A questionable termination

Published : Dec 09, 2000 00:00 IST

The abrupt removal of R.S. Paroda as Director-General, ICAR, and Secretary, DARE, bodes ill for the administration of agricultural research in the country.

ON November 16, Rajendra Singh Paroda was abruptly relieved of his dual charge of Secretary, Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE) and Director-General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). The official order simply sa id that he would be on "compulsory wait until further orders" - a euphemism for removal from office that allows one to collect the salary. A well-known plant breeder and geneticist, and a Padma Bhushan awardee (conferred by the Vajpayee government in 199 7), he has been the Director-General for six and a half years. He had occupied the post after relinquishing a senior position in the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.

No other senior official of the ICAR was asked to take over charge. Instead, R.A. Mashelkar, Director-General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), was assigned the additional charge of DG, ICAR. And an Indian Administrative Servic e (IAS) officer, Bhaskar Barua, Secretary, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation (DAC), was given additional charge of the post of Secretary that Paroda held. Only the previous day Paroda and Barua had shared a podium and addressed a meeting at the D irectorate of Rice Research (DRR) in Hyderabad and had returned to Delhi by the same flight.

By convention, Secretary, DARE, becomes ex-officio DG, ICAR, and thus the technocrat's post of DG, ICAR, had been accorded the rank of a Secretary to the government. The present move to bifurcate the two, however, is perceived by many in scientific circl es as an ominous one.

The administration of agricultural research in the country may well be the next bastion to fall in the ongoing tussle between technocracy and bureaucracy. The first in the series was environment, then electronics and later non-conventional energy.

The bifurcation also implies that a scientist-head of the ICAR becomes a subordinate and answerable to a non-scientist bureaucrat. Recently such a move was witnessed with regard to the status of DG, National Informatics Centre (NIC), when the NIC was mer ged back with the Department of Electronics in its new avatar as the Ministry of Information Technology (MIT) which has an IAS officer as its Secretary. All this would seem to be in tune with the downgrading of status and salary structures of scientists vis-a-vis IAS officers in the course of the implementation of the reommendations of Fifth Pay Commission.

Since the consolidation of agricultural research in various centres of the country in the mid-1960s, DARE has provided for functional linkages between agricultural research under the wings of the ICAR and other government departments. This institutional framework was put in place by the efforts of Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, the first scientist to head the ICAR. The separation could once again mean a lesser role for the ICAR's research base and expertise in national policy-making in the agricultural and food sector.

Indeed, many people believe that the move to ease out Paroda may have been motivated by this consideration, given the current climate towards liberalisation in the agricultural sector, research in particular, resulting in the entry of multinationals and the increasing impact of World Trade Organisation (WTO) dictated trade policies in the agricultural sector. On many occasions the ICAR had opposed moves by the government to liberalise the import of basic food items (such as soya and wheat) and seeds (li ke potato). The original recommendation of the ICAR to give a greater role for the agricultural research community as the "competent authority" to oversee the implementation of the Plant Varieties Protection Act and the Biodiversity Act was not received well by the government, and a dilution of this aspect is evident in the final drafts of the bills. The apparent reason for Paroda's removal - alleged irregularities in computer purchases, which would hardly warrant such a drastic action - seems, therefor e, to be a facade for this larger motive to ensure that the scientific community has a lesser say in matters of policy-making.

EXPECTEDLY, there has been all round criticism of the government action by the agricultural research and academic community.

Dr. Swaminathan, widely regarded as the man responsible for establishing the ICAR system as it is today, and Dr. M. G. K. Menon, were the first to come out against Paroda's removal and the undermining of the agricultural research, education and extension system under the ICAR/DARE umbrella. Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, who was closely associated with the Green Revolution, too voiced his concern to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and urged him to reconsider the decision to dismantle the system that has served well. In a faxed appeal to Vajpayee, commending the achievements under Paroda, Borlaug said: "The Green Revolution of 1965-75... could not have been achieved without the close co-ordination between research (ICAR) and extension and production (DARE)... It was because of the need for this close coordination that the Director-General of ICAR also functioned as Secretary of DARE. I personally believe that the system as it has been structured since 1965 up to the present has functioned well... I am fearful that to change the structure now may again weaken the linkage at the Centre between research, extension and production and, moreover, will weaken linkage between provincial agricultural research, extension, production programmes and the agric ultural universities."

A host of associations and forums of scientists and other employees too appealed to the highest political authorities to review the decision and reinstate Paroda. Among these is a resolution passed by the Association of Indian Agricultural Universities a t its annual conference in New Delhi (November 20-21) and signed by the Vice-Chancellors of 31 agricultural universities and four deemed universities.

Paroda was only recently elected Chairman of the Global Forum on Agriculture Research (GFAR). ICAR scientists feel that the leadership that India was providing to developing countries in global forums like the FAO would now stand eroded. Some of them po int out that in recent times the bureaucracy has been resentful of the standing that the ICAR had come to gain in such forums and generalist officers had begun to lead scientific delegations abroad which would normally have been led by senior ICAR scient ists.

And then there is the Indian Science Congress 2001, of which Paroda is the general president and which was to be the ICAR's show. This will be attended by many foreign scientists and, as per convention, the Prime Minister inaugurates it, in New Delhi in the first week of January. But the situation could prove embarassing for the Prime Minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, Minister for Science and Technology, and Nitish Kumar, who could be sharing the podium with Paroda.

One of the achievements during Paroda's tenure was the establishment of the plant gene bank, one of the largest in the world. It is vital for the interests of the developing world with the growing importance of intellectual property rights (IPR) issues i n agriculture and in the preservation and conservation of national biodiversity. The National Agricultural Research Information System (ARIS) was an important infrastructural system that was conceptualised and established under his charge with the object ive of increasing the productivity of the system and meeting the challenges of emerging trade regimes under the WTO dispensation. Towards implementing ARIS, Paroda was instrumental in conceptualising and initiating a major World Bank-funded National Agri cultural Technology Project (NATP), a key component of which was the computerised networking of research units and agricultuaral universities across the country. Ironically, it is a controversy surrounding this project, particularly allegations regarding computer purchases, that seems to have led to his removal.

The government, or specifically Agriculture Minister Nitish Kumar, has so far not publicly stated in clear terms the reason for the action. That the ostensible reason has to do with computer purchases is only to be inferred from planted news stories. The only official indication that this indeed is the issue, came from the Minister's remark to the media that a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry has been ordered. That only makes the government's position weak because even before a detailed inq uiry is completed, let alone the framing of charges based on the findings of the inquiry, a government official of the rank of Secretary has been removed without even granting the right to present a defence.

A preliminary internal inquiry was ordered by the Minister in July but its findings have been kept under wraps. Interestingly, though a copy of the Minister's letter ordering the inquiry was marked to DG, ICAR, the report was not been shown to him. Some news reports alleged that according to the internal inquiry Paroda was not cooperating in the investigation and that he had been removed to facilitate the investigation. Evidence, however, points to the entire episode being the handiwork of a senior offi cial in the ICAR in charge of ARIS, who, for the last 10 months or so, has been bombarding the Minister and other key officials in the Ministry, the Central Vigilance Commissioner N. Vittal, and the media with allegations against Paroda and a few other I CAR scientists in the implementation of the NATP. A document purporting to be part of the internal audit report and the internal inquiry report was making the rounds. This document implicates the DG, the DDG (Engineering), the DDG (Education) and the pre sent National Director, NATP, in computer purchase irregularities. News reports based on this appeared recently.

The language of the document indicates that it is a fake. The falsehood is apparent, for the present Director of the NATP, P.L. Gautam, took charge only in April 2000 and could not have been involved in computer purchases during 1998-99. The irony is tha t the officer who has been levelling the charges himself was a key person responsible for computer purchases for the NATP and it would appear that his allegations constitute a pre-emptive tactic to cover his own misconduct and misdeeds in this case as we ll as others.

The internal inquiry and the subsequent action against Paroda was triggered by a news item in The Indian Express (May 15) which alleged that the ICAR official in question had been divested of his responsibilities in the NATP because he had raised questions about various irregularities. But according to key officials involved in the project including those of the World Bank, that official, whose services had merely been requisitioned under the supervision of Anwar Alam, DDG (Engineering), was hind ering the progress of the project. The project had clear milestone targets to be met and he had to be kept out of it for its proper implementation. The official had been disassociated from the NATP on January 10.

Some observers within the ICAR say that the government was only waiting for such an opportunity. The controversy around the NATP provided it a convenient handle to turn for its own greater political ends. Undercurrents of factionalism along caste and reg ional lines in the higher echelons of the ICAR plus the technocrat-bureacrat divide were exploited by the Ministry, ICAR scientists feel. With the recent two-year increase in a Secretary's term coming in the way of the bureaucrats' bid to grab DARE from scientists, the situation offered an opportune moment to strike, they say. Also, this allows the government to appoint someone more pliable at the helm of the ICAR, it is argued. Be that as it may, the facts of the NATP computer deal are still loaded aga inst the government's action.

The allegations against Paroda relate to the $239-million World Bank-funded project, conceptualised in 1998 and expected to run till December 2003. The alleged irregularities related to imported computer hardware worth Rs.17.79 crores. International bids were invited for the supply of 1,432 PCs and the peripherals in October 1998 as per Bank norms. In February 1999, Siemens-Nixdorf Information Systems and Vinitec Pvt. Ltd. were awarded the contracts and they were to supply the hardware by June 1999.

The allegations against Paroda centred on the claim that the companies were allowed to delay the supply for over a year. The delay, it was claimed, enabled the companies to make the supply after prices had fallen substantially. There were also allegation s that the penalty clauses meant to be invoked for the delay were changed, resulting in losses.

An internal inquiry was ordered by the Minister on July 29 with a deadline of August 31 set for its completion. Pawan Raina, the Chief Vigilance Officer of the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, an IAS officer, led the inquiry. In early August, Paroda enquired if the inquiry officer required access to any more documents for the probe. Raina, it is stated, sent a note to Paroda on August 29, saying that some files were missing. Paroda's reply sent the following day, seeking clarifications, drew no response. The inquiry was completed soon afterwards, in early September.

The speed with which the inquiry was conducted has raised eyebrows. Even more surprising is the fact that the Minister seems to have acted on the basis of this apparently incomplete report, that too when no charges had been framed. Although the Minister has stated that another inquiry is being ordered, till date the case has not been referred to either the CBI or the Central Vigilance Commission.

The World Bank guidelines are clear and the entire process is carried out with the approval of Bank officials, says Ashok Seth, the Bank's Task Manager for the NATP. According to the agreement between the Bank and the ICAR, the annual accounts of the NAT P are to be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) of India. The period pertaining to the computer purchases is under audit, according to CAG's office.

According to Seth, the purchase procedures have been transparent. The delays, he says, were caused by the abrupt insistence on benchmarking and 100 per cent post-shipment 24-hour burn-in testing of the systems by the customer - which was not part of the original contract. "In any case, there is a one-year warranty and there is a guarantee of 5 per cent of the cost against performance. In addition, 20 per cent of the amount is to be released only after acceptance certification of systems," says Seth. On October 25, Siemens-Nixdorf filed a suit against the ICAR demanding release of the amount.

The delay of nearly four months caused by 100 per cent testing could put future disbursements for the project in jeopardy, according to Seth. No disbursements will be made after January if the targets are not met. Further, the controversy has only compli cated matters, he says.

What irks the ICAR scientists and officials associated with the NATP is that when all purchase procedures have been evolved through committees involving several people and monitored at various levels, the DG alone should have been implicated. The controv ersy has adversely impacted not just the NATP's progress but normal work at ICAR, where senior scientists are wary of taking any important decision - lest they be implicated too on some charge or the other.

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