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How did 'Management in Agriculture' enter IIMA's Mandate?
"Many people may not know that it was Dr. Vikram Sarabhai who was responsible for making 'management in agriculture' part of the Institute's mandate. Dr. Sarabhai was a visionary who clearly understood the significance of rural and agriculture development for a developing India."
In this article Vijaya Sherry Chand describes how, as a result of the inspiration provided by Vikram Sarabhai, 'management in agriculture' became part of the Institute's mandate. The development of the AgCo (Agriculture and Cooperatives) Group, which spearheaded agriculture-related work in the early years (1963 to 1970), is primarily a story of two key actors, Michael Halse and D. K. Desai, who sought to apply the concept of 'agribusiness' to problems in agriculture, in a manner that was appropriate for the 1960s.
Many people may not know that it was Dr. Vikram Sarabhai who was responsible for making 'management in agriculture' part of the Institute's mandate. Dr. Sarabhai was a visionary who clearly understood the significance of rural and agriculture development for a developing India. The second five-year plan (1956-61) had focused on rapid industrial development, but the plan that followed (in April 1961) stressed developing India's rural economy and agricultural growth, and self-sufficiency in food matters. Perhaps Dr. Sarabhai was sympathetic to these broader national priorities. Soon after the establishment of IIMA, during a visit to the Harvard Business School (HBS), he discussed the idea of having agriculture management added to IIMA's mandate through either a course in the postgraduate programme or some research. He approached Professor Henry B. Arthur, Moffett Professor of Agriculture and Business for advice. Arthur (PhD, Harvard, 1935) had joined Harvard in 1960 after a long career in government and industry, and was actively involved in 'agribusiness' projects across the world. In the meanwhile, HBS's John H. Davis (who headed the Program in Agriculture and Business) and Ray A. Goldberg had developed the concept of 'agribusiness'; their 1957 book A Concept of Agribusiness (published by Harvard) was influential in presenting a "two-way interdependence with businessmen and farmers in the dual roles of suppliers and purchasers", so that agribusiness became a more useful label to capture "the sum total of all operations involved in the manufacture and distribution of farm supplies; production operations on the farm; and the storage, processing, and distribution of farm commodities and items made from them" (p.1). Arthur responded to Dr. Sarabhai's request with enthusiasm, but, given the constraints on his time, suggested that his doctoral student, Michael Halse could be stationed in Ahmedabad. Halse began work in January 1963.
Halse seems to have had a lot of freedom in developing the agenda, and though his initial memos were marked to Arthur, it is not clear from our records how much advice Arthur actually provided. Halse's expertise and interest were in rice, but as he noted in a memo dated October 13, 1964, "In 1963, it seemed more feasible and useful to work on milk." He developed a good rapport with Dr. V. Kurien and others at Amul Dairy, and embarked on a series of case studies on Gujarat's dairy industry. These dealt with policy in the dairy industry; milk supply; product mix and marketing strategy; dairy organization; and industries ancillary to the dairy industry (memo from Halse, dated May 6, 1963). In the meanwhile, the institute successfully addressed some problems in the Amul Dairy. The work in dairying fed into the first 'Dairy Management Conference' that was held during December 15-18, 1963, in collaboration with National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal. Dr. Dhirajlal K. Desai, an agricultural economist with a PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had just been recruited earlier that month and was one of the faculty members at the conference. Enter the second protagonist of our story: Desai turned out to an influential and key figure in the Institute's agriculture management development.
After working on a few studies on cotton and dairying, Desai left for Harvard as part of the second batch of IIMA faculty that attended the International Teachers' Training Program (from September 1964). There, he attended the agribusiness course of Henry Arthur, worked on a few cases on agribusiness and worked with both Arthur and Goldberg. Before he left for Harvard, the institute had established a significant partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture at New Delhi. C. Subramaniam, the Minister wanted Vikram Sarabhai to help in the government's community development blocks programme. Sarabhai asked Michael Halse to develop a project, and this was an opportunity to develop a group of five faculty members and five research associates. The group of five faculty members and Halse came to be called the AgCo group. (The work resulted in a report 'Studies in Block Development and Cooperative Organization' (1966).) Desai returned to the institute in the middle of 1965 and found the AgCo group active in work on the community development blocks, a multi-level dairy management programme, and cases on dairying. A little later, Ravi Matthai took over as Director in August 1965, and continued with Sarabhai's stance that agricultural management was important for the institute.
In early 1966, there were two setbacks. In a ministry meeting, Ravi Matthai presented IIMA's proposal for an institute for management in cooperatives-Halse had prepared this proposal earlier. But perhaps Matthai and Desai had not thought through the implications of this proposal. D.R. Gadgil, the economist and expert in cooperatives happened to be one of the reviewers. His view was that IIMA lacked the credibility to make such a proposal. The proposal had to be withdrawn. As Desai, who was present in the meeting with Matthai notes in his memoirs (A life worth living, published by Smriti Dagur, Ahmedabad, 2014, p.140): "Ravi felt humiliated." Soon after, Matthai made Desai the AgCo head.
By 1969, the AgCo group had produced a number of reports that were appreciated by administrators and researchers. Desai had perfected his interpretation of 'agribusiness'. He had earlier been advised by David Hopper, who was at the Ford Foundation then (and later became Vice President of the World Bank), to look at agribusiness in terms of two systems: input system (seeds, fertilizers, etc.) and output system (product marketing, processing, etc.). All the ministry projects were designed using this idea, but the proposals were framed in the language of agriculture and cooperatives to make them more acceptable.
The agriculture mandate had initially included a course for the postgraduate programme. Halse began work on a course titled Management of Agricultural Product Enterprises very early during his stay. Desai joined Halse in the development of electives, but the demand was very poor. By 1967, two other courses, one on 'Management of Agricultural Inputs' and the other on comprehensive rural development had been developed. The courses were not received well. The attempt to offer agriculture-based electives to PGP students had failed. The institute then prepared two proposals that would focus more specifically on agricultural management education. A 1968 proposal to the Ford Foundation included support for the AgCo group, and the following year USAID agreed to fund a long-term programme. The one-year post-graduate 'Programme for Management of Agriculture (PMA)' was launched in 1970 and the first batch of 32 graduated in 1971. This programme would later become the two-year Specialization Package in Agriculture (SPA) (1974), and then the Agribusiness Management programme (a 15-month format from 1990, and a two-year format from 2003). The programme became the Food and Agribusiness Management programme in 2014. In brief, the AgCo group had established itself firmly not just as a research group but as a revenue generator by 1969-70. It was also responsible for a long-term educational programme. The time was ripe for converting it into a more formal Centre for Management in Agriculture, and the Governing Body of IIMA approved the change in April 1971.
Michael Halse and D. K. Desai contributed significantly to developing a research group that took up problems that were of concern to administrators and policy makers. Halse's initial work on dairying, and the group's subsequent work on high-yielding varieties and other agricultural issues established the credibility of the group, and its financial stability. Desai reveals in his memoirs that Halse and he never shared a good working relationship during the three years that they worked together. Yet, the two of them worked hard to set up a functioning AgCo group. After Halse's departure in 1967, Desai, with his very sharp ability to respond to the concerns of the government, developed an agenda which managed to serve the AgCo group well till it became the Centre for Management in Agriculture.
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