The administration of Khammam district in Telangana has taken the innovative initiative of setting up temporary decentralised village level camps called “Rythu Mitra Kendras” during the current agricultural marketing season. These camps are equipped with cotton moisture measurement machines.
Through an aggressive communication campaign, small and marginal farmers have been encouraged to attend these camps. In an article in the Indian Express, Parthasarathi Biswas writes the benefit achieved through this campaign include heightened awareness about the moisture level well before the cotton crop is brought by them to the purchase center or the adjoining wholesale market.
Consequently, he adds, with decrease in the rejection rate (moisture levels have prescribed limits), a large number of farmers have fetched a higher remunerative price, adding substantially to their farm income.
The above initiative clearly highlights the dire need to empower small and marginal farmers through innovatively conceived access to new low-cost agricultural technologies. This is more so, in context of the reduced land and water availability, soil nutrient deficiencies and the challenges of climate change, especially, in rain-fed areas of the country.
Here, over eighty per cent of small and marginal farmers cultivate fifty per cent of the land and produce more than eighty per cent of the nutri-cereals, pulses, oilseeds, fruits and vegetables. Besides, dairying, livestock and fisheries are also increasingly becoming critical to sustain the resilience of agriculture.
The Report on the Committee of Doubling Farmers Income (DFI) aptly highlights strengthening the last mile delivery architecture in districts, as a unit of administration, through both information and technology. The objective, the Report further states, is to enable farmers to realise higher net income from their enterprise on a sustainable basis.
One has visited the vast network of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) institutions, State Agricultural Universities (SAUs) and Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) housed in various states. The latter continue to experiment and facilitate research in low cost technologies to benefit farmers during each stage of the agricultural cycle that ranges from pre-planting, seeding, preparing/planting, growing, harvesting/post production/packing, storage to marketing stages.
Besides, the Agricultural Technology Management Agency (ATMA) is a multi- agency platform in Districts of each state that puts into motion the extension action plan to reach out to farmers through a participatory approach. There are, in addition, a plethora of schemes, programmes and projects across the agricultural cycle that are being implemented by the central and state governments either through central funding or on sharing basis.
Several low-cost technologies have been proposed by the above agricultural research-extension public sector agencies or are currently in use by small and marginal farmers in irrigated, rain-fed, hill and coastal ecosystems.
These include resource conserving technologies such as seed/fodder banks, zero tillage, laser levelling, raised bed planting, direct seeding, crop residue seeding, vertical & protected cultivation, micro irrigation, fertigation, milk machines and pond aeration systems.
Besides, there are digital technologies such as geo-tagging, bio-tagging, bar coding and electronic trading through mobile applications that are being increasingly used by farmers for post-production activities.
The key issue is the need to strengthen the interface mechanism between the ICAR institutes, especially KVKs, the district administration and the small and marginal farmers as end users of low-cost technologies. Such an interface has then to enable innovative finetuning (as done in Khammam District) of the application of such interventions taking into account the changing agro-ecological ground realities.
First, the district administration needs to aggressively use Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) as decentralised cutting-edge units for a two-way communication between farmers and higher levels, such as the block and the district. With tremendous penetration of broadband connectivity and mobile usage in villages, physical reach of sufficient numbers of extension officers of agriculture, horticulture, fisheries and animal husbandry departments has to be regularly supplemented with virtual interaction.
Besides, it’s time to enhance the PRI’s capacity to supervise and dovetail activities of last mile farmer committees/societies for watersheds, forest management, credit, milk, marketing and water use.
Secondly, the District Magistrates/Collectors/Deputy Commissioners office will need a robust arm that regularly reviews and facilitates convergence of resources/investments for low cost technologies to be used by small and marginal farmers. In addition to government funds for myriad schemes/programmes, deployment of private sector and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds to push such technologies would have to be channelised aggressively.
Thirdly, ICAR institutions, SAUs and KVKs will need to effectively utilise the advice of local agri-business/industry and PRI leaders within their organisational structures in districts. A key activity that they must formalize in their trial and outreach functions is mapping, coordinating and sharing with small and marginal farmers the work and experience of numerous “agri startups” in districts.
The Khammam innovation clearly demonstrates that the District could be the most effective unit for converged and actionable initiatives to empower small and marginal farmers to use low cost agricultural technologies. Prof. Prabhu Pingali in his new book, “Transforming Food Systems for a Rising India” (2019) rightly points out that smallholder access to seed technologies, mechanisation, information and extension services would alone determine their ability to be economically viable and sustainable.
(The writer is an Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, Government of India. Views expressed are personal)