Mu mbai: Maharashtra is offering its farmers government-subsidized overseas study tours to learn innovative agricultural techniques that they can adopt to boost the productivity of their farms back home, but critics complain that it’s only meant for the rich and politically connected.
On 12 April, 47 farmers flew to Europe from Mumbai on one such tour. They paid only 50% of the cost while the government bore the rest.
The Maharashtra government plans to send 1,000 farmers annually on such study tours to Europe, South America, Australia and New Zealand, giving them a chance to visit farms and agricultural processing units, and research and development facilities.
It advertised the April tour in January after setting apart Rs.10 crore in the 2012-13 state budget to fund the trips. Any person who owns agricultural land and has a passport can apply to join such tours. Farmers who have received awards from the state and central governments for using innovative techniques on their farms will be given priority.
The government has fixed the cost of these package tours at between Rs.95,000 and Rs.3 lakh. Two travel agencies, Cox and Kings Ltd and Aarohan Tours and Travels Pvt. Ltd, have been appointed by the government to take care of the logistics.
Farmer lobby bodies and economists are not convinced about the soundness of the plan, which coincides with a debilitating drought that has one-third of Maharashtra in its grip.
“Only those farmers who are either politically-connected or have some business other than farming or some close family members who have a job in the government or organized private sector, will be able to take advantage of government’s scheme,” said Raju Shetti, president of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana and a member of Parliament.
Vishwajeet Navare, who owns a five-acre pomegranate orchard in Shangola, Sholapur district, was not even aware of the scheme.
“Even if I was, I don’t think I would have been able to afford such large sums of money even in a good crop year. As this year is a drought year, it will take another two years for us to fully recover from losses we have incurred this year,” said Navare.
State agriculture minister Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment.
“It is not correct to say that the scheme is only meant for politically connected or rich farmers,” said Vijaykumar Avate, an officer on special duty in his office. “We have approved the names of 1,200 farmers for the study tour. Only 20-25 names from this list have any political connections.”
To be sure, the study tours have their benefits.
Maharashtra is the largest producer of wine in the country. Farmers visiting Europe can learn how to grow a variety of grapes, using very small amounts of fertilizer and pesticide, and export their produce to European and other countries, said Avate.
The Indian agricultural sector has the lowest productivity in the world and productivity of farms in Maharashtra is even lower than that of the national average for most crops.
For instance, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, while the world average rice yield is around 4.3 tonne per hectare, the Indian average is just around 2.3 tonnes per hectare. According to the Maharashtra government’s agriculture department, the state average is 1.6 tonnes per hectare.
Still, economists aren’t impressed by the state-subsidized study tours for farmers.
“This is mere tokenism and an attempt to extend political patronage by the government,” said agricultural economist Milind Murugkar.