The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) is starting special courses on sustainable agriculture and food security for northeastern India.

The northeastern region, comprising eight States, covers 7.7 per cent of India’s geographical area but produces only 1.5 per cent of the country’s foodgrains. Seventy per cent of the region’s 40 million people depend on agriculture and allied sectors, underlining the need for special education in these fields.

“As agricultural education and extension services play an important role in making agriculture an instrument of social and economic development, the extension, education, awareness and research system need to be strengthened, systematised and updated,” B.S. Hansra, professor in IGNOU’s school of agriculture here, told IANS.

IGNOU set up a national centre for open and distance learning in research and training in agriculture (ICRTA) in Tripura, capital of Agartala, last November to develop human resource for agriculture and agro-based industries through open and distance learning.

The ICRTA on Monday held a brainstorming session here on capacity building and vocational and non-formal education in agriculture. Top officials of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), IGNOU’s regional directors, experts, NGO representatives, forest officials and professionals from different States of the region took part.

The session was chaired by R.K. Samanta, vice-chancellor of the Bidhan Chandra agricultural university in West Bengal. The experts finalised 12 entrepreneurship development courses for seven of the northeastern States, excluding Assam.

Mr. Hansra, who is also director of ICRTA, said: “IGNOU’s main objective is to reach the unreached farmers, entrepreneurs, unemployed people and various stakeholders through diverse modes for sustainable development of agriculture and allied sectors.”

The new courses, to be conducted in English and local languages, include horticulture nursery management, honey production and processing, value addition in fruits and vegetables, bio-fertilizer and bio-pesticides production, livestock production and management, fish production and management, mushroom production and marketing, production and marketing of turmeric and orchids, pig farming and production and value addition to the famous chillies of the region.

“To conduct these courses, audiovisual methods and other conventional systems would be used to reach and cover all stakeholders,” said Mr. Hansra.

Mr. Samanta said: “Sharing and access to knowledge and training about new technologies, prices of inputs and outputs, distribution channels, weather, water, power and livestock management, quantity and quality of natural resources, credit, insurance, marketability, basic improved resources to the masses by the education and extension system are crucial to enhance the income of farmers and make the sector a source of prosperity.”

Maharashtra’s Yashwantrao Chavan Open University’s school of agricultural sciences director Surya Gunjal said: “Exploitation of huge untapped land and vegetation of northeastern India is essential for the economic prosperity of the backward region.”

ICRTA now has seven areas of focus:

* Development of distance education and extension models and tools;

* Development of information and communication system for agriculture management systems;

* Development of resource materials for training in distance education through printed materials, video, audio and computer mediated programmes;

* Capacity building and competencies upgradation of various stakeholders in agriculture sector;

* Conduct of vocational training and non-formal education programmes on various aspects of agriculture;

* Implementation of school of agriculture programmes in northeast region; and

* Action research on agriculture education and extension.

ICRTA’s regional director Kiran Sankar Chakraborty said: “A six-month course on leather goods was undertaken by this regional centre for the northeast earlier. As it was so successful, the course is now being carried out in other parts of the country.”