In drought-hit Maharashtra, farmer training funds diverted

Given the fund squeeze in the state, officials admitted that funds earmarked for the scheme in 2015-16 have not been released to districts so far.

Written by Sandeep Ashar | Mumbai | Published:January 7, 2016 5:48 am

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At a time when the BJP-ruled state is battling an agrarian crisis, it has emerged that funds meant for training of farmers have been used to pay salaries of public servants and contractual employees responsible for such initiatives.

Senior officials in the state secretariat, who did not wish to be named, said that in some districts even voluntary contributions collected from farmers for the training have been utilised for paying salaries.

To educate producers to adapt to climate and technology changes, the Central government sponsors farmer training programmes at the district level under the Agricultural Technology Management Agency (ATMA), which are registered autonomous societies headed by the district collector. During the UPA regime, the Centre contributed 90% for the initiative while the state pitched in with another 10%. But following the Narendra Modi government’s decision to slash central assistance for most centrally sponsored schemes from April 1, 2015, the Centre’s share has gone down to 60%. A condition that this reduced share will be released only after states release the matching grant was also imposed.

Given the fund squeeze in the state, officials admitted that funds earmarked for the scheme in 2015-16 have not been released to districts so far. The scheme is applicable in 33 out of the 36 districts in the state. With funding support drying up, it has now come to light that the societies have tapped into the unutilised development funds marked in 2014-15 for the farmer training initiative for meeting salaries of the staff. In each district, the ATMA comprises six government employees appointed on deputation, including three senior agriculture department officials drawing a monthly salary of Rs 60,000 to Rs 1 lakh. Besides, the societies have collectively employed about 725 training personnel on contractual basis, each of whom is paid Rs 15,000-Rs 25,000.

Following a recent review meeting convened by Agriculture Minister Eknath Khadse, it has also come to light that voluntary contributions from farmers for such training initiatives have also been utilised for meeting salary demand in some districts.

Norms require government funded institutes to surrender unspent development funds at the end of each year, which have to be budgeted afresh for utilisation. A senior official further said that tapping into development funds and contributions from farmers without approval of the state’s finance department was a financial irregularity.

After getting whiff of the controversy, Khadse recently ordered a review of the scheme and the fund utilisation under it, which revealed that about Rs 6.8 crore in development funds has so far been utilised in this fashion. Sources confirmed that the minister’s office has now sought information on why the unspent amount was not surrendered. It has plans to lodge a full-fledged inquiry into the fund utilisation as well.

In September, Khadse had issued orders directing the Agricultural Commissioner and the Agriculture department to discontinue contractual and temporary posts under the scheme. The order dated September 11, a copy of which is with this newspaper, had also said that the implementation of the scheme be stayed till the state’s finance department releases the state’s share in grants.

Citing fund crunch, the minister had suggested that the scheme should either be discontinued or implemented departmentally.

“The salary component of such societies makes up for almost 70% of their expenditure. Following the slashing of the central grant, the state cannot afford to bear this burden,” said a senior government functionary. Maharashtra agriculture department’s Additional Chief Secretary Dinesh Kumar Jain declined to comment on the minister’s orders regarding non-continuation of services of contractual employees arguing that the matter is sub-judice. An association, representing all such employees, has filed a court case against the government arguing that the services be continued. While Khadse is on a tour abroad, his office refused to comment on the order.

Jain, meanwhile, said, “ATMA is an autonomous district level body. Besides issuing broader guidelines, the state government has little control over its day-to-day functioning.” He further said that the farmer training programs were still undertaken under the scheme.

“We have received the first installment of the Centre’s share (Rs 12 crore) and have already sought approval for release of the state’s matching grant,” Jain said. The bureaucrat said that adequate funds were available to run the scheme.

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