"It's incredible what people can do if
you open the door for them," said Burt Swanson about two World Bank
projects he helped design for India in the mid-1990s.
In 1996-97, Swanson, who was then part
of the U of I College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental
Sciences international programs division, joined in designing a
pilot project to test potential reforms in India's existing
extension system, which was a heavily "top-down" organization. The
system had worked reasonably well in disseminating the high-yielding
wheat and rice varieties to farmers in irrigated areas but had done
little to help farmers in rain-fed areas.
While India was "self-sufficient" in
basic food crops, still 200 million people were hungry. Hunger was a
"money" problem, not a "food" problem.
"We began in each district by having
the local extension staff assess local problems and opportunities.
Next, extension workers began organizing farmers into groups and
then helping them decide upon which high-value crops or enterprises
they wanted to pursue," he said.
As this new "bottom-up" organization
began to operate on a pilot basis, there was another problem to be
addressed. The funding line ran from India's federal government to
the states and, eventually, to the district extension offices.
First, extension programs were planned in Delhi; second, there were
many opportunities for cash-short state governments to redirect
funds to other uses.
To counter this, a new institution
was created -- the Agricultural Technology Management Agency, or
"In Hindi, that acronym means
'soul,' " said Swanson. "We hoped that this new extension system
would become the 'soul' of efforts to empower farmers, with the goal
of improving farm incomes and rural employment in India."
As a registered society, the ATMA
could receive funding directly from the national government and
directly fund locally planned extension activities, thereby avoiding
the diversion of funds by state governments.
Funds went directly to projects
selected by farmers. At the district level, a governing board
controlled by stakeholders was established to oversee programs in
lower units called "blocks," which are equivalent to U.S. counties.
Each block typically had a three-member extension team of
subject-matter specialists. These extension agents would work with
farmer groups and the block-level farmer advisory committees to plan
the local extension programs, which were, in turn, funded by the
district-level ATMA board.
Swanson likened the system to the
Illinois Council for Food and Agricultural Research in its
operation, where farmer organizations help shape the research agenda
for the state.
The results were dramatic. In 28
test districts, for example, farmer income increased an average of 5
percent per year over five years, compared with a 1 percent annual
increase in non-project areas.
"Another benefit was the increase in
rural employment," Swanson said. "When farmers began switching to
high-value crops, such as horticultural and medicinal crops, the
need for labor went up. This greatly expanded employment was a boon
to marginal and landless farmers, many of whom are women.
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"One Punjabi farmer reported that
when he shifted from a wheat-rice system to horticultural crops, he
hired an additional 18 workers, or about one additional worker per
Women farmers were a particular
target of the pilot projects since they are frequently responsible
for high-value crops or products such as rearing silkworms. Often
living in poverty and lacking economic leverage, the women were
highly successful in taking on high-value enterprises with the help
of this new "bottom-up" extension system.
"In Orissa, the women farmers first
organized into self-help groups, primarily savings clubs," said
Swanson. "Then they began reviewing possible income-producing
projects. In one block, at the urging of the fishery extension
officer, 21 clubs decided to pursue aquaculture, using village ponds
that sat idle. Each village-level club leased a tank from the
village, cleaned them out and filled them with water. The fisheries
extension officer helped them obtain fish fingerlings and gave them
advice on feeding and other management practices. In four months,
they had a crop of fish to sell.
"They used the proceeds to purchase
fingerlings for their next crop of fish. In addition, each member
took a loan from the group to buy a cow. Within a few months, they
had surplus milk and began working together to make and sell their
own cheese locally. By the third year, one group began renting land
and growing horticultural crops. Their way of life significantly
changed and improved. They are using some of their fish and milk
products to improve family nutrition. In addition, they now have
sufficient funds to send their girls to school."
These extension projects also
featured farmer-to-farmer "exposure visits." Farm group leaders are
taken to other districts or states to see firsthand how other groups
of farmers have successfully produced a high-value crop or set up a
successful value-added enterprise, such as micro-processing of
cashews. Swanson said that by seeing how other farmers had organized
a value-added activity, the visiting farm leaders could decide which
activities or enterprises might be best suited for farmers in their
"By organizing farmers, too, we
greatly reduced the role of middlemen," said Swanson. "Poor farmers
are always at the mercy of the middlemen, who end up capturing most
of the profits from a high-value commodity. But by organizing,
farmers achieved 'market power' and 'economies of scale.' They could
go directly to the processors or the markets and get the full value
of the crop for themselves."
The Indian Institute of Management
did an independent impact assessment of part of the project and came
back with a highly favorable rating.
"As a direct result of this pilot
project, the government of India plans to introduce this
decentralized extension system throughout the country," said
"We found that diversifying into
high-value crop and livestock enterprises to increase farmer income
and rural employment was a very powerful force for positive change."
of Illinois news release]