Extension services are considered important in the growth of agricultural productivity. These services are a conduit to transfer the latest and improved farm technologies to farmers. But like other developing countries, extension services here are poor, unable to match the demands posed by modern crop production and protection requirements.

There are issues with human resources, research efficiency and general functioning. The extension staff is under paid and lacks good career structure. It is untrained, poorly equipped and faces mobility issues. The priorities are muddled and research with weak collaboration/linkage with external agencies.

The extension needs institutional autonomy, funding and increased flexibility for research with increased accountability, encouragement of private-sector research especially in commercial crops. Linkages with educational institutions are missing while there is absence of participatory approach.

To cope with the challenges Punjab agriculture authorities have decided to outsource the extension services. “We’ve been seriously understaffed. There is one field officer available for every 60,000 farmers in the province. This necessitated the need for either recruitment on a large scale, which will be a lengthy process, or opting for private service providers to meet this shortage of manpower,” says Agriculture Minister Syed Hussain Jehanian Gardezi. “We are introducing a hybrid system of partially privatising the extension services”, he adds.

The agriculture department checks companies selling bogus and spurious products. If this department is privatised who will serve as the watchdog of farmers’ interests

The formal process for selection of the extension providers is in the process, says Director-General (Extension) Dr Anjum Ali Buttar, hoping that the new system will be put in place from the next Kharif season. Four out of nine divisions, including Dera Ghazi Khan, Sahiwal, Sargodha and Gujranwala, have been selected to run the project on an experimental basis before taking it to the whole province.

Stakeholders, though welcoming the step, are apprehensive that if the companies manufacturing agricultural products are selected as extension providers, it may cause a conflict of interest.

“There is no doubt that it will increase the outreach of the extension department and more farmers may benefit from the availability of agricultural advisers. But if the companies producing farm products are given the contract they end up promoting their commercial interest in place of farmers”, comments Aamer Hayat Bhandara, a progressive farmer from Pakpattan district.

His views were endorsed by Muhammad Azam Cheema, CEO of Sayban Group associated with agribusiness, including seed and pesticides. “Extension services should be outsourced to assess the performance of private vs public sector. But the issue is that the department whose job is to provide extension services is subletting it. If my competitor is my supervisor I will not trust him,” he argues.

Another issue is the conflict of interest, he stresses, if a company is selected as an extension service provider that is also in the business of agro-products, it will definitely promote its own products. “I attended the stakeholders’ meeting convened by the department and raised the question there too.”

Dr Buttar acknowledges that the issue of conflict of interest had been raised in the meetings held to fine-tune the idea and take on board the stakeholders. Of course, if we have to improve agricultural productivity, we will have to tell the farmers to use better quality seed, fertilisers, etc, and where to get these from. To settle these and other concerns, certain terms and conditions are being included in the contract to ensure that the companies selected may not promote their own or others’ products, he says.

“The selected service providers will be given target-oriented assignments with marks from zero to five for each task like convincing the farmers to replace their seed if required, see if laser levelling has been done, balanced use of fertiliser, diversification of crop, etc. They will be barred from marketing any kind of agri-products as the job of recommending seeds, fertilisers and pesticides will be done by us.”

For monitoring of the service providers, a third party will be selected for evaluation of their performance and monitoring for which an IT system will be introduced through a control and command centre that will provide digital support to the department, he says.

“But my concern is that if a government department is not listening to my pleas, I will move the court but if courts are privatized who will I approach?” questions Mr Bhandara, explaining, “the agriculture department is the major threat for the companies selling bogus and spurious products to the farmers. If this department is privatised, who will serve as the watchdog of the interests of farmers.”

He suggests that the outreach of the public sector extension services may be improved by restraining the department’s staff from performing duties for Sunday Bazaars, anti-adulteration drive, etc, or the government may set up digital deras (outhouses), where the farmers may be provided training in latest farming techniques through video link.

Punjab had earlier experimented with different extension service approaches. These included Village Cooperative Movement (VCM), Village Agriculture and Industrial Development Programme (V-AID), Basic Democracies System (BDS), Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP), Inputs at Farmers’ Doorsteps, Training & Visit System, Farmers’ Field Schools, Crop Maximisation Programme, etc.

The main aim of the VCM was to rescue the farmers from the clutches of moneylenders. The cooperative idea flopped as large holders and politically influential families dominated the cooperatives who misused funds and did not let small farmers join the entities.

Launched in 1952, with substantial help from the US Agency for International Development and Ford Foundation, the V-AID programme sought to organise village councils while building rural infrastructure and disseminating improved agricultural technology. It soon fell prey to departmental jealousy and political disruption (imposition of martial law). It was abolished in 1961 as rural development became a part of the Basic Democracy System.

In the BDS, administrative and development tiers were organised at five levels where the union council, a group of 3-5 villages, was the lowest tier and entrusted to solve problems of education, infrastructure, agriculture and sanitation. The BDS was also abolished after a decade with the change in government in 1970 for being too political as BDS served as Electoral College for electing the President.

With the change in early 1970, a new development approach, IRDP, was introduced for the development of agriculture. It was created as a subsidiary of the Agriculture Department with agricultural graduates as its frontline workers. But rural development funds were given under the control of the local government department. This dichotomy resulted in tension between the two agencies and frustration among the workers.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 27th, 2021

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