Hinging hopes and envisioning, New Agricultural and Educational Policy to revolutionize the agricultural output and agro-education in Jammu and Kashmir, Prof Nazir A Ganai, Vice Chancellor SKUAST-K, tells Khalid Bashir Gura about how technologically driven agriculture can help improve the output and how the varsity is upgrading itself. The 40-year-old is the sixth-best university in India with a better ATAL ranking
KASHMIR LIFE (KL): With the population increase, food demand goes up. How is SKUAST-K contributing to tackling the demand surge?
PROF NAZIR A GANAI (NAG): Our agricultural land is shrinking and getting fragmented. In Jammu and Kashmir, the land availability is less than half a hectare (0.5) and in Kashmir, it is 0.4 hectare. Marginal land holding limits the capacity to grow. That’s why we need a change in policies. We have to turn towards cultivating cash crops if we want to increase farm income and sustain farmer livelihood. We have to also introduce technology in our farming. Floriculture will be an important sector in future. Our traditional horticulture orchard system had low productivity with ten tons per hectare. The government and our university collaborated to introduce high-density plantations, which resulted in six times more productivity on one hectare. Similar initiatives were taken in livestock to boost productivity and bring them to a commercial scale with the help of technological intervention. To market produce from small land holdings, aggregation forms an important part. In collaboration with the government, we are aiming at creating 300 Farmer Produce Organizations (FPO’s) which will be helped in different phases of pre- and post-harvest to boost the economy.
KL: Will the newly introduced Agriculture Policy help with it?
NAG: To address the different challenges in agriculture, the administration worked for one year and came up with a holistic agriculture policy. The policy has been drafted keeping the environment in consideration as during the past, especially in India, the green revolution helped tackle food deficiency but adversely impacted air, water and soil quality. We are ensuring that along with food security, nutritional and economic security is ensured. We also want to reach marginalized communities. Recently, the Lieutenant Governor rolled out a Rs 5013 crores policy, which aims at secondary agriculture, processing, aggregation, marketing, tackling seed chain challenges and bringing diversification. 50 per cent of land in Jammu and Kashmir is rain-fed where irrigation is not possible. We are mulling bringing this rain-fed land into diversified crop cultivation. Jammu and Kashmir’s agriculture Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is Rs 37000 crore and in the next five years, we want to take it to Rs 80000 crore. We aim at upgrading agriculture from subsistence to commercial level, which will create jobs for our youth and make them self-reliant.
KL: How will climate change impact agriculture?
NAG: Our glaciers which have been a source of perennial fresh water are receding at an alarming rate because of global warming. In future, we have to be ready for the water crisis as it is going to be scarce. To tackle the crises in future, we need to introduce technologies like micro-irrigation to save water. Climate change and resultant weather vagaries impact crop production adversely. Our new agriculture should be climate-smart and resilient agriculture. We have to introduce and grow crops which will be able to sustain weather vagaries and be tolerant to both biotic and abiotic stressors. We have developed a variety of maize Kishan Ganga (KG 2), which can be cultivated in high-altitude areas and it requires less water. However, its yield potential is four times more than normal maize. We have created another variety called high-quality protein maize. We have to keep introducing new varieties and also focus on reinvigorating our existing indigenous resilient crops.
KL: How is the university benefiting farmers on the ground?
NAG: Food production – rice, wheat and maize is an important concern. In the last few decades, we have developed hundreds of varieties of seeds but not all of them had the desired outcome. In the last four years, we created a rice variety Shalimar rice-4, which has a productivity level of 10 tons per hectare as it is three times more productive than any national variety. We also introduced Kashmir’s Basmati rice called Shalimar Sugand to alley perceptions that Kashmir cannot cultivate fragrant varieties. Presently we are in its seed production stage and next year we will make it available to farmers. Its national productivity also exceeds the national average with six tons per hectare and is more aromatic but is costlier than conventional rice. Similarly, our traditional indigenous Mushq budij infused with profuse aroma was almost extinct and the university played a pivotal role in its revival. We are also working on Red rice. We have also released the first variety of saffron in the world and its production is better. Our university is also working on almost six vaccines in livestock to help stakeholders in this industry.
KL: What is the status quo and market conditions of Mushk Budji?
NAG: Compared to basmati the indigenous Mushk Budji has a good aroma and with Red rice, it has nutritional benefits also. However, what dissuaded farmers from growing it was that it was infected with a fungal disease called Blast, which would destroy the crop. We developed a blast-resistant variety. Locally it sells at Rs 150-200 per Kg and we are still exploring the international market and overcoming different challenges. Similarly, other niche crops like walnut, saffron, almond, black cumin and honey are also facing international market problems as there is no certifying agency. The government has introduced a GI tag system to give a unique identity to these crops and we are working to give them a competitive edge to get into the international market.
KL: Has there been any initiative towards introducing organic farming?
NAG: In order to protect our natural resources we have to promote organic farming. We have damaged the health of the soil through the intensive use of fertilizers and we need to reverse the trend with the help of science and technology. The new agriculture policy envisions holistic development of agriculture and it will lead towards an inclusive and sustainable agricultural revolution and organic farms. To reverse the damage, we have to use biocontrol agents, and biopesticides which are organically derived and promote agri activities, which can enhance soil health. At the Wadura campus of our university, we have developed more than twelve organic products. We are also educating and promoting the use of vermicomposting. We want to practice and promote zero-waste organic farming.
KL: Is SKUAST conducting any research in medicinal and herbal plants? Has there been any research on anti-cancer drugs?
NAG: Pesticides and fungicides are a major challenge. With the help of technology, we are aiming to reduce these carcinogenic elements. With technological intervention, like spraying pesticides on crops by drones, the exposure can be reduced by 80 per cent. This inevitably will also reduce human and environmental exposure to harmful chemicals.
Nature has bestowed us with a tremendous diversity of medicinal plants in our forests; however, unfortunately, we have not been able to explore and sustainably exploit them. The holistic project will promote medicinal and aromatic plants. Our division of plant biotechnology is researching anti-cancer properties of herbs. Off late, one of the faculty members has explored a herb’s anti-prostate cancer properties. After his paper was acknowledged globally, we made a food product. We are in collaboration with a start-up company and soon its products will be in the market. The northwestern Himalayan region has 50 per cent of the global diversity of medicinal plants. As we randomly extract these resources from forests, under the new project, we aim at educating our farmers and teaching them how to extract, cultivate and reap the health and economic benefits.
KL: Which institution and countries have collaborated with SKUAST on the technology front?
NAG: Our university cannot find solutions to diverse challenges in isolation so we have to collaborate with institutions within Jammu and Kashmir and outside. We have tie-ups with 10 international universities. This year our 12 students from SKUAST-K and foreign universities are in joint research. For this, our students get biannual scholarships. We are also starting a joint master’s programme with a university in Australia wherein the student will spend each year in their respective universities. It will be a dual degree.
KL: Has SKUAST planned any joint collaboration with technologically advanced Israel as well?
NAG: As of date we don’t have any formal collaboration with Israel. But Israeli technologies are now available in the country like micro irrigation and drip irrigation. In future, drip irrigation in our orchards will be based on smart and sensor-based systems.
KL: How is the University planning to implement National Education Policy?
NAG: We first have to align our education system with NEP and then come up with the model of agro-education. We held a 21-day Foundation Programme suggesting students, who are entering any university, that need life and social skills. Our undergraduate degrees will be by design, and education should be choice based and flexible. The student should be able to design his own curriculum. During his degree, the student will be trained in core subjects and also in choice-based skills. Similarly, our master’s and PhD programmes will be pursued in collaboration with other universities. We are also stressing the role of innovations and start-ups.
KL: How many start-ups and patents does the university have?
NAG: We have 10 student start-ups and three faculty start-ups. We have seven patents and have applied for 40 more. Student start-ups need seed money, which we are not providing. They compete at different levels with different agencies to procure the funds. Similarly, our faculty is shunning norms and mandates of teaching and research. We have directed them to convert research ideas into innovations and those innovations into start-ups which eventually should help society.
KL: What is the future of AI and ICT in agriculture and where does SKUAST stand?
NAG: We are aligning our education with the requirements of the twenty-first century and integrating it with the latest technologies. We are establishing one centre for artificial intelligence and machine learning. We have to teach our students the essence of these skills as people lagging will be rendered obsolete. KL: Off late SKUAST has started offering admissions to foreign students also.
NAG: Until now foreign students used to come through the Indian International Cultural Centre. There are around 12 students pursuing degrees. From 2023, we have formally opened our university to students and reached out to them through embassies. We want to open a new chapter of educational tourism in Kashmir. We believe that education should have been the best destination for education in India but unfortunately, we have missed the bus. But now we are taking the first leap and expecting sister universities to collaborate.
KL: What is the role and scope of agro-biotechnology?
NAG: Some of these sciences like Information Communication Technology (ICT) have revolutionized the age. Lately, the government of India approved a big project, which will help in phenomics, genomics and advanced agro-biotechnology in developing the latest varieties and seeds and vaccines. Similarly, new technology; CRISPR-Cas genome editing technology has been introduced and we are working on it.