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It’s got a nice ring to it

Technology can help India beat those poverty blues. KumKum Dasgupta writes.

india Updated: Oct 16, 2011 23:14 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times

While everyone is slamming the Planning Commission for grandly telling the Supreme Court that those who spend over Rs 32 a day in urban areas and Rs 26 a day in rural areas are not poor, I think it has done India’s have-nots a huge favour. At last, four decades after the ‘garibi hatao’ slogan was coined, India has been forced to vociferously debate its poverty estimates. With the government on the backfoot, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has called for a meeting of the National Advisory Council later this week to deliberate on it.

While poverty estimation has its own place and importance in India’s development agenda, there is an urgent need to accelerate the existing processes of poverty alleviation. Along with inclusive policies and an effective delivery system, India must look at affordable technologies to ensure that the poorest of the poor can improve their economic status rapidly.

Take for example, the case of farmers. According to estimates, 70% of the population is rural with agriculture as the main occupation. Nearly, 88% of India’s 240 million of farmers have small land holdings (less than two hectares) and for many among them, agriculture is becoming an unviable profession because of stagnating productivity and little access to markets.

One of the keys to growth of farm productivity (which also impacts the economic status of farmers) is timely information about weather, water, seeds etc. But despite India having over 440 Krishi Kendras, agricultural colleges, dedicated programmes on radio and TV, agricultural extension centres, the information flow from the government offices/laboratories has been patchy.

A 2010 report of the Food and Policy Research Institute says that farmers have not been able to get the benefit of global food price increases and high levels of inflation because they have little access to key information on production technologies, pest control, remunerative markets etc, despite India’s technological prowess.

This information vacuum gave Ranjan Sharma, who spent 27 years in the agricultural business, the opportunity he was looking for. His company Star Global Resources Ltd (SGR) worked on a simple idea: how to send farmers timely and authentic information. “It is only when you are in the field you realise how much the farmer is yearning for and how small and timely bits of information could make a difference to his life,” says Sharma. “To overcome the last-mile connectivity challenge, I latched on to the mobile telephony revolution.”

After successful pilots, SGR teamed up with Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited (Iffco) and set up a joint venture called Iffco Kisan Sanchar Limited (IKSL) in 2007. Seeing value in this relationship, Bharti Airtel joined them in 2008.

The core idea is simple: when farmers buy an IKSL mobile SIM card, which can be used like the normal SIM card, they become part of the IKSL network in their area. Every day, they receive five free voice messages in their local language on power availability, canal rosters, soil testing, fertiliser/seed availability, how to handle crop diseases, veterinary problems and offering general solutions for agri-productivity issues. The messages are specific to the region the farmer belongs to and sometimes specific to the crops and cooperatives he is registered with. What’s more, if a farmer has further queries/problems, he can call back the toll-free helpline and ask for expert solutions, provided by agriculture graduates at the call centre or specialists sitting in different agricultural universities in India. This voice-based information is delivered free of cost and in local languages. That there is a need for such a solution is evident from the fact that the company has over one million subscribers and its average acquisition is 3.5 lakh farmers a month now.

“The system is very user-friendly. I carry my mobile phone to the field and whenever I see any problem, I call the helpline immediately. Earlier, I had to travel 20 kilometres to reach the government’s extension office even for a small problem. Last year, they gave me a low-cost solution that saved my entire coconut crop,” says Linga Gowda, a member of Brahmanpura Agricultural Cooperative in Karnataka’s Mandya district.

Understanding the value of such an information pipeline, some states have used the same IKSL channel for spreading information on their polio campaign and send out cyclone warnings.

While the company has been feted internationally (recently, it won the International Coffey Award), and was also mentioned by US President Barack Obama during his visit to India last year as one of the top agricultural innovations, it is doing well because it has been able to provide local solutions instead going for a one solution fits all model, something that the government agencies need to learn and implement even as we get down to the important work of counting the poor.

First Published: Oct 16, 2011 22:56 IST