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From wheat to web: Children of the revolution

M. S. Swaminathan transformed agriculture in India in the 1960s. Now Daemon Fairless finds him at the heart of another high-tech scheme to help the rural poor.

Credit: P. BAGLA/CORBIS

Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan has trouble making his way across a crowded conference room, not because, at 82, he walks with a slight stoop and an even slighter shuffle, but because he is intercepted at every step by a handshake and a request for a snapshot and an autograph. It is the kind of adulation normally reserved for Bollywood celebrities, not plant geneticists. But, as the father of India's Green Revolution, Swaminathan holds a revered spot in the national pantheon of public figures.

Swaminathan is credited with introducing new varieties of high-yield wheat to India during the 1960s and 1970s, catapulting the country from dependence on foreign-grain shipments to food independence within a few years. With about 60% of India's population employed in agriculture, it is difficult to overstate the significance of Swaminathan's contribution to his country. It is not unusual for former doctoral students to prostrate themselves before 'The Professor' and touch his feet ? a sign of respect unparalleled in Western academia.

Despite this, Swaminathan shows no sign of resting on his laurels; instead he uses his position to further rural development in new ways. Over the past decade he has become the driving force behind a different revolution ? a national movement to bring Internet and telecommunications to each of India's 600,000 rural villages. By building on existing networks of village telecom kiosks, including 80 kiosks set up by his non-profit institute, the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Swaminathan hopes to create, with government and business support, enough kiosks to serve one in six villages.

Swaminathan's belief is that information and communications technologies (ICTs), if properly implemented, will help bridge India's growing urban?rural divide and forge better links between researchers and rural poor people. ?Those of us working in agriculture, health and environmental sciences,? he says, ?have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that we not only do good work, but more importantly, that that work reaches the people for whom it is intended.?

M. S. Swaminathan wants to bring Internet technology to villages in India. Credit: RAVEENDRAN/AFP/GETTY

The growing disparity between India's urban economy, with its white-hot annual growth rate of around 9%, and its sagging rural economy yoked with massive unemployment, is of profound concern. India, with more than 1.1 billion people, remains the country with the largest number of poor people, 70% of whom live in rural areas. Moreover, the percentage of gross domestic product the government spends on rural infrastructure has been steadily declining since the late 1980s. According to the World Bank, improving the accessibility and quality of education, health care and basic infrastructure such as water, electricity, sanitation and roads are among India's biggest challenges.

How will ICT help? A significant barrier to rural development in India is that, although the government has launched multiple development schemes, each designed to aid rural poor people, they are spread across so many different departments that even a seasoned bureaucrat would have trouble keeping track of them, let alone an illiterate farmer.

Basheerhamad Shadrach, Asia programme officer of a company called telecentre.org and secretary of the MSSRF's national ICT project, says that rural economic progress is hindered by a disconnect between farmers and researchers. ?Agricultural extension workers,? says Shadrach, ?are supposed to go into the field every day and seek out the needs of farmers. But the moment they become government workers, their job is guaranteed; they simply aren't motivated enough.? He says that the same is true of government employees whose job it is to provide rural health care, education and basic municipal services such as sanitation. The hope, says Shadrach, is that ICT will provide ?a fresh approach? to agricultural extension, putting the information directly in the farmer's hands.

Divided nation: children in Bangalore play computer games, but 80,000 Indian villages have no electricity. Credit: F. MOLERES/PANOS

Swaminathan sees the same attitudes today that he faced during the 1960s, as a researcher with the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). In India, he says, ?there is a reluctance to pass on authority from the bureaucracy to the local representatives at the grass-roots level?. In the mid-1960s, eager to turn India's grain crisis around, Swaminathan bypassed the orthodox procedure of growing novel varieties in a controlled environment for several years before handing the seeds over to agricultural extension workers who would, in turn, instruct the farmers on how to cultivate them. Instead, he headed straight for the farmers' fields and convinced them to become collaborators. ?Some of my colleagues would say: 'why are you going to the villages? That is the duty of the extension officer.'? he recalls. ?I didn't believe in that. I felt that it was my responsibility.?

Between 1964 and 1966, Swaminathan, his colleagues at the IARI and local small-scale farmers planted more than 1,000 crops on farmland around Delhi and in adjoining states. The harvest was, on average, nearly 300% higher than traditional wheat varieties. ?It had an electric effect on the farmers,? says Swaminathan. He is hopeful that ICT will now propagate similarly throughout the country ? creating a groundswell of demand for the technology.

Mixed success

This sounds good in principle, and no one doubts Swaminathan's enthusiasm or ability to secure political backing, but India's past experience with rural ICT schemes has been rife with disappointments. Ashok Jhunjhunwala, head of the Telecom and Networks Group (TeNeT) at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, has been working to bring ICTs to rural India for more than 15 years. Jhunjhunwala says that the dozens of ICT projects across the country are a series of ongoing experiments, ?some of which have worked?, he says, but ?most of which haven't?.

?You'll hear about a village where ICTs have helped farmers get a better price for grain, or a village where someone has got better access to health care, but these are all anecdotal cases and don't represent the majority of ICT projects,? says Jhunjhunwala. For one of its biggest projects, Jhunjhunwala's group helped to launch n-Logue, a Chennai-based company that set up about 3,500 Internet-kiosk franchises starting in 2001. ?Half of them are now closed,? says Jhunjhunwala, ?The other half are only partially functioning.? The root of the problem, he says, is that although n-Logue provides the franchisee with the equipment and training needed to run an ICT kiosk, there aren't enough services to create viable market demand. Most franchises close because they don't get adequate return on their investment. And many kiosk operators, having received computer training, end up leaving their village to seek fortunes in the cities.

“We have a moral and ethical responsibility to ensure that our work reaches the people for whom it is intended. M. S. Swaminathan ”

Jhunjhunwala says that n-Logue's experience is not unusual. Indeed, a 2006 study by the United Nations Development Programme of 18 ICT projects in India ? representing some 6,500 ICT kiosks across 10 states ? found that many faltered because they didn't address rural needs. The study found that several of the projects failed to ?understand the importance of cultivating close relationships with their beneficiary community?. In other words, the projects failed to listen to the villagers.

Despite these failures, Jhunjhunwala is optimistic that ICTs can eventually help. His group has had some success with a distance-education programme in 70 villages over the past 2 years. The programme more than doubled the number of rural children who passed the exams they take at 15 years old. ?It was a marvellous success.? But, he notes, scaling up to a national level is a different problem altogether. ?This was for 60 or 70 villages,? he says. ?How do you make it happen in 100,000??

This is the challenge that Swaminathan has taken on. In the late-1990s, his institute set up some of the first telecom kiosks in his home state of Tamil Nadu, with the goal of linking farmers and fishermen to the basic information they need. After a rocky start, which saw the first 4 centres close, the MSSRF's network has now grown to a total of 80 kiosks across 3 states.

In 2004, Swaminathan rallied the ICT troops, creating what he calls a National Alliance, a coalition of more than 400 organizations, including state governments and various business, academic and non-governmental organizations, with the collective aim of providing ICT access to every villager in India. Nationally, there are now more than 20,000 ICT kiosks operating in nearly all of India's 28 states, run by several dozen ICT providers, and that number is set to double by December of this year.

The alliance has been enormously successful in getting government support for ICT infrastructure. In addition to US$420 million that central and state governments are pledging towards the physical infrastructure for 100,000 telecom kiosks by 2008, roughly $850 million is also being invested to bring broadband connectivity to administrative groups of villages. They have also approved close to $565 million for the creation of state data centres as hubs for government services. It is an ambitious project considering that 80,000 villages are still without electricity and 65,000 villages have no telephone line.

People power

Trained volunteers such as Kandeepan Selvarani become local problem-solvers. Credit: D. FAIRLESS

Swaminathan says that although he is encouraged by the government's commitment to rural ICTs, he is concerned that the plan is overly focused on providing equipment and physical infrastructure. As part of their more people-centred approach, the MSSRF established the National Virtual Academy (NVA) in 2003, as a distance-learning program for training villagers to become advocates for the ICT needs of their community. Over the past 4 years, the NVA has recruited more than 1,000 such villagers ? 'NVA fellows' ? each nominated by their peers and each with a track record of community service.

Kandeepan Selvarani, an NVA fellow from Embalam, a farming village with a population of 4,500, not far from the city of Puducherry, says that she is becoming recognized as a local problem-solver. Recently, she was approached by a cashew farmer who feared he would lose his harvest because his trees were losing their flowers. Selvarani visited the village telecom kiosk ? one of the first the MSSRF set up ? and managed to track down an agricultural scientist who taught Selvarani how to prepare panchakavya ? a traditional biopesticide comprised of cow-derived products: dung, urine and milk, as well as curd and ghee. ?The farmer sprayed it on his trees,? says Selvarani, ?and the crop was saved.?

The Embalam kiosk is a barren, concrete room with four ageing computers and a broadband connection. Yet the kiosk manager, Indra Gandhi, says that in the 8 years since it opened, her community has seen substantial changes. Before, most of the villagers were unaware of the various government support programmes for small farmers and fishermen. But now, she says, ?everyone in the village knows about them?. Farmers regularly come to the centre to get information on livestock management and crop diseases or pests. And the centre has helped more than 50 village cooperatives to apply for microfinancing loans.

The hub of the matter

A few kilometres away, the MSSRF Puducherry Village Resource Centre serves as a coordinating hub for eight village kiosks, including the one in Embalam, relaying the needs of villagers such as Selvarani to various experts and government institutions. Importantly, says Anburaj Thiagarajane, the centre's director, all of their activities ? including a local-language community newspaper, daily weather reports and regular workshops ? are determined by a collaboration between villagers, NVA Fellows and the centre's staff, who are all from local communities.

The Puducherry Centre is one of 15 such hubs run by the MSSRF, each of which links with government institutions, universities and businesses, and with one another, via a satellite connection donated by the Indian Space Research Organization in Bangalore. But focusing on the high-tech component of the project, says Thiagarajane, is missing the point. ?The linkage between people is the most important part of an ICT programme, not the technology. If you really want the information to reach villages, you have to have people who are capable of taking it there.?

Indra Gandhi (left) manages a village Internet kiosk that is popular with farmers. Credit: D. FAIRLESS

This is especially true for the most ambitious aspect of the national ICT project. Government funding for the telecom centres runs out in 4 years, so to continue operating, the kiosks must secure private investment to ensure that each kiosk will be a self-sustaining public?private outlet. Jhunjhunwala doubts that the government will achieve the national goal of building 100,000 telecom kiosks across the country by 2008, let alone achieving sustainability by 2010. So far, the government has attracted the interest of several large companies, including the Mumbai-based telecoms giant Reliance Communications, each of which has placed bids for government funds to operate several thousand kiosks.

“If you really want the information to reach villages, you have to have people who are capable of taking it there. Anburaj Thiagarajane ”

Jhunjhunwala is sceptical that these companies will be able to make a success of it, even though there are businesses running profitable rural ICT centres. The Imperial Tobacco Company of India, one of the country's largest private corporations, selling products from cigarettes and clothing to fertilizers and pesticides, has established 6,500 kiosks that it says serve 38,500 villages in 9 states. The company built its first Internet kiosks in 2000 to buy grain directly from farmers. The kiosks provide farmers with market prices so they can decide when best to sell their harvest, and they sell directly to the company for an immediate cash payment. Imperial Tobacco says its system has reduced its procurement costs by 25?30% and claims to put more money in farmers' pockets.

The company's kiosks are not part of the National Alliance, and it is likely that in India's fast-moving telecom sector, the government-funded infrastructure will be leapfrogged by new technologies. Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai, India's largest computer software exporter, is developing mobile-phone software for farmers. India boasts the fastest-growing mobile-phone market in the world. One-fifth of its 218 million mobile-phone users live in rural areas and the country's service providers are rapidly expanding wireless coverage to villages.

Arun Pande, who heads Tata's Innovation Labs in Mumbai, says the company has developed mobile-phone applications that give farmers a local 7-day weather forecast, pesticide and fertilizer advice and crop prices at nearby markets, in their local language. ?When we talked to farmers,? he says, ?we realized that their questions were very simple and also extremely specific to the conditions in their field.? Pande says that Tata has paired up with the MSSRF to launch trials in four farming villages in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. He says the business model for such mobile-based services hasn't been developed yet but he sees them working alongside village kiosks.

Swaminathan welcomes these new initiatives. He says that he feels they complement the national movement. ?Let many flowers bloom,? he says, ?whichever one works, great.? After all, rural India still has more problems than solutions. According to O. P. Bhatt, chair of the State Bank of India, traditional banking is limited by having only 20,000 bank branches in rural areas, where 70% of India's population reside. He is keen to see the ICT kiosks used to help villagers obtain basic financial services, particularly microfinancing.

Bhatt says that unless the disparity between the rural poor and urban nouveau riche is remedied, India's economic success will be short-lived. He points to the growing influence of the Naxalite-communist groups, and recent terrorist attacks, as examples of violent responses to social inequity: ?It can and will lead to social strife and political backlash,? he warns.

Authors

Additional information

Daemon Fairless is this year's winner of the IDRC-Nature fellowship. This article is part of the Global Theme on Poverty and Human Development, organized by the Council of Science Editors. All articles from the Nature Publishing Group are available free at http://www.nature.com/povhumdev The content from all participating journals can be found at http://www.councilscienceeditors.org/globalthemeissue.cfm

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Fairless, D. From wheat to web: Children of the revolution. Nature 449, 964–966 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/449964a

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