Having worked for almost four decades at the small farmer's development bank, JALAN KUMAR SHARMA, chief executive officer of Sana Kisan Bikas Bank Ltd, has been making efforts to change the livelihood of small farmers by providing them various opportunities. With an agreement with Israel, Sana Kisan Bikas Bank Ltd has been sending students of small farmers in Israel in a year-long program to learn and earn. Sharma spoke to NEW SPOTLIGHT on various issues regarding the bank and its student exchange program in Israel. Excerpts:
How is the current student exchange program with Israel?
I look at it very positively. This is the third year and we are now in the process of sending the third group in Israel. Gradually, the number of students from the small farmer communities is increasing. In the first year, we sent 204 students. In the second, the number of students was 515 and currently we are sending more than 600 students. The first group of students has already left for Israel. The program is a very fruitful cooperation between government of Nepal and Israel with this bank.
Will this program support the Nepalese agriculture sector in the long run?
Definitely, the students returning from Israel will transform Nepal’s subsistence-based agriculture. The main objective of this program is to mechanize Nepal’s agriculture sector. Under this program, students learn new agriculture technology and methods in Israel in eleven months and come back with some money. When they come back here, what we expect is they will possibly work in agriculture sector in their respective villages and districts. What we are thinking for those who want to work in group, we will encourage them to do with a group of four or five students. Through this kind of work, they can make some impacts in the agriculture sector. We are asking them to get involved in agricultural activities when they come back here.
What is the broader impact of the 'learn and earn' student exchange program?
The demand is growing. On 9th of August, we sent the first batch of 42 students in Israel. Those students have been selected through a very difficult process with a series of interview. They are happy. The government, students and their parents all are happy.
What is the modality of the program?
One day in a week the students will go to college for theoretical classes and they have do practical work in the field for five days. The students work in the private farms. They work there and learn there. The students are given theoretical knowledge in the class and practical knowledge in the field. It is a win-win situation. The students have to work eight hours a day with a one-day holiday. The hard work in Israel will help Nepalese students to set their future and chart their own destiny. The philosophy of Israeli work is workshop. This will have a greater impact in Nepalese students once they come back to Nepal.
As your second batch of students is in the process of returning, how many returnee students contact you for possible loans?
The first batch students are in Nepal and the second batch of students are in the process of returning. All the students will come back by early September or middle of October from all the colleges depending upon timing. We have received reports that each student saves at least 400,000-500,000 rupees to one million rupees depending on the case. As every student is returning here with some money, they can used that as the seed money. If they want more money and they seek the loan, they will be provided with that. If the students demand money with big programs, there is a provision for that, too. Even the Ministry of Agriculture Development has allocated a certain amount of money for such students.
Can the government provide a certain amount of money for them?
Up to 100 student will get up to 100,000.00 rupees from the Ministry of Agriculture Development to start a project. If the students want to start the project and their money is not enough, we are also ready to provide them loan for this -- they only have to come up with the project proposal. They can bring proposals for diary, poultry, vegetable farming and fishery and so on.
How many students have started their venture after returning from Israel?
A few students have already started vegetable farms in Dhading and Makawanpur and others are also showing such interest. A group of students in Makawanpur established a vegetable farm exactly as they had learnt in Israel, making tunnel and working in tomato farming. We are very much encouraged to tell you that the students have shown a very positive response.
What are the criteria for selecting students?
There is a set criteria and it is very specific. The students must be the offspring of small farmers or members of our bank and cooperatives.
How can you define small farmers?
Owners of less than one bigaha of land are regarded as small farmers. Their Per Capita Income shoud be less than 20,000.00 rupees. They should be the members of small famer cooperatives. One of the parents needs to be the member. Only their son and daughters are eligible for application. The age should be 20-30 and the student must have completed the plus-2 level of studies. Some of the students who joined the program are graduates. The cooperatives must fill a grade form as per our grading system. If it falls on B grade, the students are not allowed. We have made a very specific criteria.
How many applications did you receive for this year?
If a school in Israel wants 100 students, we seek 300 applicants in Nepal. We do lottery from those three hundred students. Then, the people from respective college and persons from agriculture farms come to take interviews with the students. On the basis of the interview they are selected. They have to go for medical checkup. We give priority to our cooperatives. This is very transparent and open. Only those who passed the interview are selected. There are very strict conditions attached with the program. Every student who goes to Israel has to come back after completing the program. When the students come back here, they should get involved in agriculture work. Our aim is to involve more and more youth in agriculture. Our lessons have already shown that without the involvement of youth, it is impossible to change the agriculture sector. You need to encourage the students. The program's aim is also to give exposure to Nepalese students about the agriculture practices of the developed countries like Israel. The program will also teach Nepalese students to know about market, technology and information. It also helps students to analyze the market so that they can make benefit a lot.
Why do this only for the youth?
The youth needs to be involved in agriculture. The students learn how farmers of Israel are making agriculture possible in deserts. Nepal has everything -- water, land and good soil. In Nepal, agriculture is possible. If Israel can do it, why not Nepal. Technology and commercialization are some of the tools to make the agriculture sector more profitable. Mechanization is very important and the application of computers is important. This program should go for five to ten years, and then we can see the change in the agriculture sector.
How many districts are you covering?
Currently, our cooperatives are in 56 districts. This year we have selected from 34 districts.
How long this will go?
This is a very good program and we are in the initial phase of learning.
Who has contributed to making this program more effective?
I must name a few persons. Hanan Gooder, former Israeli Ambassador to Nepal, has made a great contribution. Khayyam Khusem is also an important person from the ministry. Present ambassador Aron Mayer also visited the project and observed the selection process. The head of Mossad has also played an important role. Pralhad Prasai, Nepalese ambassador to Israel, has also played a crucial role. Our ministries of finance and agriculture and chairman of our bank helped make our program successful. Other people have also contributed directly and indirectly to make it successful.