Very often, we talk of ‘digital divide’ — how our masses living in villages are unable to access the benefits of information and communication technologies. But here, there is one significant development to take note of — the penetration of high-speed Internet services through smartphones. India already has over 55 crore mobile broadband subscribers and that number is only going to further increase within the next couple of years, including in rural areas. Many entrance examinations for education or government jobs are today online, with the candidates submitting application forms electronically.
This article focuses on an experiment by the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government to use the digital medium for agricultural extension. In 2017-18, the state government had launched The Million Farmers’ School (TMFS), a programme that sought to leverage its agriculture department’s 7,500-plus field-level staff strength, by designing an extension module for the rabi (winter-spring) planting season and conducting kisaan pathshalas for the dissemination of scientifically recommended package of practices specific to the crops grown at this time. Through these pathshalas — training sessions spread over four days of roughly 90 minutes each, undertaken mainly in government primary/junior school buildings accessible to a cluster of villages — we could reach out to a million kisaans during that season. The programme was repeated in 2018-19, both during the kharif (monsoon) and rabi cropping seasons.
For the current kharif season, we have, apart from the fourth edition of TMFS, also implemented a digital extension programme called ‘Vaigyanikon ki Baat, Kisaano ke Saath’ (scientists-talking-to-farmers). A four-hour programme from 4 to 7 PM, carried out on June 4, it involved scientists from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre), state agricultural universities and the department itself. They were all reputed breeders and agronomy experts not just in paddy, maize and kharif pulses and oilseeds, but also sugarcane, fruits and vegetables, aromatic and medicinal plants, and livestock.
The scientists were invited to address and take questions from farmers through video conferencing, for which the existing infrastructure of the National Informatics Centre (NIC) at the state headquarters as well as districts was utilised. The scientists sat at the NIC state centre in Lucknow. The farmers were called to the respective NIC centres in each of UP’s 75 districts.
In all, 10 scientists and 2,000-odd farmers (about 20-30 of them in every NIC district centre) took part. The latter were mostly progressive farmers identified by the agriculture department officials of the districts concerned. They were chosen by design, only to manage programme discipline and ensure that relevant questions were posed to the scientists. The scientists, then, answered these, in addition to giving structured presentations on the prescribed cultivation practices and pest/disease control measures for different crops.
This sort of video conferencing was innovative in itself. A four-hour-long programme that had both experts and progressive agriculturalists, for one, enabled in-depth discussions. Moreover, it was interactive and with a more personal touch than the usual Krishi Darshan or DD Kisan television channel programmes. Here, the farmers and scientists could see other, besides deriving pleasure from being seen and recognised by a relatively large audience.
That’s not all.
The entire programme was live-streamed. Therefore, even farmers who were not present at the NIC district centres could watch it live on their mobile phones. Even while they could not ask questions, the message certainly reached them. We have no verified numbers on how many farmers watched, but given the wide publicity given before the event and the ubiquity of smartphones, it may have run to many lakhs. In fact, while the programme itself was going on, we started receiving photographs of men and women watching it live on mobile phones sitting in their villages!
TMFS was an initiative aimed at addressing one of Indian agriculture’s weakest links – extension. It was about reviving the system of dissemination of knowledge with regard to improved agronomic and post-harvest management practices as well as information on government schemes relating to the sector. TMFS also helped re-establish contact between farmers and the agriculture department that was lost because of the previous extension system practically having gone to seed.
‘Vaigyanikon ki Baat, Kisaano ke Saath’ is an attempt to use digital technology for taking the above process one step further, by piggybacking on the wide penetration of smartphones in rural areas and data costs falling to Rs 15 per GB or lower. The UP government plans to extend this experiment to the ensuing rabi season by conducting it twice — once before ‘rabi’ plantings and the other one in the mid-season around January-February, when farmers also sow zaid (spring-summer) pulses and vegetable crops.
Digital will, in a sense, serve to bridge the gap between lab and land, rather than being a source of divide.
The writer is Principal Secretary of Agriculture, UP government. Views expressed are personal