Agriculture extension department is part of the provincial agricultural department in every province. Its staff is entrusted with the task of reaching to the farmer in the field and providing them the support they need.
Training of farmers at the village level is supposed to be a regular activity under this arrangement. Besides, there are activities like holding of farmer field schools (FFS), setting up clinics, supplying seed kits, monitoring quality of inputs like fertilizers and pesticides and advising on judicious use of water for irrigation.
Field officers are supposed to distribute literature among the farmers and give demonstrations. The focus mainly is on small farmers who are encouraged to ask questions and are informed by the concerned field assistants a day in advance about these sessions.
On ground, there’s hardly any contact between field officers and farmers who are left on their own. A proof of this is that there are countless farmers who have to face losses due to taking wrong decisions in the absence of proper guidance from the Agriculture Extension staff.
Anis ul Haq, secretary, All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA) says the inactive role of the agriculture extension staff has a lot to do with the miseries of the farmers, especially those who had sown cotton last year. “I have met many farmers who say they badly needed advice during the crop cycle but nobody from the department was available.”
At times even when the advice is available, it is wrong advice. On January 1, 2016, the Agriculture Extension and Adaptive Research department of the Punjab government distributed literature among farmers, asking them to let their goats and sheep graze on unpicked Bt cotton leaves and bolls left in the fields after the final picking. The department believed that this measure would help control the Pink Bollworm which has developed resistance against Bt cotton in the country. This advice was totally against the warnings of the local and international research organsiations that termed this practice extremely harmful for these animals.
The situation in Sindh is equally discouraging. The department is under-staffed, the existing staffers are unqualified and incompetent as they are political appointees. Resource constraints affect mobility of the agriculture extension staff. In the absence of vehicles and fuel, these officers cannot go in the field and keep a check on adulterated fertilizers and pesticides and advise farmers. Important posts like those of director plant protection, director coordination, director crop reporting, agriculture officers, etc, are lying vacant in Sindh agriculture department for years.
Hassan Ali Chanio, former agriculture minister, Sindh, tells TNS that field assistants in Sindh agriculture extension have been posted in every union council of the province. “But hardly anyone has seen them in the field for many years. How can farmers consult them when they are not available?” he asks.
The agriculture extension departments of KP and Balochistan are plagued with similar issues though they have introduced some new trends as well. For example, tunnel farming is being supported by Directorate of Agriculture Extension, KP that also tries to convince farmers to leave cotton crop and grow food crops.
Similarly, WWF-Pakistan and the Agriculture Extension Department (AED) Balochistan have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to initiate a formal partnership for capacity building of organic cotton farmers in Balochistan in order to meet organic cotton standards.
An example of how agriculture extension staff is used by the government is that it was asked by the Punjab government to buy vegetables from farmers from their own pocket and sell these in Ramzan Bazars. The orders were challenged through a writ petition 19873/2015 titled, “Rana Israr Ahmed vs Government of Punjab” in the Lahore High Court (LHC). The learned judge passed an order that the petitioners cannot be asked to perform this task as it is not part of their duty.
A field assistant in Sargodha division tells TNS that despite this order they have been asked to sell vegetables at low rate in Ramzan Bazars. “This is not our duty and neither are we given any funds to buy at higher rates and sell at cheaper rates.”