Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist and founder chairperson of the Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organization.
Gene Campaign has been working in Uttarakhand for about 20 years on issues related to agriculture, food and nutrition. In this period I have seen significant changes among the people, especially the youth. The aspirations of the younger generation with respect to what they want from life are changing so rapidly that people of the older generation are most often not aware of what their children want. Indeed this is true across the country , especially in rural areas where agriculture remains the mainstay but where there is a growing disconnect from it. This is not new. Several studies show farmers are increasingly disenchanted with farming and would move out of it if they had a chance. One study found that 48 % that is roughly half the farming community did not want the next generation to take up farming.
The policy makers and scientists have not, however, synchronized their planning with the aspirations of either the farming community or the young people living in rural areas. Let me start with the dominant narrative in the food and agriculture sector.
We are still talking the language of ‘food security’ and nutrition security’ . Granted that the latter remains a challenge of serious dimension but in my many conversations with young farmers in Uttarakhand , Jharkhand, UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and occasionally other states reveals one common theme.
Young people want cash incomes so change the focus and the discourse from ‘food security’ to ‘ generating cash incomes from the farm’. The younger rural youth perceives agriculture as a mug’s game. I have often heard the farmers’ sons say “ Babu you do the farming, I am off to the city where I will at least get a steady income”. In a consumerist society and with the onslaught of mindless television programs and worse, advertisements, the young people do not want to associate with agriculture.
But this can change if agriculture starts generating cash incomes that can buy them the kinds of things they aspire to, a powerful motorcycle, a bigger television set, fashionable clothes and shoes, visits to the city, holidays and so on.
So my suggestion is, make the focus surplus cash rather than food security alone. Change the perception about agriculture. In today’s world, perception is king !!
In the television promotions on national channels, stop showing the farmer in a dhoti with a plough upon his shoulder, crushed with misery with three lines of frowns upon his forehead. Or looking bleakly up to the sky waiting for the rain to come as he sits on parched earth which is cracked from the drought. That is not an image the youth ( or anyone else) wants to identify with. Show the farmer as a smart young man or woman taking produce to the market, processing fruit into attractive bottles of juice and jams, operating a unit making parboiled rice and packing it into attractive packages, making chips out of potatoes, sauce out of tomatoes, biscuits out of flour. Show that agriculture makes money.
Take a cue from the advertising that the defence sector does. When they invite people to join the army, airforce or navy. A smart young man in his blue- gray overalls, carrying his helmet is shown in the backdrop of a fighter plane. The army is represented by fit young men in spit and polish, looking ready to take on any enemy to defend the country. A woman in uniform is marching at the Republic Day Parade leading a contingent. These are powerful, and attractive images. The airforce doesn’t put up images of mangled, crashed MiGs nor does the army put up pictures of bloodied, shot up soldiers.
Then why do we persist in showing a miserable broken farmer unable to feed his family, broken by the adversities of his life. Adversity is as much part of his life as crashed planes and sunken ships belong to a career in the airforce and navy. But is that what you want to project as all that the defence sector offers?
In Gene Campaign’s work in Uttarakhand, we have begun to talk about the great possibilities that the farm, orchard and livestock offers to make money and lead good lives. We have started training programs in value addition of fruits, vegetables and traditional grains. We have had experts come and give training and demonstrations in increasing the production and productivity of crops. We also talk to farmers about the value of healthy, clean produce if they want their products to reach the market and get a good price. We are introducing the concept of standards and the importance of meeting those standards if they want to make their products viable and competitive in the market.
We work principally with women farmers and we have organised them into Mahila Kissan Samitis (MKS). Here in Uttarkhand, as in most hill states, the women do most of the agricultural work so we figured they should claim the identify too. We have provided access to government schemes and programs, specially those related to agriculture and horticulture thus enabling them to apply in time and follow up their applications.
There has been a noticeable improvement in self confidence and a sense of empowerment. At a MKS sammelan attended by government officials like block officers, agriculture development officials, bank managers , horticulture department etc, we were delighted to see the women being assertive, taking on the officials about government schemes not reaching them and being monopolised by a few.
On the other hand, to build skills and capacity for income generation, the women have received training in value addition of fruits , millets and traditional grains. Also in hygienic processing, standardisation, packaging and marketing. On the financial side they have been trained in the pricing of products, accounts and book keeping. Many of them have started earning from the sale of rhododendron and fruit products. They have also increased the consumption of millets in different forms at home which will hopefully lead to a better nutritional status over time.