Ever since Bt cotton seed companies admitted in 2015 that the crop was no longer resistant to pink bollworm, Sanganilaya, a farmer in Chintanekonda village of Warangal district has adopted a hit or miss policy. He buys seeds of five different brands, hoping all of them would not fall prey to the pest. That is because there is no trained officer from the Telangana agriculture department who is available to give them qualified advice.
“I am a supporter of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) but let truth be told, the K Chandrasekhar Rao government is not farmer-friendly,” says Sanganilaya.
Which is why KCR's decision to send 750 officers of the Agriculture Department and 250 from the Horticulture Department to Israel in batches to study the drip irrigation methods is being met with scorn in the countryside. Not just because this will be the mother of all government junkets but because Israel was a junket destination for the state agriculture minister and four TRS MLAs in April 2015 to attend Agritech 2015.
The politicians, none of them active farmers, had postured as progressive farmers for the sake of the free trip. It is anyone's guess, if anything of what they observed and learnt, was of any use to the state.
Ironically, the decision to boost tourism in Israel comes at a time when 21 cotton farmers have committed suicide in the last two weeks in Warangal. The district is the cotton-growing zone in Telangana and the poor and inferior quality yield is a direct fallout of the farmers relying either on their own native wisdom or advice given by seed and pesticide dealers.
I ask Ramanaiah, whose 33-year-old son Rajender committed suicide this Monday, on whether this move of the government will help farmers like him. After his cotton crop failed to get a good price, Rajender had drunk pesticide, leaving behind a debt of Rs 4.8 lakh.
“KCR's decisions are only useful to big land-holding farmers, not to small farmers like us,” says Ramanaiah.
Farmers put the blame for their woes at the doorstep of the Agriculture Department's lack of effective extension services. Incidentally, it is the senior officers who are being sent to Israel, not the Agriculture Extension officers (AEOs) who will finally interact with the farmers on the field.
“The agriculture department's extension services have a very poor track record on the field,'' says GV Ramanjaneyulu, an Agriculture scientist. “If they were active, they would have known that pink bollworm was first noticed in the cotton crop in Nizamabad more than a month ago. Why was no action taken? Now the farmer pays the price for it with his crop being affected.''
What is therefore, needed is better research done by the Agriculture University and appointment of more AEOs.
“The thumb rule is that every 2,000 hectares of cultivated area should be supervised by an AEO. But at present, an entire district on an average has only 25 AEOs,'' says Kiran Vissa, agriculture activist. The government says orders have been issued to appoint an additional 1,500 AEOs by January to bridge the gap.
The officers will be flown to Israel in batches of one hundred each where they will be part of a training module for 15-20 days between December and April. The junket will cost the Telangana exchequer Rs 25 crore. But even though Israel is the world leader in drip irrigation techniques, is it the template to follow?
Ramanjaneyulu points out that Israeli drip irrigation technology is not geared to Indian conditions because of the quality of water.
“Our water has salt and it accumulates in the tube and that needs periodic maintenance. Two, the assumption is that water flow will be uniform which is not the case because of power fluctuations and poor quality of motors that are installed,'' says Ramanjaneyulu. Which is why many of the farmers who installed drip irrigation systems in the last 15 years, have discarded it and the cables are now found being used to tie the cattle to the tree or in cots.
The government argues that with a large number of farmers not hitting water even with borewells and therefore dependent on monsoon, micro irrigation methods would help create crop colonies and do farming in a more planned manner.
“It will broaden their mental horizon. They will see high productivity, hi-tech agriculture in Israel and learn about processing and post-harvest management as well,” says C Parthasarathi, Agriculture secretary.
The opposition has however, criticised the expenditure called it a waste of money because even under Chandrababu Naidu between 1999 and 2004, a similiar exercise to use Israeli technology was undertaken in his native Kuppam in Chittoor district. Drip irrigation, agriculture scientists say, is useful for vegetable cultivation and not for all kinds of crops.
The junket has been planned at a time when farmers are more agitated over the fact that the government is not able to assure them the minimum support price for any crop. One of the reasons for the high number of suicides in Warangal is that despite the Cotton Corporation of India fixing the MSP at Rs 4,320 per quintal, most farmers are having to sell their produce between Rs 2,500 and Rs 3,600 per quintal. On November 20, farmers from all over India will assemble in India, highlighting their issues, hoping the powers that be, will show some empathy.