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May 12, 2000
'SKY' is not the limit for Assam's strife-hit economy
Nitin Gogoi in Guwahati
Assam is on the verge of a green revolution, reports from at least 16 of the state's 23 districts indicate, thanks to the World Bank and the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development or NABARD schemes.
Now, the farmers, who used to barely cultivate one crop a year, are willing to go in for multiple cropping since they have been assured irrigation facilities.
All of them are taking advantage of an innovative irrigation scheme launched by the Assam government called the Samridha Krishak Yojana or SKY. (It means 'plan for making the farmer prosperous'.)
The idea is so simple that it is a surprise that no one thought about it all these years. Assam's farmers, who have so far been dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon and the floods that ravage the state, now suddenly find themselves in a position to do a major crop even in dry summer months, thanks to the novel irrigation scheme.
The scheme, initiated by the state government and financed by NABARD, has given a new opportunity to thousands of unemployed youth in the villages to go in for rabi cultivation. They have been provided with assured irrigation facilities through installation of 100,000 shallow tube wells or STWs in 18 of the state's 23 districts.
The scheme which began in November 1999 has provided 30,000 STWs within the first 45 days. Another 70,000 STWs have been targeted for the next six months. The financing pattern is also suitable for the economically weak farmer in Assam.
The Farm Management Committee, comprising a group of farmers at the grassroots, is the nodal agency to get the STWs. Each farmer or an FMC has to pool in Rs 7,600 and pay it upfront to get the pumpset and the tubewell material which costs Rs 23,000. The rest of the money is provided by the Assam government which has taken a loan of Rs 1.50 billion from NABARD under its Rural Infrastructure Development Scheme for the purpose.
Assam Governor Lieutenant General (retired) S K Sinha, who initiated the scheme and used his influence with Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha to get the required finances, says: "In another year's time, Assam will reap the benefits of the innovative scheme when more and more youth will take up cultivation."
Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta says: "In the past 50 years, only 62,000 shallow tube-wells were installed. Against that figure, we have already done 30,000 in less than 45 days. This is bringing in a tremendous change in the agricultural sector. In fact, I believe that this scheme will go down as a landmark in Assam's history and will change the face of the state's economy."
The chief minister should know. Although the NABARD scheme was taken up in only November 1999, about 16,000 STWs were installed between 1997 and 1999 under a separate World Bank-sponsored scheme.
The increase in area under irrigation and the subsequent production of summer paddy has shown a substantial rise. Assam's Agricultural Production Commissioner S K Purkayastha says, "Against our 1998-99 production of 224,000 metric tonnes of summer paddy, we are expecting to achieve 325,000 MT this season. This has become possible due to increased area under assured irrigation."
Indeed, Purkayastha and his team have big plans. By end of the Ninth Plan period (2002), the Assam government wants to increase the area under summer paddy cultivation to one million hectares from the current 230,000 hectares.
The reason for such emphasis on summer or rabi cultivation is quite clear. P P Verma, commissioner and secretary to the chief minister and the prime mover behind SKY, says: "Given the floods that ravage large parts of the state, the kharif crop dependent upon the monsoon is uncertain. In case of two or three waves of floods as is often the case in Assam, the farmers hardly get time to cultivate the kharif crop, so it is essential to have an alternative." That option is now becoming a reality.
The change is certainly visible on ground. Several rural areas where people sat idle for months waiting for the monsoons to break are now witness to frenetic agricultural activity.
Acchyut Saikia, one of the seven youths in the Hengul Farm Management Committee, says, "Earlier, we did not know what to do with so much time on our hand since there was no way we could have managed a rabi crop. This year, we haven't had the time to rest since we know that we are assured now of a good income by May."
Niranjan Kalita and two of his friends Hiteswar Bora and Swapnajyoti Bora in Nagaon district echo the sentiments: "The STWs have given us an opportunity to work and expect good returns."
Shekharjyoti Bhuyan, sub-divisional agricultural officer in Nagaon, says: "There has been a tremendous change in the way the farmers are thinking. Earlier they would do a single crop and sit tight. But now they are working extra hard."
The new facility has suddenly brought about a realisation among educated unemployed youth that they need not chase non-existent government jobs.
As Saikia admits, "We lost precious four years in our life looking for government employment. But we will not lose any more time."
Indeed, by providing an assured irrigation facility, the government may have opened itself to more demands from the youth.
The desire for work and the subsequent returns, the government's decision-makers are hoping, would also wean away the youth from militancy. As Chief Minister Mahanta says: "Once the youth find assured avenues of income, they would have no time to think about insurgent groups.
"After all, most of them joined the militants to earn their livelihood. We are sure that the agricultural sector would usher in this change in attitude of the youth."
Economists are looking at the new schemes from the developmental angle."With the increase in food production, the state will not only achieve self-sufficiency, but the whole face of the rural economy is bound to change in the coming years given the fact that people are going to have surplus cash in their hands," says Verma.
In a state where there are 1.5 million registered educated unemployed, and where the per capita income is less than the national average, the STW scheme has brought in a new ray of hope. As an official remarks: "May be the thrust on agriculture would solve the militancy problem where a military solution has failed."
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