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Bottom-up approach changes India's extension system     Send a link to a friend

[DEC. 24, 2004]  URBANA -- Reorganizing India's extension system by using bottom-up planning, organizing farmers into groups, and diversifying into high-value crops and enterprises have all paid off in important economic gains for some of India's poorest farmers, said a University of Illinois professor emeritus of rural development.

"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 ATMA.

"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 acre."

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 own area.

"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 Swanson.

"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."

[University of Illinois news release]

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