The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ear to ground in suicide zone

New Delhi, June 26: Remember N. Chandrababu Naidu’s boast that, with a click of his mouse, he could tell you that the class VIII students in government school No. 10 in Visakhapatnam had done poorly in math' Or that the police station in a remote Rayalseema village had recorded an unusually high number of crimes'

Yet the former Andhra Pradesh chief minister, feted the world over for his Net savvy, failed to prevent a suicide spate among his state’s farmers ' because the information travelled only one way. There was no feedback.

Now that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears ready to make agriculture his first priority in 2006, sources close to him said he was planning to revive a Nehruvian practice that had been virtually jettisoned in the liberalisation era.

This refers to the “agricultural extension services”, devised and put in place by Jawaharlal Nehru’s adviser on community development, S.K. Dey.

Under this, government employees would travel to villages to advise farmers on what crops to sow and when, monitor the yields and share information on market trends.

They would return with valuable feedback on the farmers’ condition and pass it on to their superiors so that if anything was amiss, it could be promptly corrected.

“Had the agricultural extension services survived, the government would have got an early warning of farmers’ suicides instead of learning about them through the media,” a source said.

At a recent meeting, Singh was told by finance minister P. Chidambaram that the practice still survived in Tamil Nadu. The Prime Minister plans to urge all the chief ministers, especially those of the northern states, to revive this “valuable” link between the government and the farmer.

Government sources said that last week, Singh asked Chidambaram and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar to work out a package he could unveil in Vidarbha during his June 30-July 1 visit.

With this region of Maharashtra hit by an unrelenting wave of suicides ' 10 farmers killed themselves over the last four days ' the “most immediate” balm could be a debt write-off for the bereaved families.

“The tendency over the last two years was to increase credit supply and availability ' the government hasn’t looked at farmers’ existing debt burdens,” an official said.

Chidambaram has been asked to assess the cost of the write-offs as well as possible supply of seeds, fertilisers, irrigation, power and other back-ups to farmers to help them switch to more profitable crops.

The focus is on the 31 suicide-prone districts of Maharashtra, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

In the past few months, the Prime Minister had met several experts, journalists and social activists with knowledge of and insight into farmers’ problems. The discussions convinced him he needed to act at once.

The final push came from the Congress. At the last meeting of the core committee, attended by both Singh and Sonia Gandhi, the party president and her political secretary, Ahmed Patel, pressed the government to get cracking before the ruling alliance “lost its mandate”.

Among Singh’s other plans are asking the states to follow Andhra’s example of increasing investment in irrigation and beef up agricultural research.

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