Will private agriculture colleges kill our farmers?

SUGGI RAJ writes from Bangalore: Are the seeds for a humongous social and sociological disaster, which has the potential to rout the already problem-ridden farming sector, being sowed on the barren political badlands of Karnataka?

Is a democratic government surreptitiously reversing the land reforms in the State, and sneaking in the zamindari system in a new garb which will enable the transfer of lands of the poor into the hands of the private rich?

And is a puppet government of a “humble farmer” pushing the rest of his folk to stand on a land mine that could blow him up?

We are not talking of Special Economic Zones—although we could—but something else that is equally disturbing: Private agriculture colleges.

Ten days ago, the Government of Karnataka expressed a quiet but clear intent to throw open agricultural education in the State to the private sector. The ostensible reason for public consumption, as always, was money. By allowing private players, it reasoned, it could reduce its own fiscal burden. And who doesn’t like such austerity?

While giving the nod, the cabinet constituted a Cabinet subcommittee headed by minister for home, law and parliamentary affairs M.P. Prakash to examine the issue of granting permission to private managements to establish agricultural colleges in the State.

The point to ponder is, whether a civilisational change is in the offing in the State which boasts of having been home to every second farmer suicide in the country?

As of now, there are no private colleges in Karnataka as the present University of Agricultural Sciences Act, 1963, bars universities from granting affiliation to private colleges.

1 6A. Affiliation or admission to privileges etc. —No educational institution situated within the State of Karnataka imparting education of the type specified in section 4 or for the purposes specified therein shall be associated in any way with or be admitted to any privileges of and affiliated to any other University outside the State of Karnataka and any such affiliation granted by any such other University to any such institution within the State of Karnataka prior to the commencement of the University of Agricultural Sciences (Amendment) Act, 1985 shall be deemed to be withdrawn from the date of such commencement.”

The rationale behind that policy decision was simple. The poor Indian farmer is to be protected from the risk of being a victim of uncontrolled experiments.

The government rightly appropriated to itself the task of certifying the outcome of any experiment in the farm sector as the target group consists of a huge vulnerable population which is also largely illiterate. So, government did not want to leave the future of farmers to chance.

Just one crop failure is enough to overturn the agricultural applecart and alter a family’s livelihood. That can happen not just because of an errant monsoon, but because of a number of issues ranging from seeds to weeds, fertilizer to pesticides, harvesting to marketing.

In barring the private sector from agriculture, the government wanted everything to be monitored closely as it is a life and death problem of a very huge section of the population.

# If the private players are allowed then there is every possibility that the farming community would be pawns in the hands of some powerful vested interests.

# Agriculture is the main occupation of the majority of Indians. Small landholders will be wiped out with the entry of MNCs who are sure to annihilate small and marginal farmers’ through their manoeuvres and marketing tactics.

#Already, Indian health care is at the mercy of MNCs. If Novartis wins its patent case against India, it will pave way for replacement of generic medicines with prohibitively expensive patented medicine.

# Above all, there is a real estate angle to the issue of which we must be on our guard. The mushrooming of agriculture colleges in not only districts, but also in taluks and villages, will mean that cultivable land which is already on the verge of becoming meagre will further be reduced.

Unlike engineering and medical colleges which have been run from godowns and sheds, each Agriculture college needs a huge piece of cultivable land, not less than 300 acres, as farming cannot be taught and learnt in classrooms alone. That means, vast tracts of fertile land are a must for running the farm college. So every piece of cultivable land in the vicinity can/will be at the hands of the education mafia.

The big issue that the government’s move throws up is whether the agriculture colleges will become an excuse to improve the land holdings in the name of education.

The best case scenario is they may not. But what if?

After centuries of tilling land in someone else’s title, almost all of the lower strata of society, esspecially Dalits and the backward classes, have been now given rights over their tilling land. But the very purpose of land reforms is being sought to be defeated on a case-by-case basis.The new economy has seen amassing of property, especially real estate. The easiest prey for this land-hungry lot are those who secured rights over their lands after centuries of toil. Is a reversal of land reform on the anvil?

Of course, the mannina makkalu enconsed on the gaddi will argue that the research facilities in agriculture colleges can be utilized to help farmers. That the setting up of the colleges will help reduce the fiscal burden on the government from running the Ag-colleges. And that small farmers will be involved in research, which will develop a fruitful rapport between the scientists and farmers.

On paper the rationale seems sound, except that it is wishful thinking. For a reality check, please walk into any private medical college hospital.

While sanctioning private medical colleges, government had come up with the same logic and reason. Then, it said, since government cannot run healthcare facilities everywhere, private medical colleges would come in handy to help people in the villages and towns spread across the state.

Is that really happening?

Most of medical college hospitals either wear a deserted look without patients (there may be a number of mysterious reasons for this) or, more likely, are beyond the reach of even the middle class, let alone the poor!

We have over a hundred private engineering colleges and hundreds of colleges and what is the use?

Good intentions alone aren’t enough. By paving the way for private agriculture colleges, the H.D. Kumaraswamy government is snipping off the nose fearing the frequent sneezes (and suicides) of the poor farmers!