It only doles out subsidies

India's agriculture extension system has not worked to enhance farmers' knowledge-base

By G V Ramanjaneyulu
Published: Monday 28 February 2005

It only doles out subsidies

-- Large-scale poverty among farmers and the spurt of suicides by agriculturists in various parts of the country indicates that our agriculture is in crisis. But this crisis is different compared to similar situations, earlier. In the 1960s, when India passed though great famines or food shortages, the country was not prepared to meet the difficulties. We had little in terms of infrastructure, technology or policy support. But today, there is a large national agricultural research system that works in all parts of the country, developing and transferring technology to farmers.

But this system -- which played a critical role during the Green Revolution--now faces criticism from all quarters. India's agricultural extension system, which was created to be a link between researchers and farmers, has lost the confidence of both. The research system never took any feedback from the extension system and farmers only expected subsidies from it.

There were no major innovations, except some new hybrids. Much energy was spent on recommending 'appropriate' doses of different chemicals--fertilisers, pesticides or growth promoters. During the Green Revolution, when chemical fertilisers were opposed by farmers (who feared it would spoil their lands), the extension staff tried to convince doubters by all means. There were even instances where these officials administered urea to fields secretly--only to tell farmers when lush crops bloomed in their fields. There was never any serious attempt to enhance the knowledge base of farmers.

Many times, the extension staff did not have the training to understand the situation at the field level and give recommendations. Instead, they relied on pesticide and chemical companies for information on their products.

Not taken seriously But why blame the extension system alone. The research system never took care to check the ground-level impacts of the technologies they promoted. And when the field staff did come up with recommendations, they were not taken seriously. A case in point is bt cotton. In spite of numerous reports from various parts of the country regarding the highly uneven performance of this transgenic cotton variety, researchers promote it zealously.

Such disdain for recommendations of the extension staff extends to other areas as well. Let's take the case of chemical fertilisers. In 1997, when there were large-scale suicides by cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, the extension system was the first to be blamed. But the fact remains that many reports of the extension staff did talk of crops developing resistance to chemicals.

In thrall to agribusiness The roles, which the extension staff are expected to perform -- such as monitoring quality control of chemicals/seed--make them highly corrupt. At the same time, the law doesn't help honest officers. For example, the procedures related to penalising companies for adulterated/substandard seed/chemicals are always loaded in favour of agribusiness. Let's go back to the bt cotton case again. Agricultural officers have reported that farmers who have planted this transgenic crop have suffered heavy losses. But manufacturers of bt cotton have not been penalised. For, the memorandum of understanding (mou) that they have signed with the state governments enjoins them to guarantee germination and uniformity for only 90 days. So, the company can get away even if the seed ensures a fairly uniform crop for a short while. Scant regard for farmers' interests does not end here. The Andhra Pradesh government has made it mandatory upon many companies to pay compensation in case farmers suffer losses after using their products. But compensation rarely materialises; it is almost always vexed up by long drawn and cumbersome processes.

Low on morale All this has hit hard at the morale of the extension staff. Most of them join the service as a lost resort. Low morale influences their work environment from day one. There is a famous adage that says, "If the student has not learnt, the teacher has not taught and if the system doesn't function, it is not designed properly." Isn't it high time that this system is corrected?

G V Ramanjaneyulu is executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh

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