Five years after it was launched, non-payment of staff salaries, excessive hype plague the scheme, observers say
The Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Natural Farming (APCNF) system, earlier known as Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), was launched with much fanfare during the previous Telugu Desam Party (TDP) regime in 2016. Five years down the line, however, it has been marred by non-payment of dues even as not much has changed for the prospects for natural farming in the state.
APCNF was again in the spotlight recently as field staff demitted their jobs in YSR district (formerly Kadapa) and even in Pulivendula, the constituency of current Chief Minister, YS Jagan Mohan Reddy.
Members of the staff alleged to this reporter that they had not been paid for the past seven months. They had been appointed by the Centre and the state governments in 2015.
The staff were earlier paid seven months ago after a suicide attempt by an employee in the neighbouring district of Ananthapuramu, which is perennially drought-prone. Nearly 25 people were sacked without paying salaries in this district according to sources.
GV Ramanjaneyulu, executive director at Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, said:
Not paying salaries to the staff that too during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a crime in itself. Will any of the officers survive without payment of salaries for seven months? The officers then say that the staff are not getting results on ground. The money allocated in the budget is also not released and diverted for other purposes.
T Vijay Kumar, executive vice-chairman, Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RYSS), under whose aegis the programme was taken up, accepted the delay in releasing the honorarium of the workers:
It has caused a lot of anguish to the community cadres. We are pursuing with the finance department. In fact, a portion of their arrears was cleared in the last week of August. We hope to clear a large portion of their arrears in a short period.
He added that the farmers worked for the programme along with pursuing their own agriculture. “We are looking into putting in place arrangements which ensure that delay in payments does not take place,” he said.
Kumar noted that an amount of Rs 221.36 crore had been received till date under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana. This was a central assistance to state plan scheme to be implemented in select villages. “An additional amount of Rs 37 crore is committed from 2021-25. The division of budgetary responsibility between the Centre and the state is 60:40,” he said.
RYSS was established as a not-for-profit company under Section 8 of the Companies Act 2013. This was done to create an integrated institutional mechanism for all programmes, schemes and activities intended for farmers’ empowerment, encompassing welfare, development, credit flow, financial support and allied activities.
RYSS signed a memorandum of understanding with non-profit Rural and Environment Development Society in Ananthapuramu district.
It aims to cover 500,000 farmers for transforming 500,000 hectares to natural farming in 2,000 bio-villages and 50 per cent of the mandals of the state between 2017 and 2022. The programme further aims to scale up the reach to all the 5,500,000-6,000,000 farmers by 2024.
Ramanjaneyulu said such programmes for natural farming are not implemented in a coordinated manner between the farmers, universities and the agricultural department.
“When the programme was launched as ZBNF after much hype by bringing in (agriculturalist) Subhash Palekar by the earlier TDP regime, he criticised the department of agriculture and varsities. So, they were trying to prove him wrong, rather than supporting the initiative. When problems and shortcomings are brought to the notice of the authorities they don’t listen,” he said.
He added that the programme was then given to outsourced staff with no proper qualifications; the whole model depended on picking people from the village and training them, who were paid Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000. Money was spent on big fairs with a million farmers and then, the ground level staff could not be paid.
Those running the programme were also accused of manipulating data and hyping results. Situations like COVID-19 were not factored in while measuring results.
The programme, Ramanjaneyulu said, was also a victim of one-upmanship and ego between bureaucrats. When a new person came to head a good mission, he did not identify with the work done so far.
Vijay Kumar claimed that the APCNF was currently spread over 3,730 villages, 1,000 units or clusters and covered all mandals in the state.
The programme had begun with 40,000 farmers in 704 villages in 2016-17 and had expanded to more than 700,000 farmers and farm workers in 3,730 Gram Panchayats (GPs) in 2020-21.
In 2021-22, the programme had would enroll 1,000,000 farmers and farm workers in 3,730 GPs.
Ramanjaneyulu dwelt further into the shortcomings of programmes like RYSS. He said the transition of farmers into natural farming needed grassroots staff properly trained by the agricultural department:
The government brings in NGO personnel who study agriculture in colleges but are not taught natural farming even for one hour in their four-year degree course. How can universities stay out and say I am not part of this. They should take part and improvise. They can partner with people who understand agro-ecology, the name given to natural farming worldwide currently.
K Nageshwar Reddy, who heads People’s Action in Development, a non-profit from YSR district said the district project managers co-opted into RYSS for three years were schooled in chemical input-based farming and did not show interest in natural farming.
Reddy said his non-profit had not received dues from the government for the past 27 months despite submitting all accounts to date.
“They have squeezed us to the hilt. I feel non-profits are co-opted to get funds as funding agencies insist. There is no encouragement and appreciation to our work. If properly implemented, this will bring savings to the government exchequer as they reduce subsidies to chemical inputs,” he added.
Vijay Kumar said only 75 units / clusters (7.5 per cent) were run through non-profits. There was a partnership with non-profits in these clusters to utilise the existing work they had done on natural farming.
The field functionaries were supported and hand-held by the natural farming district project management team led by an agriculture department officer on deputation. The state programme management unit oversaw all activities across the district.
Vijay Kumar admitted that payments to non-profits were pending: “We took care that their field staff were paid. The payments are pending with the finance department. We are pursuing it and it will be resolved soon.”
Several workers of APCNF this reporter spoke to, said on the condition of anonymity that they had not been paid for more than seven months now. Even employees who had left their jobs said they were yet to be paid their dues.
Natural farming initiatives have been on in the state from 2004 to 2014 under the aegis of the state government rural development department and was called the Andhra Pradesh Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture covering both AP and Telangana states.
It is said this programme had succeeded in bringing down pesticide usage by 50 per cent but was killed by the officers. Similar problems of non-payment of staff salaries, excessive hype plagued the scheme, observers said.
“Organic farming also needs scientific approach. There is no mechanism for recognition, certification of products grown by sustainable agri practices. There is no focus from the government on offering support. If that was the case, APCNF would have been implemented through the RBKs (Rythu Bharosa Kendras),” Ramanjaneyulu said.
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