Bikkina Poorna Srichaitanya is a farmer entrepreneur in Andhra Pradesh who has honed his skills to take up nursery management for quality planting material on his five-acre farm. Resultantly, he is now able to develop mango, cashew and guava grafts in a polyhouse and earn net higher returns. Then there is Dhandeep Singh, a farmer in Punjab who has learnt to pack his vegetable crops of garlic and peas as per the market demand. Such value-addition practices have enabled him to realise higher prices too. There is also D Manemma, a woman farmer from Maharashtra who has acquired skills in value addition to millets. As a result, her ready-to-eat millet products have not only enabled her to generate more income but also create awareness about the health benefits of millets.
Common to the above success stories is the effort by the Government of India, in conjunction with the state governments, to nurture a vibrant ecosystem that creates a productive agricultural workforce. A critical element herein is the Skill Training of Rural Youth Programme that is implemented countrywide under the Sub-Mission on Agricultural Extension (SMAE) with the support of over 700 last-mile Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs). The objective is to create awareness about the use of appropriate technologies while imparting agri-based vocational skilling. The Agricultural Skill Council of India (ASCI) supplements these initiatives with its agricultural skill inventories and qualification packs based on common standards.
In this context, the National Policy on Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, 2015, also recognises the importance of aggressively skilling more than 40 per cent of the workforce that is dependent for their livelihood, directly or indirectly, upon agriculture and its allied sectors. The strategy involves assessing the skill/knowledge gap, agricultural skilling areas, identifying trainee cultivators and agricultural labourers, development of interactive modules and organising training programmes at the last mile.
The country’s horticulture production has touched 334.6 million tonnes (outstripping that of foodgrains) and there is a dire need to prevent the loss of high-value perishables such as fruits and vegetables during their transportation to the market.
Experts, therefore, opine that we need to focus aggressively upon providing skilling in protected and open cultivation, vertical farming and related cold chain agri-logistics. This includes post-harvest management in “pack houses” through drying, grading, sorting, ripening, waxing, packaging and, most importantly, quality control assessment. It also includes crop-specific pre-cooling facilities, reefer vehicles and refrigerated distribution hubs at the destination markets. Small and marginal farmers sometimes also lack skills about crop quality specifications required by different types of buyers and gathering intelligent information about near-farm, across states or export markets.
Such skilling has the future potential to create remunerative employment at the ‘farmgate’ and, hence, arrest migration during the lean agricultural seasons.
Similarly, the need of the hour is to skill farmer members and managers of Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) that will increasingly support post-harvest activities for perishable crops. The launch of the ambitious Central Sector Scheme for the formation and promotion of 10,000 FPOs is to achieve economies of scale by the aggregation of small and marginal farmers across the country. Therefore, strengthening their skills in areas of precision farming, preparation of business plans, value addition through primary and higher processing and marketing through branding is of immense importance.
Further, a vast majority of the rural women are farmers who produce approximately 60-80 per cent of the food and 90 per cent of the dairy products in India. Experts opine that the constraints that women farmers face in being skilled vary according to the geography and local context.
First, women farmers have less access to high-quality inputs, equipment, technology and essential package practices on appropriate farm usage. Secondly, many a time, these constraints are interlinked with lack of land titles and collateral, leading to their limited access to finance. Thirdly, women farmers are less likely to participate in activities of transportation and marketing on account of limited freedom of movement, low access to infrastructure, information and networks.
In the above context, the UNDP’s Project Disha has been rolled out across the states of Delhi, Haryana, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Telangana. It aims to address the low participation of women farmers in rural markets and the consequent inability of women farmer-led institutions to access the private sector organised market. The project has been able to unlock the demand side of skilling for women farmers as sourcing and business managers. After the completion of training, women farmers are expected to be able to create awareness on procurement grades and standards, manage pack houses, coordinate logistics, analyse price trends, maintain inventories and manage business operations of the FPOs.
Thus, an inclusive agricultural workforce needs to be constantly skilled and re-skilled to deliver at the farmgate. This is especially so in today’s ecosystem of rapid technological changes, that are making it possible to reduce human drudgery, cut supply chain inefficiencies and, hence, lower the transaction costs. These technologies include the use of kisan drones, geo-tagging, remote-sensing, electronic trading, digital payments etc.
The skill sets of the agricultural workforce also need to be strengthened for on-farm management practices that are ‘smart’. The latter is to mitigate the critical effects of climate change, soil fatigue, pest resistance, water scarcity, labour shortages etc.
It would also be useful to crosslink available agricultural skill-learning resources in the Central and state government training institutes. Making accessible the inventory of basic and on-job apprenticeship courses tailored to the agro-industry needs is critical. An important plug can also be our over 40 ‘Centres of Excellence’ (COEs) in the states created under the Indo-Israel and Dutch Cooperation frameworks for promoting latest technologies in high-value crops and floriculture.
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