The participant from Swaziland (a country of 1 million people), who arrived yesterday, was invited to introduce himself as soon as we arrived at the Hub. Heâ€™s with the Lubombo Community Multimedia (LCM), based in one of the four regions of Swaziland and most poverty-stricken region even though it is where sugarcane (â€œSwazilandâ€™s goldâ€) is being produced. He also hinted that thereâ€™s only one state-owned radio station, and two national newspapers which make information flow very limited. Thus, LCMâ€™s major task is that of granting access to the community as far as information is concerned. With the multimedia center, they operate a community radio for information exchange in local language; hope to operate a community newspaper; and a community telecenters in the main town within the Lubombo region. He stated that the community has a mentality that computers are for the upper class and the LCM is working hard to take care of this paradigm â€“ and possibly catalyze a shift. All the school teachers in the region have been trained, along with school groups, nurses and CBO/NGO workers â€“ and there are plans to train the business community.
Prof. Arunachalam invited staff of the Bio-center to tell participants about the project. Prof. Rosario highlighted the pro-women, pro-nature, and pro-poor leaning of the center, which brings appropriate technology from the laboratory to the land. The mission is to evolve methodologies for operationalising sustainable development in agriculture and rural development; and focuses on ecological viability, ecological feasibility and social access. Participatory research, capacity building and grassrootsâ€™ institution building are three dimensions that help define the centerâ€™s work. The centerâ€™s process path involves mobilization, organisation, technology incubation, capacity building, system management and withdrawal (change of role). The efforts of the center are needs-based, and focus on farmers who have no land at all, and women. The center supports grassroots groups such as Self Help Groups (SHGs), federations, farmers clubs, and others, to take up development initiatives utilizing bio-technology. Initially, women groups would rather not approach banks for loans, and the same was true for banks â€“ which was as bad as not allowing them to sit on the bankâ€™s benches. But with the application of the centerâ€™s system management concept, things have changed â€“ the banks and the women (through the MSSRF-assisted Self Help Groups) now have a good relationship.
Social mobilisation also provides the base for the genuine participatory approach to development and brings all the people in their various capacities in making decisions. The emergence of SHGs has led to the evolution of alternate credit systems which derive their strength from commitment and sincerity of group members. Prof. Rosario also stated that, â€œthe poor want to save, but need help on identifying how exactly to do soâ€. While access to credit is not enough to create livelihoods, experience at the center has shown that credit facilities accessed by SHGs help catalyze economic development, hence contribute to the alleviation of poverty. One of the centerâ€™s guiding principles is to introduce livelihood support for on-farm and off-farm sectors. The center also works towards ensuring a strong network between the community, banks, NGOs, government agencies, academic and research institutions, corporate sector, donor agencies, and policy makers. To date, the center has mobilised more than 400 SHGs with about 8000 individual members in Pondicherry, Chidambaram, Kannivadi and Orissa.
Participants proceeded to the Bio-center at the MSSRF Hub, where we were introduced to the activities of the center. The centerâ€™s development supports organic production, and has an interesting history:
(a) 1991: Dialogue on â€œBiotechnology in Agricultureâ€, tagged Reaching the Unreached, and held in Chennai;
(b) 1991-3: Baseline study on the invitation of the Government of Pondicherry. 3 villages were selected, and study was supported by the Asian Development Bank;
(c) 1993-5: Testing of technologies, training of participants and staff â€“ supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development;
(d) Pilot Bio Village demonstration project in 19 villages, and supported by the United Nations Development Program.
Prof. Rosario highlighted the enterprises facilitated by the bio-center for the SHGs (all demand-driven) such as mushroom cultivation, sericulture, fodder cultivation, milky mushroom, terracotta doll, floriculture, goat rearing, integrated dairy, backyard poultry, community aquaculture, nutritional garden, poultry farming, eco-friendly vehicle, trichogramma bio-pesticide and vermicompost. He noted that sericulture failed in Pondicherry because the market is in Bangalore, and further hinted that SHGs in the area are thus advised to stay away from this activity, noting the difficulty with transportation and other challenges responsible for its failure in the region. We visited the mushroom and pesticide sheds, and then had a meeting with the community â€“ government-based SHGs and SHG representatives from the communities in Pondicherry.
After the introduction of participants, the community went on to highlight the role of SHGs, stating that it has helped them with self confidence, coming out of their shells, doing what is right, coming out of poverty, working towards the betterment of society, and exploring the power of sharing. One of the community leaders mentioned that during elections, politicians visit the SHG women leaders, but they are quick to tell the politicians that voting is a personal exercise. Some of the other benefits include bank loans that are given to SHGs, rather than individuals; and shared responsibilities with their husbands (healthcare, childrenâ€™s education, etc). An SHG member however hinted that some men are not supportive of SHGs because they feel that their wives will be richer and more powerful upon exposure to the SHG experience. But one of the women spoke about being able to buy her husband a vehicle for his work, and another on how she helped negotiate her husbandâ€™s loan interest from Rs 30,000 to Rs 15,000 based on the knowledge she got from the SHGs. After an extended and warm exchange of ideas between participants and the community, a government official hinted that government only works with SHG groups with members below the poverty line (BPL), and the group may have male, female or mixed members. His block as 411 SHGs and there is continued support provided for groups that prove their worthy activities after 6 month periodic intervals.
After lunch, the team visited the Department of Veterinary and Animal Husbandry Extension of the Rajiv Gandhi College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences. We introduced ourselves to the staff of the department, and Dr. Surendra Rao told participants that the work of the department is to support farmers with the knowledge that will help them improve their yield. The college is involved with work around undergraduate studies, postgraduate studies, research and extension. He spoke about training programs that the department has held, such as women support and fodder development, and also the information kiosk for cattle health knowledge dissemination. Describing knowledge as input for the poor farmers, he stated that they are empowered to detect (in time) and control diseases, which in turn has an implication on their livelihoods. On the information kiosk, he hinted that after content development (in a format suitable for the kiosk), they make decisions on the location based on meetings with stakeholders.
Dr. Rao described the role of the kiosk in information empowerment, stating that after the farmers have had kiosk exposure, there is awareness on the opportunity, dialogue is promoted between farmers (or with their friends and/or field officers), demand is then made and of course, delivery (of information, service, medicine, etc) follows. The farmers eventually adopt the technology, improve production and make their lives better. He spoke further on the uses of kiosks, and described popular uses and attributes such as:
– Cattle owners get whole information (local language, locality of choice, help in making app decisions);
– Knowledge dissemination by â€œvalue added waiting timeâ€;
– Benefits landless who form the majority;
– Farmers get information even when thereâ€™s no veterinary doctor;
– User friendly;
– Farmers learn by seeing, and save money;
– Service provision for large group possible;
– Information is supplementary/complimentary to veterinary doctorâ€™s role;
– Easy maintenance;
– Useful to school students, who have increasingly shown interest in cattle rearing.
He also spoke about drawbacks in the use of the kiosks, such as the need for continuous power supply, the fact that the machine is not perfectly interactive (no immediate answers for non-programmed questions), need for upgrading at frequent intervals, high initial investment, and may lead to information overload when not properly monitored. After the discussion, we visited the departmentâ€™s exhibition hall and museum. The museum houses memoirs of different animals â€“ from the horseâ€™s whole skeleton to the parts of a dog. We also visited the pathological division of the museum where rows of glass stood as witnesses to the depth of research within the department. In the exhibition hall, participants were able to see the milestones that the department has been able to achieve, available infrastructure, extension activities, research program areas, work around the scientific rearing of cattle, and awards (one of which was the World Summit eContent Awards, aka Manthan Award). We also saw a demonstration of the information kiosk for cattle farmers.