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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 January, 2004, 14:20 GMT
Call-centres to harvest Indian farm woes

By Ayanjit Sen
BBC correspondent in Delhi

India's hundreds of millions of farmers have a new friend in the eternal battle against failing crops and cattle diseases.

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Under a government scheme, agricultural workers in India's ancient, rural economy will have access to an innovation symbolic of India's booming new economy - the telephone call centre.

Farmers who make the free phone call to the centre will find themselves speaking to one of many multi-lingual agricultural science graduates, trained to troubleshoot farming problems.

But sceptical farm-workers unions have dismissed the move, calling it a political gimmick launched, conveniently, in the run-up to nationwide parliamentary elections.

The vast majority of India's population is rural, living in villages and working in fields.

'World leader'

Along with the new call centre, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has launched a new television and radio programme for farmers.

The aim is to educate millions of farmers up and down the country about better methods in farming, animal husbandry and horticulture.

Speaking to the BBC, junior agriculture minister Hukamdeo Narayan Yadav termed the move a revolutionary step in the agricultural history of the country.

Sowing paddy
Can the phone help paddy-farmers plan for the future

"These channels and call centres will also help in augmenting agricultural produce in the country and help India [become] a world leader in this field," said Mr Yadav.

In total, there are eight call centres, each one manned seven days a week.

They are expected to handle traffic from every state in India.

The call-centre workers will address queries ranging from seed quality to the processing, packaging, transport and storage of produce.

They will also tell the farmers about market rates and prevailing trends for their produce.

"Those queries which the agriculture graduates fail to reply [to] will be passed on to specialists and if questions still remain unanswered, experts would send their replies through phone, post or personal visit", said Rahul Bhandari, who is associated with the project.


But experts say it will still be difficult to cater to farmers with their diverse problems - although there are now more telephones in rural areas.

There is no point in broadcasting information regarding [a] blight in potato to a rubber farmer in Kerala
Agriculture ministry official

"Manpower and software to deal with these calls will certainly be a problem," says a leading agricultural scientist in Delhi, Dr Abhijit Sen.

But television and radio channels would be a better option, he said.

The state-run Doordarshan channel will broadcast hour-long programmes every day six days a week.

A national open university has also been assigned to prepare and broadcast hour-long programmes four times a day.

FM radio stations in rural areas are also set to air agricultural programmes.

The authorities say all these programmes will be in local languages and will be region-specific.

Farmer in dried-up lake bed
Sceptics wonder if the campaign will ease basic problems like drought

"There is no point in broadcasting information regarding [a] blight in potato to a rubber farmer in Kerala," said an agriculture ministry official.

But farmers' unions say the step taken by the government was done deliberately keeping in mind the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

"Instead of setting up call centres and starting television and radio channels, the government needs to decrease the cost of production and help farmers get the right price for their products in the market," said the secretary of the All India Farmers Society, NK Shukla.

He said the recent spate of suicides amongst farmers in different parts of India reflects government apathy.

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