The HinduThe entrance to the Kerala Agricultural University campus near Thrissur. Photo: K.K. Mustafah
The HinduP. Rajendran, Vice Chancellor, Kerala Agricultural University. Photo: K.K. Mustafah
Burgeoning debts, massive spending on salary and pension of staff and insufficient allocation from the exchequer pinning the university to the ground
The Kerala Agricultural University is struggling to survive the inclement weather in Kerala.
Questions are now being asked about the relevance of the university, established for providing “excellence in agricultural education, research and extension for sustainable agricultural development and livelihood security of farming community”, in a State where agriculture has ceased to be a profitable vocation.
The drastic reduction in agriculture holdings, reduced productivity and falling income are deterring youngsters from taking up agriculture. The ever increasing cost of labour and acute shortage of farm workers too dissuade even those interested in farming from the field.
Has the university succeeded in supporting the farmers and farming sector of the State or has it ended as another white elephant which serves only the ends of its employees? A cursory look at university’s functioning would tempt one to take the later view.
Burgeoning debts, massive spending on salary and pension of the staff and insufficient allocation from the exchequer are pinning the public sector institution to the ground.
The KAU is one of the biggest employers of the State with around 4,500 persons including over 2,500 farm workers and 1,800 ministerial staff in its pay rolls. After splitting the annual plan fund between pensions and salaries, precious little is left for the university for its projects, say those associated with the institution.
“The university has an outstanding liability of around Rs. 218 crore including the Rs. 62 crore retirement benefits of its former employees,” says P. Rajendran, Vice Chancellor of the university. The demand for funds for clearing the debts has not materialized.
The trifurcation of the KAU into Kerala University for Fisheries and Ocean Studies and the Kerala University for Veterinary Sciences was expected to shed the flab. However, it has only increased the burden of the KAU. Under the trifurcation package, it parted with some of its holdings and staffers. While 75 staffers opted for the Fisheries University, 160 went to the Veterinary University. However, the KAU continues to pay the pension and other retirement benefits to around 4,800 persons including those who served the fisheries and veterinary faculties of the undivided university.
FOOTPRINT IN FARM SECTOR
Despite its shortcomings, the university has left its footprint in the socio-economic and agriculture sectors of the State, claim those at the helm of affairs of the university.
Most rice varieties cultivated in the State including Uma, Jyothi and Prathyasha were developed by the university over the years. It has also developed 56 varieties of vegetables including bitter gourd and ladies finger. Six banana varieties, seven pepper and salinity-resistant rice varieties are the contributions of the university. Besides Kerala, a large number of farmers in the neighbouring States of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are using varieties developed by the university, says Mr. Rajendran.
The vice chancellor also took pride in claiming that most of the officials of the State Agriculture department and related institutions were the alumni of the university. It has also been serving the State and its farmers through various extension activities. Small farm mechanisation, precision farming, improvement of productivity, value addition to agriculture produces and promoting agri-business will be the future thrust areas of the university, he says.
T.R Gopalakrishnan, Director of Research, KAU, believes that researches undertaken by the university are still relevant in Kerala. The university was now focused on addressing the issues raised by shortage of labourers and challenges of climate change in the agriculture sector, he said.
According to an earlier document, the institution provided economic benefits to the tune of Rs. 600 crore annually to the State in general and farmers in particular. The assessment was made after “taking into account the area under which the particular crop is cultivated and the increase in the production per variety,” it said.
But the critics of the university simply refuse to buy the arguments of the top honchos of the university.
Tony Thomas, president of One Earth One Life, an NGO, says the university has become a burden on the State as it failed the farmers and the farming sector.
Each year, around 10 persons obtain their doctorate in agriculture from the university. However, most of them would be of no benefit to the farmers. The agriculture scientists don’t have any on-farm experience.
Even while claiming that the paddy varieties developed by them are farmed extensively in Kerala, it should be seen how many farmers were using these seeds. A large number of farmers from Palakkad are procuring seeds from agricultural universities of Tamil Nadu, he says.
The university representatives had vehemently opposed the farming practice at a meeting convened by the previous government for formulating an organic farming policy for the State.
The university also failed to protect the rich agro-biodiversity of Kerala, he says.