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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Less department staff, lesser motivation: How agriculture extension collapsed in Punjab?

A close examination of troubles plaguing the state agriculture department revealed lack of staff, delayed promotions, pending recruitment, apart from lack of monitoring of field staff’s work. Sources said that all these factors have led to extension services work almost collapse in the state.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar |
Updated: November 27, 2021 2:36:01 pm
Agriculture Officer Dr Amrik Singh teaching farmers about the crop sowing techniques at Pathankot.

Nirmal Singh (name changed) regularly visits and stays in touch 2,000 farming families in villages assigned to him as part of his job as an Agriculture Development Officer (ADO). Every ADO in state, as per government specification, needs to cater to 1,000 farm families.

Nirmal, whose job is entirely field work, says it is his passion to help farmers that drives him.

“I do not offer money at religious places, but spend that money on my field visits,” he says.

But in the same vein, he rues, “I have no government vehicle at my disposal to visit the fields of these farmers one after another. But I have a passion for my job and I work day and night to meet my target. Few big farmers also arrange my visits to the fields. But how many ADOs spend from their pockets (for field trips)? There are only a handful…”

The ADOs are the key drivers of Agriculture Extension Services on the ground as part of which they disseminate information about quality seeds, sowing practices, soil health, diversification and latest government schemes to farmers.

Nirmal, who has earned several appreciation letters from the department for his zealous work in stubble burning control and getting soil health tests done in large numbers, adds that if an ADO so desires, he can deliver results despite departmental handicaps.

But there are several ADOs who do not agree with this view.

“How much and for how long can I keep spending money from my salary on fuel? The expenditure does not even get reimbursed. If the government is so serious that we should fan out into the fields and do farmer-to-farmer marking, then it must fulfil this basic need of providing a government vehicle or at least per km based fuel reimbursement,” said another ADO posted in one of the districts of Majha region, adding that “we sit in our offices and farmers are free to ask us whatever they want”.

“If they can locate a fertiliser dealer in their area they should also locate an agriculture officer of the area if they have any doubts,” said another ADO justifying that frequent field visits are not possible.

In addition to extension work, field staff, mainly ADOs, are also supposed to take seed samples, pesticides and fertiliser samples from dealers within their jurisdiction, and send them to testing laboratories, he pointed out. If a dealer’s sample fails, then the matter goes to court which the agri official has to fight from government’s side.

“If a sample is okay then no problem but, god forbid, it fails then again we have to shell money from our pockets on repeated visits to the court on dates of hearing in local court as well as in the High Court. If we require any legal aid, the department hardly helps out and the district attorney says we have other important matters to deal with,” rued another ADO from Malwa region.

He added: “We should rather be spending our time interacting with and educating farmers and not fighting cases in the court, which eats up a lot of our time.”

WHAT PLAGUES AGRICULTURE DEPARTMENT?

A close examination of troubles plaguing the state agriculture department revealed lack of staff, delayed promotions, pending recruitment, apart from lack of monitoring of field staff’s work. Sources said that all these factors have led to extension services work almost collapse in the state.

While extension work is part of profile of every department official from director to the entry-level officials, but it is mainly the duty of the ADOs, who are appointed at district and block level.

The ADOs are assisted by Agriculture Sub Inspectors (ASIs) and Agriculture Extension Officer (AEOs).
A reality check with the department revealed that there are 934 posts of ADOs in the state and only 423 are filled, while 511 are lying vacant.

There are 725 posts of Agriculture Sub Inspectors out of which 510 are vacant and 215 are filled. Further, there are seven posts of joint directors out of which only one is filled and six are vacant.

There are 233 posts of AEOs, 8 vacant, ad 225 filled. But sources say that AEOs are only there to assist ADOs and cannot fulfil extension services job independently. They add that 233 AEO posts are too little for Punjab, which has 13,000 villages.

There are dozens of blocks where not a single ADO is posted currently.

In Pathankot block, there are 194 villages and 6 posts of ADOs sanctioned, including three each at district and block level, but not a single ADO is there in this block.

A senior officer said that against the population of the farmers in Punjab, the minimum posts of ADOs should be 1,100 against 934.

HELP FROM CENTRE

To meet the shortcomings of the agriculture department, the Union government had introduced two other main agencies to assist the state agriculture departments across the country. These agencies are Agriculture Technology Management Agency (ATMA) scheme and Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs).

In Punjab, the KVSs, which are mainly involved in research and training work at their respective centres in the district offices, are under Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), Ludhiana, while ATMA is working under Punjab Agriculture Department in every district of the state for the past several years.
“They are active only there where agriculture staff is active and taking their services seriously but at majority places due to inadequate staff in the main agriculture department, the assisting agencies like ATMA, too have become defunct and their working is far from satisfactory except in some districts,” said a senior officer in the agriculture department.

“At KVK, we do research work in our fields and give training to the farmers about modern farming schemes or agriculture techniques, but for that the farmers are to be prepared by the agriculture field staff,” said a senior officer in KVK, adding that “we are doing research and training both but department officials are instrumental to motivate farmers to adopt new researches in their fields in practical manner.”
“When the main agriculture department is not properly strengthened from a manpower point of view then these assisting agencies cannot do well on their own,” said Dr Kirpal Singh, who works for the state agriculture department, and is an office-bearer of the Punjab Agriculture Technocrates Action Committee (AGTECH) .

The department takes 10,000 seed samples and 7,500 fertilisers and pesticides samples every year and most of these samples are taken by our field staff like ADOs, said Dr Gurvinder Singh, Cane Commissioner and Joint Director, Agriculture Department.

HOW SOIL HEALTH SCHEME FLOPPED?

Also, when Centre’s soil health card scheme was introduced in the state under which every individual farmer was to be provided soil health card after testing the soil of their field, this work was also entrusted to the ADOs.

Though the state claimed that they issued around 24 lakh soil health cards to individual farmers by covering each farmer in two cycles in a period of 5-6 years, the ground reality is that majority farmers were not even aware when this scheme came to the state and who got these cards.

Punjab has around 150 soil testing labs out of which only a couple dozen are equipped with testing all 16 types of nutrients and remaining can only test Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium levels in the soil. Also here too, only 25-30 per cent posts lab analysts are filled, informed the Agri-tech Union.

A handful of farmers who have got these soil health cards are also not following the instructions given with them as they claim that the system used to select fields for samples was faulty.

“Samples from four corners of this grid (10 hectares) were taken despite the fact that land inside these corners belongs to several farmers who grow different types of crops and the soil health would also be different,” said farmer Jaswinder Singh in Gurdaspur.

Punjab also has a state council for agricultural education to promote agricultural education in the state has also been established. While workshops to refresh the knowledge of the field staff are organised regularly in the state, and even PUA publishes a booklet with information on crops, but all this does not reach farmers.

“Every field staff’s work must be monitored thoroughly and one should check the actual result at the grassroots that how many farmers are trained by such staff,” said a senior officer in the department, adding that all the posts must be filled either by permanent or contract basis staff so as to reach out to every single farming family.

HOW EXTENSION CAN HELP FARMERS?

While pink bollworm (PBW) damaged around 70 per cent cotton crops in major part of the Bathinda district, which has around 96,000 hectares (2.37 lakh acres) area under cotton, the Punjab Agriculture University (PAU)’s demonstration plots measuring 5-acre each at two places in the district are in much better conditions and almost negligible pest attack was witnessed here.

The reason behind this is the usage of a paste, which disturbs the mating of the insects by releasing synthetic pheromones.

It is also called ‘mating disruption technique’.

The scientists at Regional Research Station, Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), Ludhiana, at Bathinda said that had this application been adopted on the large scale in the district then the attack of pests could have been prevented.
But both PAU and the agriculture department failed to disseminate information about this technique among the cotton growers of the state timely and the farmers suffered huge damage to their crop.

In another example, when in 2015 the cotton crop was damaged on 1.36 lakh hectares out of around total 4.50 lakh hectares due to white fly attack, from next season PAU and Punjab agriculture department had appointed 500 scouts, all Class 10 pass, on a monthly salary of Rs 4000 to supervise the crop while supervisors were also appointed to monitor every 10 scouts. These supervisors were agriculture graduates appointed at a salary of Rs 14,000 per month to keep a close watch on the crop since beginning to till end and after that it was followed in the subsequent year too and farmers were educated properly about this pest attack. This transfer of knowhow has prevented another attack since.
In Pathankot, the regular teaching about the bad effects of the stubble burning has resulted in negligible stubble burning for the past around three years and only 5 to 10 cases of stubble burning is reported from here now against massive farm fires in other districts.

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