and so on. It is concerned about the state’s need to legitimize political decisions using science, and what that portends for the future of science.


The dominance of the public sector in S&T (under the Union government), is part of India’s institutional framework of knowledge for development.6 Over time, the institutions and the powerful technocratic vision of science-based development interventions for poverty reduction became dominant.7 Thereby, even in the latest policy for science, technology and innovation,8 the S&T establishment is seen as the supplier of technologies to society (with an additional clause of private sector S&T investment and commercialization of technologies).


Agriculture best illustrates the supply syndrome; the green revolution policy instruments chosen for irrigated production of rice and wheat included specific schemes and a range of public sector organizations. Technological capacities, embodied in the national agricultural research system since the mid-1960s (when the state decided that ‘a central line of authority and control’9 was necessary) however, became secondary to public support (technologies, subsidies, and selective market promotion) for particular kinds of private investment. There was awareness that public financing of private capital was maintained by politically conscious and interest seeking middle and large farmers,10 and that the input industry and these farmers were the two main beneficiaries of national agricultural strategy. While public financing of private capital in the green revolution period was 35%, it went up to 60% in the post-green revolution period (post-mid 1980s),11 with significant stagnation in production growth rates in the irrigated rice-wheat systems,12 and concerns that in the tube well irrigated production systems, private investment spent on accessing more water does not beget a commensurate productivity response.13 Policy makers are now waking up to the causal relationships between agricultural S&T and the challenges of administering production and distribution.

‘Thus far, research has tended to focus mostly on increasing the yield potential by more intensive use of water and bio-chemical inputs. Far too little attention has been given to the long-term environmental impact or on methods and practices for the efficient use of these inputs for sustainable agriculture. These features are widely known but efforts to correct them have not been adequate; at any rate they have not made much of a difference.’14


But are the accusations against scientific research warranted? While we could argue that the sciences are merely providing what they were asked to, the state’s response to crises has been to increase minimum support price of the produce from irrigated tracts and increase subsidies for irrigation and other inputs – seeds, chemicals, and machines in rainfed production tracts (which account for 60% of India’s arable land). The state’s own launch of the second green revolution in the eastern states, and embodiment of the same paradigm in the National Food Security Mission (NFSM), reveal an irreconcilable divergence between intent and options selected. The state does acknowledge that ‘just pouring in more resources in public R&D, without commensurate institutional reforms, is not likely to make the existing system deliver efficiently.’15 This is a vicious circle: while policy documents and plans have taken note of all problems of the input intensive path of agricultural development, this realization does not translate into changes in the actual programmes and investments of concerned ministries and departments. The ground rules at the sites of knowledge generation as well as processes of prescribing solutions are all about supply.

It is widely accepted today that distress in rainfed agriculture obtains because it is, by definition, ill-suited for irrigation-chemical intensive production. Rainfall aberrations during the south-west monsoon continue to be major factors contributing to instability in kharif crop production and agrarian distress. But agrarian distress is also evident in Punjab, the heartland of the green revolution.


Farmers and the supply syndrome in rainfed areas: Anantapur, the infamous drought hit district in Andhra Pradesh is in the limelight for farmers suicides. It is one of the beneficiary districts that figures in several schemes of the Union government. Located in the rain shadow region in the hot, semi-arid Deccan belt, this district has limited arable land and vast stretches of common lands (mostly degraded) and some forest lands. Marginal and small holdings account for over two-thirds of the total number of operational holdings and one-third the area sown. Large holdings account for a tenth of the total operational holdings and nearly one-third the area sown.16 This is a contrast compared to the state of AP where over 80% of the holdings and nearly half the area cultivated are marginal and small. In Anantapur, a medium farmer would earn far less than a marginal farmer in the irrigated rice tracts of the Krishna or Godavari districts.


Irrigated area in Anantapur is today back to the 12% of NSA, as it was in the 1960s. Today, one of the major components of agricultural development schemes is irrigation equipment and tube wells – be it the NHM, NFSM, INSIMP, or any of the other 30 odd schemes operational in the district. Even though the massive number of subsidized tube wells keeps increasing, driven by the ‘last straw’ hopes of indebted farmers, the groundwater recharge rates in the Deccan hard rock cannot sustain the rates of withdrawal. Area under millets, which were cultivated in over 53% of the net sown area in the 1960s, is now less than 3% of NSA. Area under pulses and rainfed paddy (which were also major kharif crops in this rainfed district), has declined over time from nearly 12% and 6% respectively in 1960-61 to 9% and 3% in 2009-10. Groundnut occupies nearly 80% of the NSA in the district today.

Many farmers who have killed themselves, like Narayan Reddy (Pyadindi village), Manjunath (Kambadur) and many others who have either witnessed the shame of losing land or family members to others (money lenders or other trades), do so because the groundnut crop has failed in 12 out of the past 14 years. Yet, with the first glimmer of hope that the rains bring or a new tube well promises (some have dug up to six tube wells), these farmers end up sowing groundnut – the only crop that has some varieties that yield reasonably well, without irrigation, or with four critical protective irrigations! In a situation of rapid degradation in soil quality (because the cattle that gave some farmyard manure have almost disappeared and have been replaced by sheep, that can roam commons/fallows), chemical fertilizers do not work as expected, and groundnut with a little life saving irrigation or reasonable rainfall can yield something.

Moreover, groundnut is the only crop that can produce a marketable cash crop, which can repay some of the loans and buy some food, subsidized rice, wheat, edible oils and sugar from the PDS, and some other essentials from the open market. A thriving network of agricultural schemes and officers, subsidized input suppliers, traders, PDS outlets, service providers (who give credit, expert advice, transport), live along with farmers who have shifted out of millet production to groundnut production. The farmer’s only option is suicide given such a robust supply of everything – from tube wells to fertilizers and chemicals to drip irrigation sets and even subsidized food.


Farmers and supply in irrigated tracts: Though India’s rainfed agriculture produces more than half the foodgrains, almost all the pulses and livestock produce, food production is assumed to come from irrigated chemical consuming tracts. It is then the responsibility of the state to produce food in irrigated tracts using massive subsidies (over Rs 96,000 crore for fertilizers alone in 2012), and supply food to these producers in rainfed tracts like Anantapur (using another Rs 50,000 crore as food subsidy), who have been alienated from their land and the nutritious food it once provided. The state supplies technologies and inputs at highly subsidized rates, ensures guaranteed prices for the produce, and arranges the purchase of the produce. Yet, farm suicides are on the increase in irrigated tracts – some blame the consumerism of the farmer, some the spurious inputs, faulty extension advise and poor returns to new technologies, or sudden shifts in markets and unscrupulous production contracts that squeeze farm profits. Few question the schemes or science.


The case of secondary salinization in Punjab and Haryana is a case in point. These semi-arid states (450-600 mm annual rainfall), with assured canal irrigation and low carbon soils, are India’s green revolution states. They are also home to the highest levels and maximum extents of irrigation induced salinity and alkalinity. Today, more alkaline and saline soils (clubbed together as sodic lands) have been reclaimed in Punjab and Haryana than the total arable land available in the two states!

Chronologically, when irrigation and chemical intensive production systems took off in these tracts in the 1960s, the build up of alkalinity and salinity demanded the use of several technologies. Among them, gypsum application to leach out the harmful salts from the crop-root zone was found effective. This in turn demanded a crop that would tolerate the standing water requirement – an imperative if gypsum had to work to leach out the salts, and this technological demand as well as price support for paddy led Punjab and Haryana – arid/semi-arid states, to rice production since the mid 1970s.17 Following wheat, the green revolution technologies were applied most effectively in rice, bringing the rice-wheat production system (irrigated, chemical intensive, state subsidized) to stay in Punjab and Haryana.18

When the Haryana Land Reclamation and Development Corporation (HLRDC) proclaimed the area reclaimed (adding up to more than the cultivated area in the state), the central Ministry of Agriculture probed the need to continue gypsum subsidy for sodic land reclamation. In the meeting held in the Central Soil Salinity Research Institute (CSSRI) Karnal, to discuss the continuation or otherwise of the subsidy, the agricultural administration and S&T actors blamed the farmers for using less than recommended doses, for improper irrigation using low quality (high in residual sodium carbonate) irrigation water, and causing secondary salinization (CSSRI, letter no.2-4 (PA)/94, dated 18/4/1994). The need for continuing gypsum application and thereby the subsidy, was obvious. Because these states which started off as canal colonies were now dependent on groundwater for 70% of their irrigation requirement, the salts leached out would always return with the water pumped up for standing water to cultivate rice. Gypsum subsidy was found essential; farmers were found guilty of irrigation with low quality groundwater.


Sometime ago, analyzing the case of secondary salinization and the accusation of farmers, we accused the ‘problem-solving discourse which emphasizes the role of the expert rather than the citizen.’19 Looking back now, it seems a bit naive that we questioned the expertise and the ability of the scientists and bureaucrats involved in these organizations. All the references we have about the extent of and types of sodicity and the reasons for the build up of sodicity come from scientists. The industrial input suppliers (including the state run HLRDC) involved do perform their assigned roles. The bureaucracy is doing its best to support the rice-wheat system, and maintain the overall administration of agriculture and the land used for foodgrain production for the nation state.

Their complacency and lack of ecological or democratic imperatives is evident; but there is no conspiracy at work here; the ‘blaming the farmer game’ is only an outcome of a larger set of norms; the convergence of agricultural knowledge (S&T) and administration. The scientists and policy makers who ‘blame the farmers’ not only entirely own and legitimize the actions of these farmers, they pro-actively claim the subsidy from the state to enable both the continuation of land degradation and provision of technologies for controlling the same. Gypsum subsidy still continues, shared till date as a 90:10 subsidy between the central and state government.


In their analysis of the physical and chemical problems, and prescription of solutions, the scientists are with the farmer – not against them. They supply the knowledge that legitimizes the state’s supply of inputs, subsidies, markets, prices; many are surprised that farmers kill themselves even in Punjab! The development arm of the state expects the research system to produce technologies that are not exclusively within the irrigation-chemical intensive paradigm, and lead the country’s efforts towards sustainable agriculture. The research system which has been designed to produce technologies to suit the modern agricultural development paradigm, awaits a policy signal that values system productivity and sustainability of natural resources.

When organizations, delivery mechanisms, and incentives are designed to make people comply to the foreordained technological trajectory, food security policy interventions ignore and interfere irrevocably into the close relationships between many of the constituents of well-being and the provisioning, regulating and enriching components of eco-systems.20 Scientists are aware that the adverse changes in incremental capital-output ratio (ICOR) and limited incremental response to unit increase in input use21 will worsen land degradation,22 and that the farmer has no recourse but to accept the supply system. There is no escape from this political hegemony that the state exercises over science.


The supply syndrome must be seen in the context of a centralized S&T establishment, the compartmentalization of development (especially for rural India) into sector specific silos, and increasing privatization of essential support systems for development. Increasing concern since the 1980s, that ‘progress on the rural front has been thwarted essentially by over centralization, bureaucratization, and fragmentation of programmes’,23 should have ideally led to decentralization, increasing public investment and employment to ensure reinforcement of aggregate demand, and development of the domestic market. Instead, the state in 1991, chose liberalization and export oriented growth strategies. This is what is to be expected of an intermediate regime;24 a state that has generated very little surpluses and public savings to invest in development will be open to influence by private capital and the relatively privileged middle class. Schemes and subsidies (to keep the vociferous sections quiet) are then the best options.

Keeping the schemes and all public services supplied by the state under central control suits the middle class. As the executive arm of the state, they constitute and exercise discretion over all the decisions about development schemes – where and what types of interventions, who should be entrusted with the intervention, who the beneficiaries of subsidies should be, and the actual disbursement of entitlements.25 There is no place for science in this planning and delivery of development goods, unless it is this quasi-rent seeking version of science.


Yet, there are soil scientists, agronomists, hydro-geologists, crop-livestock farmers, and local food system experts, who can point out the fundamental errors in problem analysis (transferring the irrigated industrial agriculture model to diverse risk prone rainfed cropping systems) and the political interests evident in technology choices. Why should the semi-arid Punjab produce rice using groundwater? How can rainwater harvesting and biomass-based soil moisture management (not tubewell irrigation) be the drivers of production in the Deccan? They identify mistakes in the solution space (ranging from technical specifications to mismanagement and corruption), in the many subsidized schemes showered on Anantapur, and the despoiled soil and water systems in Punjab. This is part of the internal contradictions of the middle class.


In addition to this, the conscientious voices in the middle class and the growing discontent with the state and its delivery mechanisms, a restive young population – part of India’s demographic dividend that will need jobs in the near future – will demand larger and more focused public investments. They are perhaps the best hope for change in the vicious circle of statecraft legitimized by an ineffective S&T system. But in order to enable that shift from inadequate, centralized schemes that subsidize and gratify the middle class, to productive and sustainable public investments across the board, there must be political patronage of India’s biggest living occupation, agriculture.

Context-specific technical, social and cultural understanding of farming is then necessary. It is then the duty of science to work towards building a political class that is informed about and sensitive to the natural resources and social capital available in diverse regions of the country, where employment generation, incomes and aggregate demand can grow rapidly and be sustained over the long-term. Articulating the desired structural changes that are necessary to end poverty, hunger and ecological degradation in the country, generating the evidence for the same, and working towards shifting the current scheming knowledge-policy alliance will be frowned upon by many scientists today. But that is far more worthy of science as the quest for knowledge, than claiming neutrality or objectivity, and being party to the lame political legitimizations offered by the state today.


* This paper draws on my research in the SIID project (Systems of Innovation for Inclusive Development), sponsored by IDRC, Canada, hosted in CPR, New Delhi, 2009-2012.


1. P. Bagla and R. Stone, ‘India’s Scholar Prime Minister Aims for Inclusive Growth’, Science 335(6071), 2012, pp. 907-08.

2. P. M. Haas, ‘Introduction: Epistemic Communities and International Policy Coordination,’ International Organization, 46 (1),1992, pp. 1-35.

3. K.N. Raj, ‘The Politics and Economics of Intermediate Regimes’, Economic and Political Weekly 8(27), 1973, pp. 1189, 1191-96.

4. Ibid., p. 1191.

5. Ibid., p. 1196.

6. The National S&T Management Information Systems (NSTMIS) survey estimates that the Central S&T agencies account for 62 per cent share of total national S&T, with the state governments, higher education and public sector units accounting for 8.5, 4.2 and 5 per cent, respectively, and the rest, about 20 per cent, coming from private and civil society organisations. (DST, Research and Development Statistics, NSTMIS, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, New Delhi, 2006.)

7. A. Mody, ‘Quest for Inclusive Growth – Continuity and Constraints in Indian Economic Policies’, Economic and Political Weekly 40(37): 2005, pp. 4052-4061.

8. DST, Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, New Delhi, 2013.

9. R.S. Raina, ‘Institutional Strangleholds: Agricultural Science and the State in India’, in D. Narayana and R. Mahadevan (eds.), Shaping India: Economic Change in Historical Perspective. Routledge, New Delhi. 2011, pp. 99-123.

10. S.N. Mishra and R. Chand, ‘Public and Private Capital Formation in Indian Agriculture – Comments on Complementarity Hypothesis and Others’, Economic and Political Weekly 30(25), 1995.

11. Ibid., p. A-78.

12. G.S. Bhalla and G. Singh, Final Report on Planning Commission Project Growth of Indian Agriculture; District Level Study. CSRD, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 2010.

13. A. Vaidyanathan, Agricultural Growth in India: The Role of Technology, Incentives and Institutions. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010.

14. Planning Commission, Eleventh Five Year Plan, 2007-2012, Vol. III. Planning Commission, Government of India, New Delhi, 2008, p. 13.

15. Planning Commission, Midterm Appraisal of the Eleventh Five Year Plan. Planning Commission, Government of India, New Delhi, 2010, p. 66.

16. R. Rukmani and M. Manjula, Designing Rural Technology Delivery Systems for Mitigating Agricultural Distress: A Study of Anantapur District. MSSRF, Chennai and Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, New Delhi, 2010.

17. R.S. Raina and S. Sangar, ‘Water Quality, Agricultural Policy and Science’, Knowledge, Technology and Policy 14(4), 2002, pp. 109-125.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid. Also, J. Dryzek, The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. Oxford University Press, New York, 1997.

20. UNEP-IISD 2004. Exploring the Links, UNEP and IISD, Manitoba.

21. Ramesh Golait and S.M. Lokare, ‘Capital Adequacy in Indian Agriculture: A Riposte’, Reserve Bank of India Occasional Papers 29(1), Summer 2008; A. Vaidyanathan, 2010, op cit.

22. According to soil scientists (Sehgal and Abrol, 1994) out of the total land area in the country (328.73million ha.), about 57% (187.8 million ha.) is classified as degraded one way or the other, or is undergoing rapid degradation. The ICAR and NAAS (2010)estimate that 30-80% of all arable land is degraded through one means or the other. Heavy subsidies encouraged unbalanced soil nutrition and the overuse of chemical fertilizers has resulted in severe degradation of soil in many parts of the country. See, J. Sehgal, and I.P. Abrol, Soil Degradation in India: Status and Impacts. Oxford IBH: New Delhi, 1994; ICAR and NAAS, Degraded and Wastelands of India. National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, New Delhi, 2010.

23. A. Ghosh, Planning in India. Sage, New Delhi, 1992, p. 33.

24. K.N. Raj, 1973, op cit.; A. Vaidyanathan, ‘Discussing "Inclusive Growth" Ahead of its Time’, Economic and Political Weekly 42(30), 2007, pp. 3096-3099.

25. A. Vaidyanathan, 2007, ibid.