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Helping farm labourers access new technologies and knowledge should be a priority for policymakers, argues innovation expert Anil Gupta.

The concept of 'farmers first', which promotes farmer-led agricultural innovation, has been discussed for at least twenty years. But the idea of 'farm labourers first' is yet to emerge as a priority for any political party or scientific community. When political debates do feature farm labourers, they usually stress the right to manual work, rather than the need for better technologies or knowledge.

Agricultural and other rural labourers oftenhave more technical information about local resources and variations in their use than the farmers themselves because they often work on several farms. Yet they seldom have access to technological advances or research findings, and have few opportunities to capitalise on their knowledge.

New tools for farm labourers are extremely rare. In many parts of the world there have been no advances in the design of sickles in the past thirty years, for example. Even where new technologies doexist, they are rarely made widely available to farm labourers.

Communication is key

Even so, changing the way existing institutional technologies are used can both add value to labourers' knowledge and make them more productive.

In some cases, this simply involves improving occupational safety by communicating risk and providing safety norms. For example, despite the known environmental and health effects of agrochemicals, including pesticides, there are hardly any billboards in India showing how to use these chemicals safely. Only a fraction of one per cent of labourers in the country use safety gear when applying pesticides.

Similarly, millions of women working in paddy fields could avoid the widespread fungal infections caused by keeping their feet in water all day by simply applying castor oil or fungicidal creams — if only they knew about or had access to them. No Indian labourers under any employment program are given preventive information or materials — not even a bar of soap, even though 60 per cent of diseases are waterborne. Yet making herbal soap from non-edible tree oil seeds could generate considerable employment.

Technological solutions

In other cases, the wider use of simple machines could reduce drudgery and improve efficiency. For instance, a labourer plucking leaves in a tea garden moves her hand to put leaves in the basket behind her several thousand times a day. Simple mechanical devices could significantly reduce this burden but no one seems to be addressing such problems.

Even more distressing are cases where farm labourers find innovative solutions, but these are then disregarded. For example, despite innovators such as Joseph Appachan in Kerala or Mushtaq Ahmad Dar in Kashmir developing several tree climbers, almost every coconut eaten in India has been manually harvested.

Indeed, some political parties still believe that adding value to local knowledge and improving productivity will harm labourers, rather than benefit them, arguing that mechanical solutions could replace labour. But why not help labourers become more productive? If we make a massive effort to reskill labourers and share technological and scientific knowledge that can help them to do their job better, we will not only improve their lives, but also improve the agricultural sector as a whole.

This applies to simple and more advanced technology alike. During a recent 'Shodh Yatra' — a walk to celebrate grassroots creativity and innovation — the son of one labourer asked: "If I have a small quantity of manure to apply in a small field, how do I decide how much to apply where?" If labourers had access to electronic sensors, they could map the field's micronutrient profile and apply the manure where it is needed most. Or they could be trained to use weeds as indicators of the soil's mineral properties to help them manage nutrients.

Learning benefits

Similarly, training in the heritability and selection indices used in crop-breeding research could help increase productivity or reduce costs. The large number of crop varieties developed by Indian farmers shows that they already do simple selective breeding.

In most agricultural research stations, it is the labourers that do the crossing. The same is true for cross-pollinating programmes in cotton. Training from agricultural scientists could help labourers make even more intelligent and well-informed crosses. This would increase crop diversity, which would in turn minimise pest epidemics, improve tolerance to climatic fluctuations, and hopefully increase productivity.

If labourers can provide an economic benefit in agriculture, they can command a premium in the labour market. The more differentiated the labour market becomes, the higher the incentives are for learning, acquiring knowledge and sharing among local group members.

The time has come to put the farm labourer at the heart of technology and development policies. Failure to do so will result in widespread tension in many parts of India. We cannot hope for cheap food, but we can improve skills, boost productivity, reduce drudgery and enhance people's quality of life.

Anil Gupta is executive vice-chair of the National Innovation Foundation in India and a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. He coordinates the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) and edits the Honey Bee Newsletter.

Further reading

Gupta, A. From farmers first to labourers first: Why do we still know so little? [177kB] Farmers First (2007)

Macdonald, S. Agricultural improvement and the neglected labourer. [904kB]The Agricultural History Review, 31, 81-90 (1983)

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