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An e-dawn for farmers

M A Siraj, Jan 7, 2014: 20:10 IST

E-sap

A novel technology-aided crop protection programme helps farmers in Raichur combat pests and diseases. M A Siraj reveals the secret behind the healthy produce in Raichur.

Information Technology (IT) is no longer the exclusive preserve of the city folk. It is making subtle inroads into farming communities of Karnataka. Those who saw the elitist bias in IT would be better off making amends if they thought an e-future only a distant possibility. The difference that e-SAP programme of the Raichur-based University of Agricultural Science (UAS) is making in the lives of the farmers signals a new dawn.

Launched two years ago, the unique application called ‘Electronic Solution against Agricultural Pests’ or e-SAP has helped nearly 15,000 farmers in six districts of Karnataka in combating insects and pest preying upon their crops. With tablets in hand, hosts of extension workers trained by the University’s entomology department have fanned out into various parts of these districts to identify the vectors, collect data from the fields, diagnose the disease, capture the image of the affected parts and suggest remedies.

Pest control

In short, the use of the modern devices, applications and trained staff of the e-SAP Network of the University has put in place a communication network between all the five stakeholders ie, farmers, extension workers, researchers, administrators (department of agriculture) and the policy makers. Robust networking is proving effective in tackling farmers’ woes.

Pests do to the plants what the viruses and bacteria do to human beings. Herbivorous insects and mircobial diseases are considered the second major worry for the farmers, after water related issues (drought, paucity of rains or floods). If not checked in time, diseases can ruin crops and set the agricultural production back by a few thousand tons. Just as new diseases and flues could affect human beings, crops fall prey to new pests, and standard formula medicine may prove ineffective unless experts chip in and come up with newer sprays. Earlier, the flow of information was from farmers to universities, and the department of agriculture used to take months and in exceptional circumstances even years to come up with a solution. By the time the officials took notice of queries and galvanised researchers to develop new remedies, the new borers and pests would have caused crops losses and would have left the farmers in debts and tears as well.

According to Dr A Prabhuraj, principal investigator and associate professor of entomology at the UAS, Raichur, e-SAP is an application built on a platform that opens a gateway for two-way dissemination of information in real time. Central to it is a handheld medium that primarily provides field-user with all the relevant information at the click of a button. Secondly, information is accessible offline. The information is provided in Kannada (apart from English) and is also understood through images and voice assistance too is possible. Fourth, the device is continually fed with updated remedies and also sends the collected data to the experts.

Fifth field data collected by extension worker automatically gets synthesised in graphs and tables and can be viewed over GIS platform.

Healthy crops

To begin with, six major crops of the region, ie, red gram, paddy, cotton, chillies, brinjal and tomato were taken up for field study and analysis of pests. Twenty extension workers were sent out to farms with tablets in hand with all information fed into it. The workers who survey field and interact with farmers, identify the pests, analyse the disease, collect images of the affected parts (pods, stem, leaves etc) and instantly suggest the remedies to the farmers. For instance, red gram will mostly attract pod borer, wilt or sterility while internode borer or scales would affect the sugarcane and cotton will be attacked by jassid or thrips.

According to senior research fellow K T Shivakumar, the extension workers have been extremely helpful in analysing the new pests. He says, Bt cotton has found wider acceptance among farmers. While these plants were resistant to conventional pests like borers, farmers report non-resistance for the sucking pests in Bt cotton crops now. Earlier, mite was not a major pest, but of late it is emerging as the major menace for tomato plants.

With nearly a hundred complaints being received every day, the UAS has expanded the ambit and has recently included six more crops ie, maize, sorghum, lady’s finger, groundnut, sunflower and chickpea. Prabhuraj says they may even take up horticulture crops like chikoo, pomegranate and mango, and expand their net to include 25,000 farmers. Since the info from the field survey comes tagged with GIS and GPS, it enables the quicker mobilisation of resources by the administration. Researchers chip in to provide additional input on weather and agronomic practice with reference to specific location which enables the agriculture department to come up with adequate solutions in terms of medicines, sprays or educational tool for the farmers.

Popularity of the farmer-friendly programme could be gauged from the fact that several farmers are ready to buy the tablets loaded with SAP applications, as Kannada language can be uploaded into the device. Pictorial advantage further eases the two way communication. He says a tablet costs Rs 22,000 at present, but mass production may bring down the cost substantially.

The UAS is currently employing 25 diploma-holders in agriculture as extension workers to collect data and interact with farmers. With cellphones having reached the nook and corners of the state, the farmers are registered on the portal with cellphone numbers being essential part of their IDs. The programme is funded by the Government of Karnataka’s Rastriya Krishi Vikas Yojane.

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