Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Last-mile farm transformation

Indian agriculture has come full circle from the beginning of Green Revolution. Between 1960 and 2000, the introduction of high-yielding varieties, widespread adoption of chemical inputs and a clear policy focus on food self-sufficiency resulted in quantum jump in productivity of most crops. But over the last decade, old problems of stagnating productivity and food insecurity are beginning to resurface. Such a situation does not augur well for the country’s food security whose population is steadily increasing.

Issues such as infrastructure, market linkages, input subsidies, etc, require policy and systemic interventions and may have a longer time and investment horizon. But improvements in cultivation practices and adoption of latest technologies, which are dependent on information availability, are immediately addressable. While less than 40% farmers have access to information about modern techniques and inputs, even available information is often not readily comprehensible or adoptable. This is where an effective last-mile delivery system that bridges the knowledge gap will play a critical role in transforming farm productivity.

Last-mile delivery implies delivering the latest and improved location-specific farm technology to the farmer for improving crop productivity. It imparts knowledge about crop cultivation practices, products, technologies and their efficient utilisation in a cost-effective manner.

While there are problems, integrated farm initiatives have shown that by firmly keeping the farmers’ requirements in focus, most of these problems can be addressed and farm productivity enhanced.

An eight pronged approach is suggested to realise this objective.

Unifying agriculture by putting the crop and farmer in focus: Agriculture has given rise to a number of industries such as fertilisers, seeds, pesticides, commodity trading, processing, etc. Mostly, each of these industries pursues its own agenda without consideration to the unifying factors of the crop and the farmer. It is time that the stakeholders put the crop back in focus.

Training and certifying professional crop advisers: The education imparted at agricultural universities is fairly generic. There is a need for crop specialists who can provide extension services to the farmers in a more focused manner, starting from selection of right seed varieties through nutrition and pest management, post-harvest management, etc. The American Society of Agronomy (ASA) is working with Punjab Agriculture University, International Rice Research Institute and others to bring its Certified Crop Advisers programme to India. Such efforts need to be rapidly scaled up.

Increasing extension reach through input dealers: Man power deployed by the public and private sector is grossly inadequate to reach 110 million farmers. Inclusion of agri input dealers — estimated at over 1,00,000 and who form the farmers’ primary point of contact — into the extension system and equipping them with knowledge would improve the reach. A mandatory certification programme with periodic renewal may be advisable for all agri input dealers to ensure quality of delivery.

Creation of a common knowledge pool: A common and coherent knowledge pool has been conspicuous by its absence due to lack of coordination between multiple agencies involved in agriculture extension. It may be in the best interest of all concerned to create an easily accessible common pool of knowledge.

Leveraging ICT infrastructure for efficient knowledge dissemination: Be it pushing reminders

For application of a specific input or helping the farmer pull information on specific output prices, ICT has the potential to impact rural India, the same way it has redefined the urban areas. It provides a unique opportunity to deliver customised information, on an interactive basis and supplement human effort.

Organising farmers: In India, almost 80% farmers are small and marginal, which makes commercialization of agriculture a difficult proposition. It would be discernible to organise them in groups by developing suitable models. Such a move may also help in increasing farm mechanisation and contract farming resulting in substantial improvement in farm productivity and production, aided by need based transfer of farm technology.

Establishing farmer-corporate partnerships: Indian corporate sector has a long association with the farmers either as an input supplier or an output buyer. This association, if leveraged and structured into a formal farmer corporate partnership (FCP), could play a crucial role in addressing these problems. The FCPs would focus on educating the farmer about the latest agricultural practices, ensuring quality production and provide them with assured market and better income.

Getting local: There is an urgent need to adopt an immensely concentrated and focused approach, rather than a universal approach, to make the best of available resources. It is often mentioned that every 100 km we travel in India, we encounter anew country where food habits, crops, culture and language change. In such a diverse environment, adopting or advocating a universal recommendation is bound to encounter failure.

The need to focus on agriculture and rapidly increase productivity stems from the requirement of ensuring food security and an all-inclusive growth for the country. Putting all the above on the ground, though feasible, is still a challenging task for the country.

To achieve the coveted objectives, a delivery system has to ensure that the knowledge is latest, need-based, location-specific and made available timely in a manner that is simple and easily understandable by even the poorly-educated farmer. No single agency would be able to do full justice. Collaboration between multiple stakeholders is probably the only way in which last mile delivery systems can be spruced up, leading to a transformation in agriculture.

- Shri Ajay S Sriram, author is chairman and senior MD- DSCL, and president of the International Fertilizer Industry Association.

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