Transition of Institute of Rural Management and What it Means for Azim Premji University

By V Santhakumar and M S Sriram | Nov 27, 2019 

This essay is part of a series on the challenges and dynamics of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA). Its transition is compared with the experience of Azim Premji University, which also strives to create reflective practitioners in the domains of education and human development.

Institute of Rural Management Anand01 JPG


This essay is part of a series on the challenges and dynamics of the experiments in higher education which have a direct social purpose. The Institute for Rural Management, Anand, (IRMA) is one such institute. It was founded in 1979 with the objective of creating professional managers for rural producers’ organisations, and to generate a body of knowledge in rural management. Over time, it has acquired prominence and a reputation as the leading institute for rural management in India. There is a high demand for admission to its flagship programme — a post-graduate diploma in rural management. It also contributes to the needs of rural cooperatives, especially in the dairy sector, and other governmental and non-governmental organisations which work on various issues, like water and forests, rural health, local governance institutions, livelihoods and migration, deploying IT for rural areas, and so on’.

This essay looks into the nature and dynamics of IRMA. Rather than examining its transition independently,1 it is compared with the experience of the Azim Premji University, which also strives to create reflective practitioners in the domains of education and human development. The paper looks at the differences in the domain and conceptualisation of IRMA (which have impacted its transition) from those of the university.

Analysing the initial objectives

The objective with which IRMA was founded had two operational parts, to create managers’ and to specifically create them for rural producers’ organisations. We analyse each of these in a little more detail.

Need for managers’

The design of the organisation is based on an assumptive need for managers’. The objective, therefore, was close to the objective of the typical management schools, which had taken root in India much before the late seventies.2 In fact, there was a close interaction between the IIMA (Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad) and IRMA when the latter was founded. It was also the inability to attract students from the IIMs for the parent organisation of IRMA, the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) that encouraged its founder, Varghese Kurien to start IRMA.3 The expectation from it was to create managers for organisations that are in charge of production/​operations, people, finance, marketing and so on. Hence, there was clarity on the substantive knowledge to be transacted through IRMA. The idea of managers implies a specific practice over which there was a shared understanding by then. The connection between knowledge and practice to be learnt within this space of higher education was also somewhat self-evident. These managers were being groomed to effectively run certain organisations, and hence, there was an assumption that such well-run organisations are needed to achieve the social purpose of the university. There is a clear understanding of the pathway between the training imparted in IRMA and the ultimate social end that it is expected to serve.

Preference for producers’ organisations

The second operational point is the producers’ organisations’. The focus on these organisations for IRMA has an ideological element but is also informed by the history of the organisation. As we all know, the parent organisation, NDDB was promoting the cooperatives of farmers who are rearing cattle and producing milk. The processing of milk and its marketing have scale economies but there can be multiple ways of organising these downstream activities. Small farmers can be linked to a dairy to process and market the milk. Such a dairy can be owned by a government department, which has been the case in many states in India before the adoption of the model suggested by the NDDB, or they can be owned by a private firm. However, the founders of IRMA and NDDB had genuine reasons to believe that government ownership and bureaucratic supervision would not be suitable for a process that aggregates the production by small farmers. The aggregation or intermediation by private or corporate firms was also not found to be appropriate by the founders of NDDB.4 They wanted: (a) the control and ownership of the process of aggregation to rest with the small producers; and, (b) the technical and managerial support to be provided by professionals. Hence, the model of cooperative or producers’ organisation was accepted. The mandate of the NDDB was to replicate the Amul model. Farmers were brought together at the village level to form a cooperative and then the centralised processing and marketing activities were carried out by the federation of these cooperatives.5 Hence, the expected role of IRMA is to create managers for these operations.

The orientation of IRMA students towards rural producers’ associations was expected to be achieved through the elaborate field practice of students. They have to undergo field practice and internships with producers’ organisations such as the cooperatives and these are more rigorous than those mandated by a typical business school in India. Placements were possible since NDDB facilitated the development of these cooperatives and networks of similar organisations in different parts of the country. Through these organisations, the students of IRMA got exposure to rural life. Faculty members were also encouraged to visit the field practice locations. There was also a provision for faculty-guided research by students as part of their field practice. All these opportunities were expected to create two outcomes – an in-depth understanding of the social issues of India’s rural areas; and an emotional orientation or preparedness to contribute to some of these issues.

Knowledge of demand for such trained managers

By the time, IRMA came into existence, NDDB had expanded the milk processing and marketing operations through the federation of farmers’ cooperatives. The demand for managers for these organisations was known through this process. Hence, the founding of IRMA was not to create manpower to meet an unknown demand. A significant share of the early cohort of students was employed by the milk marketing federations in different states.

Milk processing and marketing require a sizable scale of capital investments, operations, and knowledge inputs. However, the salary drawn by managers of farmers’ associations may not be comparable to that which corporate managers trained in a typical high-rated business school in India, earn. Why should there be a difference in the salaries of a manager of a milk-marketing federation and that of a corporate manager who too is involved in the processing and/​or marketing of a similar product? There is a cadre of highly-paid managers in operations involving high scale and capital. The processing and marketing of certain agricultural products like milk too require, by and large, a similar level of capital and knowledge, whether it is carried out by a producers’ organisation or by a corporate. Yet, the managers of producers’ organisations involved in milk processing and marketing may get less salary than their corporate counterparts. This could be mainly due to the ownership structure of the producers’ organisation versus that of a corporate firm. The former may be interested in sharing a major part of the surplus (from the production of milk to the sale to the end-user) with its primary producers or farmers.

Despite this, the economic features of the processing and marketing of products, such as milk, are such that the salaries offered by the producers’ organisations are more or less acceptable to the middle class in India. Secondly, there is a certain legitimacy and reputation attached to the diploma due to the association of IRMA with Varghese Kurien and NDDB.

Implications of the objectives of IRMA

The founding objectives of IRMA have implications on the kind of students that it would attract and their aspirations in the long run. We consider these in detail here.

Student profile

For all the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph, a set of educated youngsters have been ready to apply for admission to IRMA from the beginning. There were stipends and subsidised education in the beginning, but the interest among candidates continued even after the withdrawal of such financial support. Over time, the number of applications has increased significantly6 and is more than the number of seats. There can be anywhere around 4000 – 5000 applications for the 240 seats available, warranting the need for a competitive entrance examination, not very different from those for regular business schools. It is justifiable since most of the courses taught at IRMA are related to one or the other aspects of management (though the students are expected to take up jobs only in specific type of organisations). Of late, IRMA has discontinued this entrance examination and is giving admissions based on the scores of the Common Admissions Test (CAT) conducted by the IIMs. Over time, it may have started attracting students who are proficient enough to crack the CAT but not enough to get admission to the top-ranking business schools, such as the IIMs.

Given that the enrolment and successful completion of school education and enrolment in higher education is from a relatively smaller section of the Indian society (especially in the 1980s and 1990s), it is likely that most of these students may not have come from families that are part of the rural producers’ organisations.7 Though it may be possible to have a small share of students who go through the programme and take up jobs in such producers’ organisations, most students would like to land the best rewarding’ job after their (rural) management education.

It is not surprising to see the external reputation of an educational institute getting determined by the outcomes in the labour market (and it emphasises the role of higher education as a signalling or screening device). What is taught inside the classrooms, may become secondary. Moreover, since IRMA is designed as a management institute, there has been a certain clarity from the beginning on what should be taught as part of its education programmes (with diverse ways in which to orient students to the issues of the rural economy/​society of India). Since the institute has come under the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) for regulation, some of these regulators may not take into consideration the rural’ part as distinct. (There is hotel’ management, rural’ management, and so on, as per the vocabulary of these regulators.8) All these factors have started shaping the nature of the demand for admission into IRMA.

Jobs taken up by IRMA graduates

There are also underlying economic factors in this regard. The aggregation of rural production for processing and marketing, or the delivery of services, need not happen only through the organisations of small producers. The incentives and efforts for bringing together small producers could be different for different activities. For example, though there is a success of producer-cooperatives in milk production, one may not see successful cooperative intervention for paddy or vegetable production. The need for centralised processing and marketing may not be as high for paddy, which may reduce the incentives of farmers to form a cooperative for this purpose. This would mean that there could be a large number of relatively small traders, and each farmer may have an incentive to use one or the other traders in a decentralised manner, rather than depending on a centralised processing and marketing entity. There are several such agricultural and rural products. Though the NDDB attempted the formation of cooperatives for vegetable and fruit production, it was not as effective as that of milk. Why do cooperatives fail in certain cases? This is discussed below.

Why have cooperatives in India succeeded in certain cases but not in others?

Based on a study in Kopragaon, Baviskar,9 a Professor of Sociology from Delhi University along with Don Atwood10 had an explanation as to why cooperatives succeed in certain locations and why they fail in others. For instance, they suggested that the success of sugar cooperatives in Maharashtra was explained by the caste system where the distance between the dominant caste and the lower caste was not as significant as that in Uttar Pradesh and the common sense of identity and the technological requirements of having to crush sugarcane as soon as it is harvested ensured that co-operation was essential for the economic operation to succeed. This, however, was not true of Uttar Pradesh where the caste system was antagonistic between the dominant and the lower castes that they would not co-operate and therefore, the sugar processing was largely with either the private sector or in the informal Khandsari units.

Tushaar Shah,11 a former director of IRMA, based on a series of case studies in Gujarat, including co-operative failures in the same district – Kheda, where Amul was being celebrated as a success – suggested that co-operatives tend to succeed when they play a significant part in the members’ household economy and termed this as salience and argued that amongst other things, the co-operative is more likely to succeed if it were salient in the household economy. However, Shah was slightly more tentative about this argument when he studied the cooperatives in Olpad Taluka of Surat District, where he found that the cooperative leaders showed a devotional commitment towards service’ and held co-operatives as social rather than economic institutions.

Srinivasan and others12 suggested that the success of a cooperative is a result of a virtuous cycle of member financial stakes being high, resulting in better intensity of transactions, higher degree of accountability sought from the governance system, and better satisfaction with services leading to more investments.

It is evident from the above that there is no single explanation as to why co-operatives succeed or fail. However, given that while the centrality of the purpose of co-operatives is to provide service to patrons’ and the governance is based on the principles of one-person-one-vote, there is a toss-up running an economic organisation on democratic principles which is bound to create some internal contradictions if the design is not handled well. That explains the greater failure of cooperatives than other for-profit firms.

In summary, the economic activities in rural areas – whether these are to provide inputs to rural producers or to collects products from millions of small producers (and process these) can be carried out by other kinds of enterprises and not by producers’ organisations alone. Conventionally, in India government departments or public sector organisations have played a role in this. However, IRMA could not have expected to produce employees for such government organisations due to the rigid recruitment structures for government jobs in India. There can also be private or corporate investments for providing inputs and capital to, and to procure and process the outputs of small rural producers.

The liberalisation of the Indian economy and the trickling down, though limited, of the benefits of economic growth into the rural areas of the country, have encouraged corporate/​private firms to tap the rural market for their activities. The growth of such operations requires manpower, and for such organisations, IRMA graduates who have the management training and the exposure to rural production/​markets and life, are attractive. Some of these organisations can offer a salary that is higher than that of well-organised producers’ associations, such as the cooperative of milk producers. Hence, the demand for well-paying jobs by the graduates of IRMA could be met by the economy and the market, though this would not have been a desirable outcome for its founders. A small share of IRMA graduates continues to take up jobs in producers’ organisations or such social enterprises that address the livelihood issues of India’s rural population. Moreover, IRMA consciously keeps certain private organisations (like the distributors of shampoo in rural areas or multinational companies involved in selling genetically modified seeds) away from their campus recruitment.13

In general, one can say that IRMA has two, somewhat limited, objectives. First, is to create managers, not other professionals or practitioners who are required to address the larger social problem that it has identified – low income and poverty of rural producers or population. This limited’ purpose has not affected the functioning or the effectiveness of the organisation, though there could be some lack of clarity on the combination of the courses in management and on the social issues or reality’ to be taught. There is an indication that teachers whose core expertise is professional management, may not find IRMA attractive.14 Then, the need for publication in highly rated journals may encourage the faculty to focus less on quality narratives that may be useful for the work of cooperatives and more on data-driven publishable research. Also, the extent to which the knowledge generated through field practice has become part of classroom learning is uncertain, though such a dependence on practice’ and case-studies’ is expected in any management school. However, the nature of curriculum and pedagogy for rural managers (including the field-practice component) does not seem to have insurmountable issues, as far IRMA is concerned.

The second limited objective (to train people for producers’ organisations) has lost its focus over time, partly due to the limited growth of many viable producers’ organisations dealing with different kinds of rural products, and the intrusion of private capital into the market aggregation of these producers which can offer a better salary to the trained graduates of IRMA. This has not reduced the market attractiveness’ of IRMA (instead, it may have enhanced it). However, it may have made IRMA somewhat ineffective in terms of the ideological position of its founders. There are two ways of looking at this situation. First is to argue that the initial objective of creating managers mainly for rural producers’ organisations was taken without an understanding of the underlying socio-economic factors and the way these would change which would make the emergence of the alternatives to such organisations somewhat inevitable.

The other possibility is to argue that producers’ organisation or cooperative is a desirable type of organisation, given the inequalities that are the results of the conventional private-sector oriented economic growth and development.15 Then, there could a persisting need for organisations owned by the collective of small producers and professionals. With that perspective, one can argue that IRMA has not been successful in orienting its students adequately to work in these organisations. Or it may have to think about other strategies to ensure that the knowledge and capacity available to the people manning different kinds of producers’ organisations are strengthened. Executive training programmes could be one such strategy. However, it may not be very useful if such programmes are limited to the top or mid-level managers who understand English. IRMA may need to prepare itself to cover other levels of employees and leaders of producers’ organisations through programmes in local languages if it wants to serve its original purpose.

However, there seems to be a perception within IRMA, currently, that it should try to be a top-ranking business school of the country. Though this by itself is not undesirable, especially if its specific strengths are incorporated into the ranking of business schools, but it may not be able to retain its distinctiveness. Through this process, the nature of students, the focus of faculty engagement, the nature of courses, the level of salary that students aspire for and so on, may have to be comparable to other top-ranking management schools and then it may become difficult for IRMA to focus on producers’ organisations.

The dependence on student fees to meet a major part of the recurring costs of the institute may work against the admission of students from the lower economic strata. The institute may not have enough resources to provide financial support to students coming from underprivileged backgrounds. It has come to be known that many NGOs and not-so-wealthy producers’ cooperatives cannot hire’ the expertise of IRMA faculty which has become very expensive. This trend may continue or strengthen as it tries to become a high-ranking business school in the country. Though IRMA has been able to mobilise resources from the government of India recently, there is not enough clarity on whether to take the route of mobilising resources from such sources or to depend on the student fees as the main source of revenue to meet the recurring expenditure.

IRMA and Azim Premji University

It is interesting to compare the initial objectives and their implications on the transition of IRMA with those of the Azim Premji University since both share a somewhat common feature as institutes of higher education with a direct social purpose. The core purpose of Azim Premji University is to create reflective practitioners to facilitate quality education for all and improvement of human development. It has not, unlike IRMA, defined a specific kind of organisation where its graduates should take up jobs. These create two key differences between the challenges faced by the two.

Though there is greater clarity on the content and trajectory of the education programme of IRMA (as it is management’) that is not the case with the university. Education practitioners can go beyond the profession of school teaching and it is not certain what kind of knowledge, skills and orientation may be needed for all types of these practitioners. This is more so in countries like India where quality schooling for all’ requires ensuring such schooling for the poor and the marginalised social groups in the country. Poor and marginalised groups face challenges not only in schools and classrooms (in terms of coping with the curriculum, pedagogy and other practices in the schools) but also in familial environments and socio-economic conditions. These add to the complexity of the knowledge, skills and attitudes to be imparted to the education practitioners and development practitioners being groomed at the university. Given the lack of clarity, there could be a temptation to interpret these needs differently by different people (especially academics) based on their disciplinary training, ideological approach to education/​development, personal idiosyncrasies, and capacities (or incapacities). The fact that most academics who are trained in social sciences have not had the experience of training practitioners would also influence these interpretations. Given the lack of many other real-world models for a similar type of higher education and the limited or divergent interpretations, the objective of the university may impact the actual practices. These practices need not be the most appropriate ones if the intention is to create reflective practitioners in education and development.

Though Azim Premji University values the field exposure and practice of students and has made elaborate provisions for this purpose, its connection with classroom teaching remains somewhat weak. This could be weaker than that in IRMA where there is a shared understanding of the linkage between theory and practice as part of management education. On the other hand, the focus of Azim Premji University is on social sciences (based on an impression that an understanding of these subjects is needed to create agents of social change) and there is a lack of a tradition of integrating practice’ into social science education. Hence, the field practice of students remains somewhat distant from classroom instruction (barring a few courses). Management education, as in the case of IRMA, has a shared understanding among the people involved, but development practice’ is yet to have such a shared meaning. Hence, the real challenge for Azim Premji University is in deciding the curriculum, pedagogy, and other practices within the university, and the preparedness of its faculty to meet its stated social purpose. However, this is not a major challenge for IRMA.

On the other hand, the fact that the university does not expect its students to take up jobs in a particular kind of organisation would mean that there may not be a big gap between expectation and reality in this regard. The graduates of the university have taken up jobs mostly in NGOs, the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) arms of private firms, and organisations controlled by governments. However, a reasonable share of these students may get out of these organisations after a couple of years and may look for better-paying jobs in urban settings. Those who are likely to continue in these organisations are less likely to come to Azim Premji University for higher education.16 There could be a number of reasons for this state of affairs. Those who are likely to take up jobs in social organisations in rural settings and who continue there for a substantial period are likely to come from relatively less privileged family backgrounds. The achievements of these students in terms of their schooling or under-graduation may not be adequate for them to compete with others to get admission to Azim Premji University. Hence, the real challenge in terms of the employment of graduates of Azim Premji University is that it may not attract many students who are likely to contribute to its social purpose. In that sense, there are certain similarities with the challenges faced by IRMA.

The Future

To a great extent, IRMA has evolved to meet the requirements of the possible socio-economic scenario in future. It would continue to offer management education (with exposure to rural settings). Potential students may see it as such a management institute. Though there could be certain challenges in terms of the combination of courses that should be part of the curriculum to accomplish the twin objectives of providing management education and exposing the rural reality to students, these may not be insurmountable. The placements at IRMA have already evolved with the changes in the labour market, which are in turn responding to the changes in the economy.

As noted earlier, though a small share of the students who pass out of the institute may continue to take up jobs in producers’ organisations, others move towards corporate or private firms which have a rural linkage (for marketing products or for sourcing inputs). These jobs may offer salaries comparable to that of a better-quality management school in India (though may not be to the level of an IIM). This has shaped the expectations of students. Hence, many students may continue to be interested in writing the entrance examination to get into IRMA, and most of those who may get in may come from middle-class backgrounds (barring those who are admitted through affirmative action). This would also mean that most students are in a position to pay (or take an education loan to pay) the fee, which will help recover the recurring cost of the institute. This ensures that there could be enough demand for IRMA, even when the financial subsidies available to it, decline. However, Azim Premji University could face another set of challenges and a detailed description of these are given here.


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University

M S Sriram, Visiting Faculty, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore and Azim Premji University

  1. An article on IRMA in the context of education in rural management. Sriram, M. S. (2007), Rural Management Education in India: A Retrospect, WP: 2007-04-01, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.↩︎

  2. Management education started in India with XLRI offering courses in 1949. The first IIM (Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata) came into existence in 1961, and all the three major IIMs (including Ahmedabad and Bangalore) have been in operation before the establishment of IRMA in 1979.↩︎

  3. Kurien, V. (2005) I too had a dream, New Delhi: Roli Books Private Limited↩︎

  4. There is a background for this – Polson Dairy was not giving remunerative prices to the farmers and therefore, it was taken up as an issue (was also associated with the freedom struggle) and the ideology comes from there. It was replicated later. The origins of the idea are associated with Patel (Vallabhbhai) and Patel (Tribhuvandas).↩︎

  5. A detailed description of the need for and the structure of these organisations – Halse (1980), A New Institute of Rural Management and a New Developmental Discipline, Occasional Publication No. 1, Anand: IRMA.↩︎

  6. The application numbers were around 6000 even in the early batches. Part of the reason for this large number of applications was that the form was free, and only the entrance exam fee had to be paid. So, there would be request for over 10 to 11 thousand applications and around 6 thousand would apply, a lesser number would write the exam and there would be absenteeism in interviews, and hence, the hit rate was not as high as IIMs.↩︎

  7. At one stage, the admission criteria were reviewed to give a weightage to people with vernacular education, from rural schools, and so on, with the hope that they would stick to the jobs. However, it did not work very well. The aspirations of and from a student from a farmers’ family were, more often, a corporate job, and we also found out that children, even from elite families, were quite willing to work in the field. So, there was no discernible pattern of who would work where.↩︎

  8. Apparently, such an observation was made by a representative of the AICTE.↩︎

  9. Baviskar BS. (1980). The Politics of Development: Sugar Cooperatives of Maharashtra. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.↩︎

  10. Attwood, DW and Baviskar, BS. (1993). Who Shares? Co-operatives and Rural Development. New Delhi: Oxford University Press↩︎

  11. Shah, Tushaar. (1995). Making Farmer Co-operatives Work. New Delhi: Sage Publications↩︎

  12. Member Funds and Co-operative Performance (Rajesh Agrawal, KV Raju, K Prathap Reddy, R Srinivasan and MS Sriram) Journal of Rural Development, Vol.22, No.1, Jan-March 2003. Hyderabad: National Institute of Rural Development.↩︎

  13. This is shared by Professor Jeemol Unni. However, it seems that such reluctance has disappeared lately.↩︎

  14. This is hinted by M S Sriram in his paper.↩︎

  15. This is an observation made by Professor Shylendra, IRMA.↩︎

  16. Some of these issues are discussed in detail in Universities for a just, equitable, humane and sustainable society: Lessons for and from Azim Premji University↩︎