Monday, June 13, 2011

Education Stream: Farm management starts to get an image makeover

Food and agriculture business management programmes are becoming more popular with students as big companies including Reliance Industries Ltd. and Bharti Enterprises Ltd. enter the neglected field and proposed policy changes promise to boost demand for such managers. Institutions, including Indian Institutes of Managements (IIMs), offer a handful of seats for postgraduate courses in food and agriculture business management, and say the number of aspirants does not show a rush, but has certainly improved over the past decade.

"Initially there is apprehension, but once students come into it, they see a lot of scope in it," said Kriti Bardhan Gupta, Chairman of Centre for Food and Agriculture Business Management at IIM-Lucknow (IIM-L). "Several students doing the general programme in management are taking some papers in agriculture. This shows people have realized agriculture is important and they must widen their scope."

Of the 171,187 students who applied to IIM-L this year, 116,086 ticked on farm management as a likely choice, a figure on the same lines as last year, but significantly more than 2004, when the course was started. But the actual number of postgraduates IIM-L churns out is just 30 compared with 390 that get the general management degree and enter more sought after streams such as finance and marketing.

A lack of interest in agriculture that employs nearly 70% of India's population stems from fast growth in other sectors such as services and manufacturing and a stereo-type that it deals with the underdeveloped, rustic underbelly of India's economy. Yet, jobs are seen opening in retail, banking, commodity trading, food and seed producing sectors and some policy changes on the anvil indicate demand for professional managers could jump.

Particularly, opening up of multibrand retail to foreign direct investment that is under consideration and the growing banking sector with priority sector lending norms favouring farm credit, could boost demand for such managers. And, if the government approves a long pending proposal to allow banks, financial institutions and foreign institutional investors into commodity futures markets, it could open the floodgates for agriculture managers. "There are several areas where agriculture managers can play a vital role. People are looking for a second green revolution to happen," said Goutam Dutta, Chairman, Postgraduate Programme in Agricultural Business Management at IIM-Ahmedabad (IIM-A). "In the government itself, where so much funds are flowing into agriculture, we need more management skills," Dutta said.

With the knowledge that agriculture is crucial for India's economic growth, institutions are in an experimental stage, seeing if the admission system could be tweaked and the seats expanded to bring in more good quality students, both the IIMs said. "We don't want to simply become a shop for MBAs," said N.H. Rao, Director of National Academy of Agricultural Research Management in Hyderabad that just graduated its first batch of 24 agricultural managers. "We are seeing what the requirement is in the business and how we can prepare our students for that," Rao, who has seen his students being hired by firms including Aditya Birla Group, Shriram Bio-seeds, NCDEX Spot, Axis Bank Ltd., HDFC Bank Ltd., Sumi- tomo Chemicals and Bayer Biosciences with salaries between Rs. 350,000 and Rs. 550,000 a year.

Still, the number of business managers seems to be inadequate. "If you are looking for finance heads, you will find them left, right and centre," an executive working for a commodity trading company said on condition of anonymity. "But for agricultural management, you do not get many good candidates. Somehow students in this area lack the spark."

"You get people, but their skills and maturity are limited," said R.S. Rekhi, Chief Executive at Aadhaar Retailing Ltd., the agri-business and rural retailing unit of the Future Group that has operations in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat. "Agri is not a sought after career and the bright students in any case don't go for it." One solution is to show that agriculture isn't less important than other courses for young students in schools and colleges, the official in the commodity trading company said.

Dutta of IIM-A, who sends his students on so-called rural immersion programmes, said rural sensitivity needed to be inculcated, which could help draw students into it. "When they see in a village of 1,000 people, there is only one well for drinking water, their sensitivity is developed," Dutta said. "Then they see agriculture management is just one part of this whole story."

Source: Mint, June 13, 2011

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