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New technologies: not only lip service but practical approach is crucial       
By Zafar Samdani

The latest buzz expression in official circles of the agriculture sector is water conserving technologies. Every one you come across or the dignitaries whose staff scripted insight has added drip and sprinkler irrigation to the existing list of laser levelling, zero tillage and bed and furrow cultivation, speak on the efficacy of these technologies with great gusto.

This certainly shows their concern for Pakistan's agriculture, a commodity rapidly on the increase among official managers of the sector as also other luminaries who are entitled to front page coverage in print media and prime space in state owned television regardless of their relevance to issues on which they dilate.

However, the sum total of their expertise is playing for the rural gallery and a lot of lip-service but the scarcity of actual positive development for a majority of the farming community. The talked about facilities are neither on ground nor mostly in the pipeline. They are often either wish list or loud thinking.

Propagation of the first group of conservation technologies has now been carried out for about a decade but they are still to reach the bulk of farmers of the country. The reason is not far to seek.

Owners of small tracts of land lack the resources to invest in them; they must continue practicing, due to financial constraints, cultivation methods that have become superannuated by most countries that regard agriculture as their lifeline or accord it importance.

The scene would not change without effective and committed intervention by the government. Local administrations created under the military regime should have been providing support and assistance to small farmers but it is becoming increasingly clear that the foremost purpose of the new district level set-up is harnessing political support and be the authorities' vehicle and means for controlling people.

With politics as top priority, backing for other ends has become unimportant for political and bureaucratic administrators of the system. As a result, the planned supply of implements of new technology to farmers on priority basis has failed to materialize. These technologies remain the preserve of resource rich farmers.

There has been a lot of talk of assisting farmers but little concrete evidence of sustained effort is to be seen on the ground. However, as promoting agriculture is included in the mandate of district governments, one can hope that they would start attending to this issue in the near future.

The first group of technologies, land levelling, zero tillage and bed plantation are easy to disseminate for experts and assimilate for users as they are not greatly at variance from present culture of cultivation; farmers have been able to adjust to them without much difficulty, more so because they could watch these implements in harness in the fields of prosperous farmers or the government-managed experimental lands in their areas.

The case of sprinklers and drips is different. Their use for different crops is specific and, to uninitiated farmers, complicated too. For instance, drip technology can be applied to both cotton and sugarcane but equipment and usage is not the same for the two crops. This is true of other crops too.

The firstly consideration is cost. They are not regarded as expensive. But cost of every item differs from individual to individual. What is regarded as inexpensively available technology by some farmers can easily be beyond the resources of many others.

A few thousand rupees are peanuts for big owners but it is big money for the majority of small farmers. Affordability of technology is the starting point. Many farmers would become stranded at that outset. The Zarai Tarraqqiati Bank (ZTBL) has extended loan facilities to the farming sector and some commercial banks are also in the field for the same purpose.

Hopefully, they would play a positive role in converting farmers to conservation technologies by making the purchase of equipment easy for prospective users and devise a way for supporting the poorer segment of the sector without putting it under extra pressure. But the real problem would begin once the implements are available to farmers.

Sprinkle and drip technology is not as simple as other conservation technologies because they have more than one version and variety; it is not a matter of switching on and switching off.

Farmers would have to be educated and trained for using them. This is a requirement for all technologies and a little more for sprinkle and drip. The question is: who would train farmers?

Guiding and training farmers is generally the responsibility of extension staff of provincial departments of agriculture. One would not want to comment on the quality of what they deliver but even if their reputation for generally trying to make a positive contribution is not questioned, their professional acumen about new technologies cannot be denied.

Their knowledge of conventional and traditional agronomic practices and competence for helping farmers may have been useful but they have certainly not been trained to meet the challenges thrown by the technological developments.

For the new conservation technologies now being promoted by officials - come to think of it they are not exactly new and have been in use by leading agricultural countries for many years, extension staff is mostly as much at sea about deploying them as any layman, or, at best, just a few shades better; that is not enough. Training is thus a crucial factor. The trainers need to be trained to put them in a position to be of any help to farmers.

This is not to be done over a day. A certain period of time would be needed after the realization of the need for training has dawned on the managers and training of trainers has been initiated. A beginning is yet to be made in these directions.

So references to drips and sprinklers are nothing more than sop and are no more effort at conveying an impression that a lot is being done while ground conditions remain essentially unchanged.

Still, there is no reason to doubt that the sincerity of the government but this does pose the question whether the managers have properly and minutely planned what some leaders of the government are announcing from every forum or are some people just jumping the gun because they can do so due to their exalted positions.

This would create a mess up instead of boosting productivity and conserving declining water resources. The introduction and wide use of these technologies require comprehensive planning, mapping out needs of farmers who can afford them on their own or cannot benefit from them because of lack of know how for their application. This is a task to be jointly undertaken by the federal and provincial governments.

Policies should also be devised for local manufacture of implements and facilitating their supply to farmers on an affordable arrangement. One also hopes these technologies do not open floodgates of imports in the name of promoting the agriculture sector.

Huge supplies of drips and sprinklers would be required if the country uses them extensively to conserve water and boost produce. As such, their local production is as essential as training of the extension staff and farmers in their use.

Last but not the least, the district governments should be involved in the promotion of these technologies and methods sold be evolved for measuring their contribution.

Courtesy: The DAWN;

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