In Nalanda, contract ‘kills’ the good guys

Having helped set Nalanda on a farm production high, contract officials demur, think of quitting due to job insecurity, low pay

pankaj

Pankaj Kumar | February 7, 2013


Technical Assistant
Technical Assistant

Having stayed here for over four months now, Nalanda, I have found, is like any other district: the good coming as close neighbour, almost part of the package, of the bad. While there are obviously disconcerting evidence of bad governance, there are signs of good work being done in various departments.

The agriculture, just to single out one department, is doing exceptionally well in Nalanda, propagating organic mode of production on a massive scale. Similarly, departments like animal husbandry and social welfare also have officers working well and hard.

With many of these hardworking young officials in various departments employed on contract, extended every year in January or February, one can discern signs of nervous tension in them these days: will they, or will they not, get an extension of their job?

In fact, this job insecurity, coupled with low salary and perks, are leading many to look elsewhere. Alamgir Anwar, an erstwhile subject matter specialist (SMS) who quit his job with the agriculture department in Nalanda, put it in perspective when he told Governance Now: “I enjoyed working for the villagers and making agriculture a prosperous profession in Nalanda. But I was forced to leave under the circumstances (revolving around the job) — there was simply too much insecurity that I couldn’t take any more, besides the low salary."

Alamgir now works as a technical assistant at Pusa agriculture institute — besides other facilities, he said his salary went up from Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000.

Nalanda has set several records in foodgrain production, and subject matter specialists and farmers’ advisors (kisan salahkar, as they are called locally) have played a major role in that.

"If success is attributed to Nalanda in agriculture, then 80 percent of the credit goes to subject matter specialists, kisan salahkars and technical assistants recruited under the national food security mission. The farmers and the administration would, of course get the rest of the credit,” said Sudama Mahto, district agriculture officer in the district.

Good work, little recognition
While Mahto recognised the contribution of these people at grassroots level, these local-level expert hands and advisors say they do not get adequate opportunity to air their views about their pitiable work condition.

While the state has 4,065 posts sanctioned for SMSes, only about 2,200 are recruited in all 33 districts of Bihar. They are all appointed on contract, which can be dismissed any time, unlike school teachers appointed on similar contract.

The condition of technical assistants, appointed under the provision of national food security mission, is no different: while their role is very important, their work condition is worse than a peon in the agriculture department.

Subject matter specialists (SMS) at panchayat level and farmer advisers at village level are trained by consultants and technical assistants. The latter were recruited through a three-pronged set of examinations: a written test, followed by interview and computer aptitude test. Their monthly emolument was set at Rs 8,000 at the time but they were not given dearness allowance, house rent, insurance and medical leaves — facilities offered to all government employees.

While the salary has now gone up to Rs 15,000, their services are still at the mercy of immediate bosses. Like one consultant (name withheld on request) said, “Even a peon laughs at us because his job is permanent; ours is not."

Nalanda’s district magistrate Sanjay Kumar Agrawal, though had a slightly different, if a bit cryptic argument on the job security issue: “Insecurity is a big motivation for doing hard work, that's why most employees on contract  are performing so well in Nalanda. They are aware of the consequences of non-performance.”

Nalanda has five technical assistants and two consultants. Trained workers, their job is to monitor the work of block agriculture officers. Each technical assistant has been tasked with covering two to four blocks in Nalanda, and then report directly to the district agriculture officer.

According to officials, these technical assistants and consultants were appointed in a bid to increase the yield of wheat, rice and pulses. The production records over the last few years are evidence enough that they have been successful in their job, which is why the national food security mission is on and will continue for at least another four or five years, as reported in various section of the media, one consultant said on conditions of anonymity.

"Anyone can see the record production of foodgrain in Nalanda over the last five years but our work condition has deteriorated from bad to worse in these years,” the consultant added.

In 2009, a new System of Rice Intensification, known as SRI method, was introduced in Bihar under the food security mission. An agro-ecological methodology, it increases productivity of irrigated rice by changing the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients, according to the SRI website of Cornell University, USA, where the method was developed.

Nalanda received a huge upshot in paddy irrigation since its introduction, which was made possible largely by the technical assistants, who demonstrated and convinced the local farmers of its use. Following Nalanda’s success, the SRI methodology was introduced across the state, and 2011-12 was observed as “SRI year” in Bihar. The credit for it, officials admit, goes to the consultants and subject matter specialists.

But if you thought their worth would increase in the eyes of the administration, you were wrong, the consultant, who hesitates being named for fear of repercussion, said. "Besides being treated like class-II level workers, our salary is only between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000; there are no added facilities, including provident fund,” he said. “There is little job security, so no wonder most of us are forever edgy and demoralised.”

Whatever emoluments consultants and technical assistants get come from the Centre; national food security mission employees don't get anything from the state government, as subject matter specialists and farmers advisors’ receive, though they are all on the same boat on the job-security front.

Rough and tumble of contract work
Recently, Puja Kumari, called by peers as a hard working subject matter specialist with an impeccable record in Raitar panchayat of Nalanda, received major burn injuries but she did not receive any government assistance. Reason: there is no such provision in her contractual job.

According to locals, she played a vital role in making mushroom cultivation popular among masses, especially women, thus giving them a new ray of hope at becoming self-reliant (read our earlier story: Nalanda on mushroom cloud nine: A cash crop to cash in).

But struggling with life now, Puja’s job cannot give her assistance of any kind.

In Khagaria, a woman SMS had earlier died of the heat wave but her family, too, got no government assistance.

"Women get maternity leave in all departments and they are paid for that. But in our job if a woman gets maternity leave, she isn’t be paid — the no-work-no-pay plan is totally applicable to us,” a Nalanda-based SMS said.

According to the SMS (name, again, withheld on request), there is a clear discrimination among the employees, as subject matter specialist on permanent roles get a monthly Rs 45,000 without having to bother about meeting targets and responsibilities, whereas contractual employees get a measly Rs 15,000 a month besides forever facing the heat of insecurity.

Farmers’ advisors, too, share similar woes. They play a major role in subsidy distribution and getting farmers familiar with new techniques but are paid only Rs 5,000 per month.

Agreeing that these advisors do play a “vital role at the grassroots level”, district agriculture officer Sudama Mahto, however, said, “We can't do anything to reward them, barring some encouraging words.”

According to farmers’ advisors, their job is considered inferior to other government employees, such as school teachers, and the situation is made worse by the fact that they lack an association to fight for their rights, unlike teachers, who are also appointed on contract in lakhs but get job extensions each year.

A similar condition is seen among block animal husbandry officers, who play a vital role by taking care of cattle at the block level. Their service is available at one’s doorstep, as well as at health centres, but suffer equally from job insecurity. “Job security and salary are equally important but we have to compromise on both. That's why I am looking for a job at a private firm,” said Arun Kumar Dey, a block-level agriculture husbandry officer of Noorserai block.

Dey, who came to Noorserai after quitting his job with a private firm, said he is “fed up” with the tension and insecurity of beginning each new year fretting over whether his contract would be extended.

Bihar’s animal and husbandry minister Giriraj Singh, however, has some good news for the employees on contract — they will “not lose their job”. “From now, no employment will take place on contractual basis,” he stressed.

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