The Ownership Of Agriculture Extension!
Last fortnight has been quite interesting on account of the multiple reactions to the agri-related Budget announcements, especially with regard to High Value Agriculture and Diversification for Green Revolution states, Farmer Producer Companies, and the continued support to NABARD for rural infrastructure with special reference to warehousing and cold chain infrastructure.
The Finance Minister’s initiative has been hailed, but along with it came the demand that the Government of India should be in the forefront of ensuring that extension services reach the farmer. Even in the case of the FPC initiative the expectation in several quarters is that the GoI will ensure that by some magic wand, farmers will aggregate themselves into groups, and take up value addition and direct marketing to ensure a better future for them.
While it is good to hear that the Government of India is seized of the most critical issues affecting agriculture, the difficulty is in the willful abdication of responsibility by many state governments. There is already too much centralisation—and frankly both the initiatives could have been taken not just by any state government—but even by a zilla panchayat. States like Punjab and Haryana, which collect hundreds of crores from their mandis (on account of MSP and PSS operations) could easily set 50 per cent of the amount so collected to promote diversification. However, it is easier in the political system today to articulate a demand and send a communication to the GoI. Thus, the problem of implementing a diversification strategy in Punjab is not about strategy: everyone knows what has to be done—it is about lack of funds to implement what is talked about. During his recent visit to KVKs in Punjab your columnist was told that as against a sanctioned strength of 1600 faculty members, less than half held their tenures, and salaries were not being paid on time. This affects not just research, but also extension activities, and the ability to reach out to farmers and address the multiple issues that crop up—like salinity water logging in the citrus belt of Abohar and Fazilka, and the complete depletion of water table in the conventional wheat-paddy belt in other parts of the state. Posts lie vacant in both agriculture and horticulture departments, and the flow of funds from the centre will not help unless there are people on the ground to implement the grand policy pronouncements. One must remember that while generalship is important, it is the foot soldiers who actually ‘occupy and hold on’ to a territory. In Punjab, the problem is that the public finances of the state are in such a bad shape that there is no money to ensure that the matching state contribution is given on time. However, that has not prevented the state from extending subsidies in micro irrigation over and above the norms recommended by the Government of India. One is compelled to ask: why this Kolaveri?
In fact, this raises another issue—why should the extension function not be taken up by zilla panchayat? The main difficulty in having a centralised cadre is that everyone veers to the headquarters—and the farthest blocks are often the ones which do not get the requisite manpower. If recruitments were made for the district, the officer/extension functionary would at least remain there, and report to the local officer. True, some zilla panchayat will be able to attract and retain better officers. But then at least every district and block will have some officer at least—who can focus and specialise on the crops and commodities that are grown in the district/region. They should be in direct touch with the agricultural university, and if a zilla panchayat feels that research in a particular commodity is an important priority for them, they may as well provide the funds for it directly to the zilla panchayat. The fact of the matter is that for all the lip service which political parties offer to the third tier of governance, there is little conviction about the transfer of power. In a way, it can be argued that when the Government of India makes it difficult for the state governments to take their own decisions, why blame them for doing the same to panchayat and municipalities. This of course brings us to the larger domain of political economy—issues of control over resources, and this is where this sector loses out!
This issue had also been raised by Sh Mani Shankar Iyer, the vocal champion of panchayat raj, in his meetings with departments that have a very direct interface with farmers and primary producers. He lamented the fact that in recent years the panchayat institutions had actually ‘lost’ some of their powers on account of the centrally sponsored missions and programmes which left little flexibility at the district and sub-district levels. Perhaps the inability of the state to reach out to the farmer can become an opportunity for the panchayats to step in—and offer some contractual appointments to agricultural graduates from within the district to take up these assignments. The time is also ripe for panchayats to enter into collaborative arrangements with seed companies, micro-irrigation service providers and tissue culture labs to establish facilities for the benefit of the farmers. After all why should farmers have to traverse long distances to get access to seeds and technologies when it is technically feasible to provide the services within the district itself?
It must be stated that these ideas did not find ready acceptance—either from the state government officials present at a seminar on crop diversification where your columnist was giving a key-note address or from the university professors—but then, resistance to change and the fear of the unknown always makes life more interesting!
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)