Shivram Pailoor is expanding the agricultural community by bringing together everyone working in the sector and enabling a more relevant dialogue among them through the effective use of technological enhancement to combat threats like globalization.
The New Idea
As the son of a farmer from a remote village, Shivram is working to create a new system of communication among key stakeholders in the agricultural sector–including farmers, the government, academics, media, and business people–to benefit agriculture, the very backbone of the Indian economy. To meet this goal, Shivram is transforming and modernizing the field of agricultural media; he is generating tools that small farmers can use to adjust to globalization. Shivram knows that the new economy is rapidly developing in ways that can have enormous impact on agriculture. He intends to mitigate the negative effects. His work offers hope to farmers who otherwise might succumb to misleading advice and inaccurate information.
With rising literacy, the spread of technology, and the advent of globalization, Shivram is generating a communications system that gives the small landholding farmers the potential to have access to relevant information. He is also providing information systems with which the stakeholders in agriculture can become aware of and able to connect with the farming community throughout the world. Together they can deal with the hazardous effects on the environment and health from the use of chemical fertilizers, genetically engineered crops, and the shift from traditional methods that resulted in loss of soil nutrients.
Basically, Shivram is building a new sense of community among the key players in agriculture and changing the set of actors dispensing and managing information to and from farmers.
Although farming is central to Indian economy and society, poor communications among people who grow food and those who buy and sell it, conduct research, and make agricultural policies limits both productivity and farmers' ability to positively influence the country's political and economic direction.
In 1989, for example, when the government promoted the growing of cloves, many farmers followed the advice blindly without realizing that huge numbers of farmers were planting the same crop in other parts of India, as well as in other countries. The bumper harvest that year resulted in a dramatic drop in prices per kilogram from the expected 400 rupees to just 40. In another instance, the government encouraged farmers to plant oil palms but neglected to inform them that they must be processed within 24 hours of harvesting. Unfortunately, there was only one processing plant in the entire state; it failed to deliver the promised support services or pay the purchase price agreed upon in advance. As a result, thousands of farmers lost the bulk of their crop and fell into debt.
Because farmers cannot depend on government information, they are not in a position to identify the optimum price of the crop. With the rural market opening up, it is infinitely more difficult for the farmers to predict prices. Traditional farmers are also subject to location-related fluctuations. It is becoming harder for farmers to plan crop strategies. Globalization is affecting the traditional farmers because small farms have low productivity and lack scale and mechanization–all of which make them less competitive. Information that is dispersed from the extension agents is not relevant to the farmers. The present scenario does not encourage farmer-to-farmer communication in any way.
Agricultural scientists and extension officials with limited knowledge of communications end up dominating the agricultural media and are largely disconnected from farmers. Journalism school faculty have little professional training or expertise in agriculture. The numerous farm journals published by agricultural universities and government departments are written in a heavy academic style that meets the career objectives of authors but is inaccessible to the average farmer. The publications fail to meet the practical needs of farmers.
Toxicity, pesticides, and downstream issues affect the environment of the farmers. Isolated farmers have no sense of others who are suffering. The knowledge systems are rudimentary. The increase in the incidence of cancer, neurological disease, epilepsy, asthma, and infertility in the vicinity of Padre village was finally attributed to the aerial spray of deadly endosulphan by the state-owned Plantation Corporation.
Far too many farmers are experiencing economic despair, frustration, and isolation. These conditions are leading many to abandon farming and migrate to crowded cities, and in cases of extreme despair, even to commit suicide. There have been over 300 suicides among farmers in the last year. Given the alarming trends, there is a sense of urgency to mitigate the farmers' frustration and fatalism and assist them to lead better lives.
Shivram is developing and testing new methods of communication with a variety of actors in order to encourage mixed audiences of farmers, academics, government extension agents, and journalists to share their diverse knowledge and experience. The Center for Alternative Agricultural Media (CAAM) has a diverse board of representatives from different sectors including media, government and other countries. Shivram is employing a number of strategies to provide relevant information to the agricultural community. The CAAM Web site is India's first "farm portal" where people can both explore key issues and events and connect to others concerned about farming. CAAM publishes issue-based bulletins that contain information on relevant agricultural issues like eco-friendly farming, the harmful effects of pesticides, concerns about biodiversity, genetically modified seeds, innovative farming practices, and the impact of the WTO on Indian agriculture. Shivram makes significant use of this strategy to encourage people from all over the world to discuss issues related to farming and ultimately to have influence at the policy level. These bulletins are also published as newspaper articles to generate income.
CAAM is organizing workshops for policymakers, administrators, and teachers on current agricultural topics and short-term communication training for farmers so that they can learn to use the media for their benefit. Over 200 farmers have written about their experience in using high-yielding varieties of different crops, problems with diseases and pests, innovations in organic agriculture, and alternatives to standard, government-extension advice. Through his work, Shivram has demonstrated the value of farmers sharing their experiences to influence extension services, academic circles, and policymaking. To give incentives for excellent and useful writing on agricultural issues, CAAM has instituted awards for outstanding journalism in the farmer section of newspapers and in the general news. CAAM is also organizing exposure trips for media and journalists to understand the real problem of the farming communities, and it has launched the first-of-its-kind diploma in farm journalism.
Shivram is shifting the mechanism of communication responding to issue-based awareness. Through the IT medium, he is ensuring a two-way communication between farmers and all the important players in the farming community. At a time when rural communities are attaining literacy, and rural areas are being connected by computers, Shivram is generating information systems that will improve the lives of the farmers. His approach of publishing bulletins and establishing a worldwide network of all concerned parties in agriculture is nonhierarchical. By democratizing access to information, he is giving access to some of the most underprivileged people in the world. Over 1,000 people subscribe to his bulletins and innumerable others visit the Web site. The site is being translated into local languages so that it can reach the remote rural farmer.
In the demonstration of the emerging application of information technology revolution in the farming sector, Shivram was responsible for generating awareness about the endosulphan issue. By putting it on the Web and in a bulletin to the CAAM subscribers, he focused worldwide attention on what was happening in Padre village of the Western Ghats. The result was that Ashoka Fellow Shree Padre was successful in getting at least a temporary ban on the aerial spray of the pesticide on the plantation.
Now using the IT media, Shivram is planning discussions on crop issues, pesticides, and other farming issues. He is generating agricultural information for newspapers, radio programs, online discussions between academics, the extension, farmers, and other stakeholders. For example, farmers in rural areas of Nepal are now sharing their strategies and queries with farmers in rural Karnataka.
All of CAAM ventures are available to agricultural community stakeholders at a small cost. This is affordable for the smallest farmer and yet covers the costs of organizing events and programs.
Shivram grew up on his father's small farm without electricity or modern amenities in a remote village in southern India. One memory that had a profound effect on him was witnessing his father cut down 600 clove trees after the price plummeted from the oversupply. As a boy, he was extremely curious and attracted to media. He recalled "the rare excitement in the village when the agricultural media extension agent came to town with his projector films." As a student, Shivram started several student papers including a wall newspaper called Dwani ("voice").
In college, Shivram specialized in development communication and broadcast journalism. He wrote his thesis on knowledge sharing among farmers. He applied his training first as the editor of Spice India magazine and then–given radio's importance in rural life–joined the All India information service. He has broken major stories and received worldwide attention for reports like the high number of farmer suicides in Karnataka that followed the failed cotton crop.
Shivram has worked extensively with Ashoka Fellow Shree Padre. The core of his learning stemmed from helping farmers write their own stories and helping them promote "self-help journalism."
The Internet has had a significant impact on Shivram. The two-way flow gave him an insight into a new media strategy. To a great extent he realized that it could be the medium to communicate the farmer stories to the rest of the world. Uniquely equipped with the formal education and the wisdom of a farmer with deep connections to the soil, Shivram was then able to launch his Center for Alternative Agricultural Media.