The winter field project is a critical component of field engagement in the MA in Development curriculum. During this time, students can imagine and engage with a development project of their interest in a rigorous and systematic way over a period of seven months between September and March. During this time, our students develop a project proposal and work in the field for eight weeks, later analysing and writing up a presentation for the project fair.
Projects take different forms: formative studies, pilot interventions, training manuals or process evaluations. Themes range from gender in livelihoods, urban sustainability, access and equity in health, changing farming practices, crafts and artisanal works, technology and development in different parts of India.
The audience includes students from other programmes, faculty, and representatives from partner organisations.
A section of presentations were themed around agriculture and the critical lens required to understand the agrarian crisis. An absence of insurance schemes, an exclusion of tenants and the lack of awareness in farmers around supporting mechanisms have led to a crisis scenario. There is also a lack of capital investment and government support. The crisis is more acutely felt by small farmers who are affected by inefficient market structures, systemic exploitation and climate change. The question emerges of whether farmers should follow a method both ecologically sustainable and highly productive.
Many different presentations included proposed solutions on diverse issues such as farmers’ perspectives on sustainable agriculture, the role of farmer producer organisations (FPOs), crop insurance and agrarian crisis in Telangana, agriculture value chain financing in Tamil Nadu, and also an analysis of the concerns of farmers of Rajore village, in Madhya Pradesh’s Dewas district. Other studies showcased perceptions on organic farming and explored the differences between the aspirations of conventional and organic farmers.
Irrigation support, crop insurance and FPOs
Examining the case a farmer in Rajore village of Madhya Pradesh and another farmer in Telangana, a presentation explored the issues of irrigation support and crop insurance scheme. In Rajore, due to a lack of finance for an irrigation system, many landholders have either leased or sold their lands and migrated to nearby cities. Since Scheduled Tribes cannot sell their lands, they comprise the majority of leasers. Scheduled Castes make up a majority of sellers, migrating to nearby cities to work in the sand mining sector: a form of distress migration. Given the agrarian crisis in Telangana, tenant farmers are not included in the government’s insurance and loan waiver schemes. There was a showcase of FPOs in Jharkhand that are mobilising small farmers to help maximise profits. A similar study demonstrated the gradual growth of the FPO ecosystem in Tamil Nadu and their challenges.
Organic farming and its challenges
Organic farming can be more sustainable, skilled and futuristic and without needing bolstering by the minimum support price. A panel showcased trends and changes in agricultural practices across Assam, Maharashtra, Kerala and Odisha and sought to explain why organic farming is not widespread in Assam’s hilly regions. The economics of organic farming makes it difficult to create a demand for products which are comparatively expensive. Another study showcased the successful adoption of organic farming in Maharashtra’s eastern districts, which given its proximity to Nagpur has a sound consumer base for organic products. The rich and middle urban classes are have a higher consumption power and awareness in a way people in Assam do not. However, despite the demand for organic produce, there seemed to be no certification mechanism for the same in Maharashtra.
Exploring the challenges of agricultural certification for domestic and export sales, a study highlighted that farmers who were able to get certifications were mostly middle and large-scale farmers. The associated procedural and economic costs for farmers to get certification and whether small farmers get certifications remain to be seen.
Social and environmental upheavals
Shifts in crop cultivation are leading to environmental and social upheavals. Economic factors and unavailability of labour were driving farmers to arecanut cultivation in Kerala’s traditional paddy growing regions. This shift in cropping pattern affected groundwater sources. In Odisha’s tribal areas, Mandya (ragi), the traditional crop, is being replaced by cotton. Tribals do not speak Odiya and state penetration in these areas is minimal, local sahukars (landlords) control the agricultural choices of the tribal people. The study questioned state policies that are not tailored adequately to reach the most vulnerable sections of society. Proposed solutions to revive traditional cropping patterns focused on organising farmers into collectives and promoting locally viable, crop specific strategies.
A set of presentations observed transformations in Indian agriculture over the past 50 years.
Contract farming & crop diversification
The small paddy farmers of Venkatapuram in Siddipet district of Telangana cultivate gherkin (a variety of cucumber) for a US-based company during low rainfall. The informal contracts issued by the company are for payments based on the quantity procured and set quality parameters are an indicator of changing transactions in contract farming.
Similarly, cultivation practices in Kodagu, renowned for its coffee plantations, are changing. The shift in choice of trees to exotic fast-growing silver-oak from evergreen native species is a consequence of the forest department’s prohibition on harvesting trees of value. Depletion in soil fertility due to the continued cultivation of coffea robusta has necessitated crop diversity, with the cultivation of bamboo, avocado, passion fruit, vanilla and cinnamon as border crops, and oranges and strawberries as intercrops.
Urban terrace farming & transition to organic farming
A group of students studied farming on terraces or plots in cities to bridge the urban-rural nutrient cycle rift, using literature on the Musi river sewage in Hyderabad. It raised awareness that cities could responsibly contribute green compost to villages in return for the nutrients they receive from vegetables.
The transition to organic farming of onions has received a mixed response from small farmers in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, where agriculturist Subhash Palekar’s ideology of natural farming has driven the transition. Handipuhan and Chandipahadi villages of Odisha have now embraced chemical and
bio-fertilisers, mechanisation, and crop diversity in their farming practices through the intervention of a local NGO. Crop diversification is believed to boost nutrition in the tribal diet.
Intergenerational farming practices, and a study on supply chain of potatoes
A study looked at the supply chain of potato seeds and produce in Burdwan block of Murshidabad district, West Bengal, and showcased the importance of climate and geography in the success of the crop. Potato is cultivated by 90 per cent of farmers here. Factors driving this was constant market demand, better road connectivity enabling transport to Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha, the cold storage facility, and policy of the West Bengal government and efficient supply chain management.
Students analysed bias faced by women in securing a stable income in order to maintain a basic livelihood. Most of the studies revealed the numerous challenges women face at the workspace because of social stigma. Women work in households and their workspace. Though women are seeking employment to be financially self-sufficient, stereotyping women to certain work has restricted their upward mobility.
Women security guards
It is said women are hired as security guards because they are good at communication and can deal with aggressive customers in a calm way. But there is no system for promotion or appraisal in which they would earn a better salary. Tasks assigned to women guards were unrelated to the actual job.
One study focused on female business agents who prefer the job because there are no loans; however there is increased subcontracting and a lot of inappropriate men to deal with.
A feminist geographic framework helped encapsulate the idea of gender, space and identity in a study on home-based work in Dharavi, Mumbai. The study demonstrated that though there are a number of female home-based workers, they are unable to organise themselves to counter inappropriate demands by their contractors as there is no acknowledgement of their workspace and because they are not united. The workers are under the threat of losing their jobs if they want to negotiate their working hours.
Artisans and finance
A cohort of women in a study on Kantha stitch artisans around Sriniketan said that the artisans did not engage in any financial transactions. The marketing is done by men, while women do the primary work of Kantha stitching. Though the products are in demand, women do not encourage the younger generations to continue this occupation as it affects their education, does not lead to empowerment, and creates more competition with an abundance of labour. Here it is the entrepreneurs who exploit artisans.
One study explored the impact of market linkages on the socio-economic conditions of handloom weavers in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. One of the major concerns that came up was the visibly vast disparity in the average household income between Wardha and Bhandara districts due to the non-involvement of women of Bhandara district in the handloom industry.
A study looked at women in the beedi industry and the intervention of a royal Rajasthan royal family in their empowerment. The study examined how there was a skill gap between government policies and implementation. Female workers were financially exploited by contractors. Government welfare schemes were inaccessible for these women who are not issued ID cards. This industry is full of women who have had to work since the ages of 10 and 12, resulting in tuberculosis and asthma. The study highlighted the difference between the beedi-making business (which is mostly home-based work) and other home-based businesses, such as chikankari embroidery.
The studies in this panel were primarily focused on the tribal communities of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Sikkim, and covered the impact of developmental projects and wildlife preservation policies on communities, and their encounters with modernity.
One study on the life journey of displaced tribal communities due to Andhra Pradesh’s Polavaram project highlighted how the utilitarian notion of development has displaced these tribals from their homes amid the forests and rivers where they were living since generations. The study showed how shortage of water, dependency on modern institutions, changes in diet, and various health issues add to the distress of tribals even as they come to terms with their displacement.
Tribal communities are also influenced by mainstream lifestyle trends as highlighted by two studies that engaged with the Korku and Gond communities in Amravati and Melghat districts of Maharashtra. Modernity has changed their lifestyle and made them dependent on the market and production systems for food and work to fulfil daily needs. Lepcha and Chenchu tribal communities of Andhra Pradesh were dependent on hunting and cultivating millets for daily consumption. However, now they grow paddy, wheat and other cash crops, creating a dependency on the market. As they don’t have access to formal credit institutions, they are bound to get dependent on the informal credit system. Furthermore, their traditional food system was rich in nutrition and also served medicinal purposes. The food they are growing and getting from the public distribution system is low in nutritional value and also ignores their traditional knowledge and practice. Also,
hunting and food gathering activities were done in groups, creating a connectedness within the community that is eroding.
From all the presentations, it was evident that the life of tribal communities was good, whether related to living in the forest in the self-sustaining way of production system and food practices. The thought to consider is what else would these changes lead to?