Learning from people



Learning from people


THE delivery of new seeds, water and chemical inputs, when synchronized through public policy, can dramatically transform traditional agriculture. It is true that regions which have uniform, well-drained and rich levelled soils are usually the first to benefit, though many technologies are diffused in the rainfed region as well. Nevertheless, so far, the impact of the green revolution in rainfed region has been low, uneven and in some cases, negligible. Similarly, the more difficult regions such as mountains, forests, coastal saline regions and so on, remain less transformed by the green revolution.

How can we learn from the mistakes or inefficiencies of the past so that future transformation of Indian agriculture can be more sustainable, dispersed and inclusive? Further, how can we ensure that people’s indigenous knowledge is recognized and better incorporated to bring about the adoption and promotion of sustainable agriculture?

The fact that even macro nutrients, not to speak of micro nutrients, were not provided in a balanced manner was well-known to the managers of the green revolution. A deficiency of zinc in the soil and its effect on human health too was noticed early, but the effect of other nutrients on human health has remained less well studied. Few people are aware that local varieties of maize mobilize boron from the soil four times more efficiently than modern hybrids do. Still fewer know that people who consume hybrid maize have a higher probability of suffering from pain in the joints. Similarly, the role of lithium has remained less well-known in the context of soil, crop and human health interface. Therefore, drawing upon people’s knowledge of how soil health is linked to crops, animals and humans is very important for developing strategies for a second green revolution, if it has to be green in the true sense.

Local communities have long known the healing properties of different varieties of crops. But, the germplasm in the national gene bank has not yet been characterized in this regard. Even for food processing, different varieties have specific characteristics. However, the descriptors as well as existing database of the national gene bank have practically no information on people’s knowledge. Many breeders do not any more use the land races in their breeding programmes. It is also well-known that with an increase in income, the proportion of processed foods in the consumption basket goes up. And yet, there is no linkage between the food processing industry and the gene bank. Consequently, even if industry wants to encourage the cultivation of certain diverse varieties so as to get higher value in the processed food chain, so far it does not have access to such a database.

To leverage people’s knowledge and generate opportunities for better conservation of agro biodiversity, the National Bureau of Plant and Genetic Resources (NBPGR), in collaboration with National Innovation Foundation (NIF) or some other institution, should undertake documentation of traditional knowledge (particularly available with women) about the specific uses of local varieties in different soil ecosystems. This will open up new ways of even delivery of nutrition.

Much of the focus in so-called participatory plant breeding is on letting farmers select the variations induced by institutional scientists, generally under well-managed conditions. Rarely, if at all, is the opportunity given to farmer breeders to pursue their own breeding programmes through public support and with public facilities. Not only do farmer breeders and innovators remain unrecognized, but even their criteria are not paid sufficient attention. The examples are plentiful.

When Laxmidei Hantala, a female farmer in the Koraput district of Orissa, wanted to change the ratio of female to male flowers in spine-gourd, she experimented with a few plants in her backyard. A proper design based on her hypothesis would require a much larger population. Similarly, when Dhulabhai Punjabhai Patel, a simple farmer from Sabarkanta in Gujarat selected pink to red flower mutant in pigeon pea, he was unaware that he had discovered a new way of avoiding pests. White flowered cardamom – a new variety of cardamom which contributed significantly to Indian exports – and dwarf areca nut are just a few examples of outstanding breeding by farmers.

A variety of paddy, HMT, developed by Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade, a dalit farmer from Chandrapur district of Maharashtra owning barely 1.5 acres of land, has today spread over 100,000 hectares in five states. This variety has also become a standard for thinness by the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers’ Rights Authority (PPVFRA). And yet, the state agricultural university is reluctant to recognize his contribution to productivity. Worse, they released the variety without any genetic modification but by adding their own name to it – PKV HMT. This was neither ethical nor fair. The DNA fingerprint of the variety developed by the farmer and the one released by the university showed no difference on more than 12 markers.

The PPVFRA, quite understandably requires data for any variety to be registered, and the generation of data requires funds. The refusal of the ICAR to take up this task on its own has resulted in both delays and high cost of protecting the rights of farmer breeders. Why should there not be a dedicated programme exclusively for generating multi-location data on farmers’ varieties for protection as well as diffusion? The seed companies, which have made huge profits by selling PKV HMT and other variants of HMT paddy, do not share any part of their income with the farmer breeder. Obviously, we still have to formalize the institutional incentives for farmer breeders. To the extent that such incentives might have spurred even more innovations by farmers, society has been deprived of many potential breakthroughs. It is crucial to remember that many farmers have developed variations of HMT which are liked by the farmers. Facilitating this kind of innovation in diffusion can provide a major impetus for generating new varieties by farmers.

The common property institutions play an important role in sustainable management of natural resources. However, public policy for supporting common property institutions is abysmal. It is rarely appreciated that technologies are like ‘words’, institutions are the ‘grammar’ and culture is akin to the ‘thesaurus’. Diversity in all three realms is necessary for sustainability. The conservation of animal breeds has received scant attention from policy-makers. There is hardly any programme for in situ conservation of agricultural diversity. The knowledge of communities and individuals about genetic, soil, climatic and other changes/diversity has not been systematically documented. No wonder the question of harnessing such knowledge for sustainable agricultural growth does not arise.

The classic model which relies on a corporatization of agriculture, with most decisions on choice of technology being made outside the community space, will only widen the gulf between local needs, ecosystem conditions and technological design. The Bt. cotton is a good example. In states where Bt. cotton was sold primarily by large companies, seeds were far more expensive and despite large-scale adoption, the farmers’ economy remained in bad shape. On the other hand in Gujarat, bootlegged varieties of Bt. cotton were planted by farmers and the enterprising among them developed hundreds of further Bt. varieties. Not only did the cost of seed come down, the produce was backed by performance guarantee, i.e., payment was made only after seed quality was demonstrated in the field. Contrast this with the experience in Andhra Pradesh, where farmers took to the streets when Bt. cotton varieties failed to live up to their promise.

The entrepreneurial approach to seed production and producing innovations in agronomic practices of a new technology has shown the power of this approach for a second green revolution. But, have we ever heard about a venture fund for agriculture? We have such funds for information technology and biotechnology but not for sustaining and promoting grassroots innovation that can help promote sustainable agriculture.

The Government of India spends billions through its various ministries for agriculture and rural development activities. However, are we even aware as to what portion of it is spent on promoting innovations that reduce costs, improve productivity and generate sustainable alternatives? The Honey Bee Network has over the last twenty years contributed a great deal to this cause. NIF has mobilized more than 100,000 practices over the last eight years, primarily through the contribution of Honey Bee Network. Not all of them are unique or even significant in their importance. And yet, even if ten per cent of these turn out to be valid, just think of the impact which could have resulted through their diffusion. We have Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVK) in more than 500 districts. Couldn’t these KVKs become the learning and innovation laboratories for outstanding traditional knowledge holders and grassroots innovators? Decentralized development and diffusion of technological and institutional alternatives is the need of the hour. Neglecting this option is fraught with risk.

Despite all the discussion on participatory approaches for research and development, public awareness about innovations by common people remains very low. We seldom provide an opportunity to a small farmer or artisan to present his or her innovation to the institutional scientist as a peer. A memorandum of understanding between NIF and CSIR as well as ICMR enables such a partnership to take place. In the collaboration with CSIR, a joint implementation committee (JIC) has been set up to review the proposals based on farmers’ innovation from NIF in four areas, viz., herbal technologies, mechanical, energy and food processing and nutraceuticals.

everal interesting discoveries have been made through this collaboration. A formulation of herbal pesticide developed by a farmer in Gujarat was taken up for trial at the Institute for Himalayan Bioresource Technology, Palampur. In another case, a tribal practice about a vegetative technology of fruit ripening was taken up for validation at the Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore. The scientists found that the practice was not only valid but achieved better results than the chemical inducers used for ripening. They noticed that apart from ripening, the composition of sugar triggered by the herbal agent was quite different from that triggered by chemical based fruit ripeners. The fruits ripened by the herbal agent were thus more tasty. Tribal knowledge had made it possible for exploring the development of the first herbal fruit ripener.

Likewise, several other studies in farm machinery and energy are being undertaken. The blending of formal and informal science pursued by the Honey Bee Network and SRISTI over many years is finally showing results. The collaboration between NIF and ICMR has also been rewarding. Several herbal technologies are under validation trials at leading research institutes. Unfortunately, similar cooperation in the field of agricultural research is yet to materialise.

In many cases of farmers’ innovation, new ways of solving problems have been discovered. Hundreds of herbal pesticide formulations, or veterinary medicines or other technologies to increase productivity without impairing the ecological balance demonstrate something that will be obvious to a keen observer of agricultural dynamics. When small farmers with minimal physical resources or financial assets attempt to improve productivity, they have a limited choice. The only resource they can maximise is knowledge in which they are not poor. Therefore, sustainability is generally inherent in the small farmers’ innovations.

Lateral recharge in virdas (a traditional technology of conserving fresh water in saline soil with saline groundwater) provides a new way of augmenting water resources in very difficult ecological conditions. Similarly, fusing two different plants of the same family having non-synchronous flowering and fruiting to augment nutrient flows to both plants at different times through each other is a new way of improving productivity. When we asked the farmers for suggestions at a roadside meeting during the 20th Shodh Yatra in West Bengal in December 2007, Vijay Pramanik of Purulia district finally came out with this idea, but after much hesitation. Our culture, rich as it is, has not been able to generate an appreciative peer group among the local communities as well as institutional scientists.

Perhaps there is a need to change the curriculum and organizational culture in the agricultural research system so that the ability to listen to grassroots voices increases in the formal sector. At the same time, we also need to influence the community level social interactions by recognizing the innovators through Shodh Yatras, Shodh Sankal (workshops of innovators) and other such means so that people begin to appreciate each others contributions.

I have suggested several ways in which people’s knowledge, values and innovations can contribute towards a second green revolution. We have to ensure that the regions which were left behind in the first green revolution are not again relegated to the margins. This will only be possible if the more heterogeneous and difficult conditions in the less developed regions are not seen as a constraint but an opportunity for a decentralized, differentiated and diverse approach. We also need to focus on institutional innovations which promote lateral learning among people so that the increasing vertical nature of development of society can be checked and horizontal knowledge networks allowed to become the hub of future growth.

* This article builds upon the B.P. Pal Memorial Lecture delivered at IARI, New Delhi, 24 May 2008.

Anil K Gupta