In these troubled times for agriculture, the big ideas, it seems, are coming more from the states than the Centre.
Take, for instance, the Madhya Pradesh government’s Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana that seeks to pay farmers the difference between the official minimum support price and the average market rates for the oilseeds and pulses crops grown by them. In the current kharif season alone, about Rs 2,000 crore is expected to be credited into the bank accounts of over 15 lakh farmers in the state. It would be payable as price difference on about 25 lakh tonnes (lt) of produce — which is way above the 15 lt of oilseeds and pulses likely to be physically procured from 11 states under the Centre’s price support scheme this kharif season. Not only are more farmers benefitting, there is also no cost of handling and storage to be borne here.
A similarly promising scheme is the Kisan Pathshala Yojana of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government, also being called the Million Farmers’ School. It is basically an extension and outreach programme to connect the agricultural department’s scientific and technical staff with the state’s farming community.
The interesting part of the scheme is its design (campaign mode and module-based) and timing (just during the cropping season). The pathshalas are in the form of a five-day teaching module, adapted to each of the state’s nine agro-climatic zones. The “classes” launched in the current rabi season were held over two phases — the first during December 5-9 and second in December 11-15 — across all Nyaya Panchayats, each connecting two or more villages.
During this season, about 15,000 pathshalas were held, with 70-80 farmers attending each of these five-day sessions. “In all, we could reach out to more than a million farmers, which was our target,” claims Amit Mohan Prasad, principal secretary (agriculture), UP government.
The UP agriculture department has around 8,600 technical assistants, who all have at least a B.Sc. (agriculture) qualification. Of them, roughly 6,000 were recruited in 2015 during the previous Samajwadi Party government’s tenure. Apart from this permanent staff, there are over 2,400 temporary “block technology managers” appointed under the Centre’s ATMA (Agricultural Technology Management Agency) scheme.
What the present BJP government under Yogi Adityanath has done is to leverage the above-created technical manpower and deploy it for a focused, campaign-mode programme. “We engaged about 7,500 technical assistants and block technology managers for Kisan Pathshala. Each of them did two five-day modules, adding up to 15,000 pathshalas and covering 10 lakh-plus farmers,” explains Prasad.
The five-day course module covered a range of subjects from crop-specific advice for a particular region (which varieties to plant, what fertilisers to apply, when to irrigate and how to deal with pest and disease) and information on new farm machinery, sprinkler/drip irrigation technology and post-harvest management practices, to awareness of government schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana and Soil Health Card.
“Our objectives were two-fold. The first was to revive the agricultural extension system, which has practically broken down and because of which the fruits of research aren’t percolating down to the farms like they used to during the seventies and the eighties. The second was to re-establish connect between the agriculture department and the farming community. Not only does this help build awareness among farmers of government schemes, but we also get to know what they want,” points out Prasad. Linked to this is a third element. The fact that the pathshalas are being held during the cropping season forces the technical staff to address practical problems having immediate relevance.
At a pathshala class at a primary school for girls in Kishorpura village of Jhansi’s Mauranipur tehsil, The Indian Express found farmers to be most concerned over how to save their already-sown chana (chick-pea) and matar (field-pea) crops in a drought-like situation. They were also keen to know whether there was any government subsidy for the building of barbed-wire fences to bar the entry of “anna pashu” (stray cattle) into their farms. This has emerged as a major problem in many rural areas, especially after heightened cattle vigilantism that made it difficult to dispose of redundant animals.
The good thing about a programme like Kisan Pathshala — assuming it is taken ahead — is that it provides a forum for two-way communication between agriculture department officials and farmers during every cropping season. The logical next step should be to also involve the private sector. There is no harm if the instructors at the pathshalas also include representatives of seed, fertiliser or agri-machinery firms. For farmers, from where the advice comes does not matter, so long as it leads to higher yields and lower production costs.
Schemes like the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana and Kisan Pathshala have the potential to transform Indian agriculture in today’s scenario, where farmers are suffering from both poor produce realisations and lack of access to knowhow and timely cropping advice.