Extension education in the context of a changing agriculture


Indian agriculture is undergoing a rapid transformation under globalization, from a simple way of making a living to a complex economic endeavour. As such, extension service to  has to make appropriate readjustments in its goals and strategies, while its principles and processes remain intact.

01        There was a time when agriculture was entirely a self-contained, local pursuit of livelihood, in a traditional setting.  But, as science progressed, some elements of new knowledge were seen as useful in agriculture.  Modernization of agriculture began as linkages between science and agriculture started taking shape, as advisory service or extension education.

02        The pre-requisites for this linkage to be functional are a body of validated knowledge viewed as useful, practical and acceptable, a perceived need for this knowledge in the farming community, and a linking mechanism.  Here, by connotation, advisory service is one that prescribes or offers new knowledge to the farmers, recognizing the local need for such knowledge.  Extension education, on the other hand, goes a step beyond, and not only offers new knowledge but also guides farmers in its proper application under local conditions.  In simple terms, while the advisory service provides the “know how”, extension education provides both the “know how” and the “do how”.

03        It is perhaps necessary for the academicians to recognize adequately the fact that modernization of agriculture is not merely a matter of induction of new technology into farming, but is also a matter of capacity building among the practicing farmers.  This capacity building function is widely recognized as “out-of-school education” or “adult education”.  This venture, which involves both communication and education, has come to be known as extension education.

04        It may be useful at this stage to take note of the common definition of extension education:

Extension education is a system of working with farmers, their families and communities, employing non-formal educational procedures, to relate useful, practical knowledge to their needs and interests, thereby enabling them to make satisfactory improvements in their ways of living and making a living.

 Paper for the National Seminar on “Responding to Changes and Challenges: New Roles of Agricultural Extension”, college of Agriculture, Nagpur, from 7-9, February 2003.


05        On attaining freedom, India inherited not only a stagnant agriculture but also an enormous food deficit.  As a part of the rural reconstruction effort, the country then launched the Community Development Programme and the National Extension Service, introducing a multi-purpose extension functionary, supported by a set of subject-matter specialists.  This approach, working with available support services and available technologies, succeeded in building up durable contacts with the rural communities and local leaders, and winning their trust and confidence.  Even though the progress in agriculture was modest at this stage, the contacts established with the farmers proved to be very useful when the new agricultural technology, based on seed-fertilizer combination, became accessible, which led to the historic green revolution.

06        During this period, as agricultural progress acquired greater urgency, the multi-purpose extension functionary was made to work exclusively as the agricultural extension functionary.  This phase of extension work, marked by a tremendous amount of enthusiasm on the part of the farmers, extension staff, researchers, local leaders and policy makers, delivered the country into food security and modest exportable surpluses.  The extension system, thus, had made its share of contribution, effectively.

07        But then followed a phase of slackness, in the wake of green revolution, by when the stagnant agriculture had become a surplus producing system.  The extension agency lost its direction; farmers began feeling contented; research output slowed down; and the policy makers relaxed.  But, it is at this stage that the extension system should have been geared up to deal with the second-generation problems, and the other follow up agricultural development activities.


08        Over the last fifty years, overcoming the huge food deficit may be regarded as the major achievement to the credit of Indian agriculture.  However, many after-effects of green revolution began materializing in the subsequent years.  Further, several fresh problems also got added to the development task.  Out of these, some that are relevant to extension service are indicated here.

Purpose of farming is changing

09        Farming is progressing in phases.  To begin with, it was family farming.  It was entirely a self-contained venture, with the seed coming from the past harvest, manure from the farm wastes, and labour from the joint family, while the produce was for the family’s consumption.  But, faced with an enormous food deficit, the country had to go into surplus farming, making use of the new agricultural technology.  Here, while the farmers produced far beyond their family needs, the surpluses entering the market did not create any price collapse, since the supplies largely remained below the market demand.

10        At about this time, the rural society was moving away from the barter economy, into the money economy, as the system of village services and artisans was falling apart.  As such, all farmers, big and small, began seeking cash incomes.  Farmers, therefore, began entering some kind of market farming, to meet the family expenses on the one hand, and to purchase farm inputs, on the other.  There were, broadly, three kinds of market farming ventures.  One, a large number of small farmers, occasionally using purchased inputs, produced mainly commodities that were saleable in local shandies.  Two, a small number of elite farmers took to high-tech farming, to produce export commodities of international standards, against known demands.  Third, a considerable number of mid-size farmers, with access to technology, resources and political power, went into producing huge surpluses of common commodities, ignoring the demand limitations.  It is they who created the market gluts and price slumps.

11        Then, the recent processes of liberalization, privatization and globalization are pushing the farmers into a vast competitive market.  As a result, entry into commercial farming has become necessary.  Here, farming has to become a business.  In this phase, market surpluses will have to face not only the domestic competition but also the international competition under WTO regime.

Farming conditions degenerate

12        The conditions under which farming is practiced have undergone vast changes.  This has taken place both on the farms and around the farms.  These changes together make a tremendous impact on the farm enterprise as a whole.

13        Environmental degradation is a major one.  Under semi-arid conditions, farming requires the close support of the environment.  Depletion of vegetation on non-arable land has become the bane.  Primarily, the recycling of organic matter is drastically reduced.  The microclimate is also adversely affected.  Rainwater loss results in enhanced run off and lowered infiltration, reducing the ground water recharge.  Further, the bio balances between the cultivated crops and the vegetation around, gets seriously upset.  All these affect crop stability and yield levels.


14        Impaired soil fertility is another factor.  Arable lands have suffered heavily in the last few decades.  Erosion of the top soil, particularly the finer fractions from uplands; reduced soil organic matter affecting nutrient content; water holding capacity; and the soil biological life are the major problems.  Under irrigation too water logging and salinisation are becoming serious problems.  All these, again, affect farm productivity.  Excessive reliance on farm chemicals is not only causing soil health problems but also many pollution problems.

  • Our farm holdings tell another story. Over the years, the farm holdings are getting marginalized.  Within 30 years, between 1961 and 1991, the average size of the holdings has come down from 2.69 ha to 1.57 ha.  With Karnataka as a case, within 25 years, between from 1971 and 1996, the small and marginal holdings have increased in number by 125% and coverage by 110%.  Thus, the uneconomic holdings are increasing, unabatedly.

16        Infrastructure support, as farming moves towards commercialization, is no different from what it was twenty years ago.  The backward linkages including input supply, credit, power and irrigation have seen no marked improvement.  If anything, their dependability has suffered.  The forward linkages including roads, transport, storage, processing and marketing facilities have far less to claim.

17        Farm incomes are constantly a source of complaint.  The market prices for farm commodities are unstable.  The input costs are always on the rise.  The uncertain seasonal conditions further vitiate the problem.  Further, mid-size farmers producing saleable surpluses, unmindful of the market demand, have been compounding the misery on the farm front.

Agricultural growth slackens

18        The combined effect of environmental degeneration, on-farm degradation, neglect of organics in farming, mono-cropping, over-reliance on fertilizers and poor management practices have been leading to stagnant or declining farm yields.  Added to this are the facts that the technology support and research output have weakened, over time.  As a result, the growth rate in agriculture, which rose from 0.3% before independence to 3.3% during the green revolution, has subsequently declined by 1.8%.

Globalization becomes puzzling

19        WTO is often touted as a helpful development to Indian agriculture.  But, a

closer look does not contribute to this assumption.  The main focus of the WTO is on the trade sector.  Indian farmer has to face a global competition for his products not only in the international market but in the domestic market as well.  To meet this competition, Indian goods should be comparable to imported goods both in quality and cost.  Regulation of the cost is related to the scale economy, that a farmer can afford.  Quality is something that is related to the managerial competence of the farmer.  Thus, both these criteria that now come into focus in the trade sector are actually determined in the production sector, the farms.

20        Here, the concept of level playing field is advanced to dispel the apprehensions of the developing nations.  But, this concept does not seem to be applicable in the farm sector.  For, the 2-hectare Indian farmer cannot dream of attaining the scale economy of the 200-hectare Western farmer.  So, on the cost factor, Indian farmer has a marked disadvantage.  Similarly, on the quality factor, the Indian farmer, who pursues the dual goal farming of food security and cash income, can hardly be a match to the Western farmer, who is practicing commercial farming since Second World War.

Farming communities are troubled

21      The rural population keeps growing.  In 1951, the total population of 36cr. had 83% in rural areas.  By 2001, the total population was 102 cr. of which 72% was rural.  But, in absolute numbers, the rural population increased from 30cr. to 74cr during this period. The farmland remaining the same, this amounts to an enormous pressure on land.

22        Meanwhile, the outlook of the farm population is also changing tangibly.  The increasing exposure to urban life and mass media has transformed their worldview.  Many of the farmers now think that farm life is dull, farm work is drudgery, and it is not a paying occupation.  The educational levels having gone up, farm youth feel that there are other ways of making a “good living”, and farming is their last choice.  Thus, farm life seems to have lost its earlier dignity.


23        Agriculturally, India is placed in a peculiar position.  We have a large human and animal population, with relatively limited land resources.  Our farm productivity is not of the highest order.  Our record of conservation and management of natural farm resources, at least in recent times, is not in the commendable category.  A large proportion of our population is still trapped in farming for a living, and will perhaps remain there for decades, since the prospect of trade and industry absorbing the excess rural population is remote.  As such, there is no other option than making a greater investment in the development of our farm resources and human capital.

24        In the wake of green revolution, we see three prominent consequences.  One, our farmers have accepted and absorbed some of the advanced farm technologies, and have gained a degree of surplus production capacity.  At the same time, they have become over-dependent on fertilizers and pesticides, and have resorted to monocropping, neglecting sound traditional practices.  Also, they have begun to overlook the necessity of maintaining good environmental support to farming.  There are repercussions, which we are facing now.

25        Another present day concern is the cumulative impact of liberalization and globalization, taking the form of VVTO regime.  With the removal of QRs, foreign farm goods of competitive cost and quality have begun entering the domestic market.  As a result, even to remain in our own market, our farmers have to quickly gain the management abilities for cost cutting and quality regulation.  With this end in view, determined development efforts have to be mounted, now.

Survival requires efficiency

26        First, the on-farm production efficiency must improve vastly, leading to reduction of areas now assigned to different enterprises, which can facilitate diversification of farm products, in response to market demands.  Second, conservation and management of natural resources on the farms, which is not given adequate attention at present, has to be given due priority, in the interest of sustainable agriculture.  Third, the farm environment, which has so far suffered extensive depletion, has to be rapidly rebuilt through community efforts, again with agricultural sustainability in view.  Agricultural extension must focus on this.

27        As farming moves towards commercialization, the backward and forward linkages and infrastructure facilities will assume enormous importance.  In fact, without this support, agricultural development as a whole will be constrained.  At this stage, post-harvest technologies and value addition processes will also gain critical prominence.  This, again, is a new focal point for the extension service.

Facing the limitations of small holdings

28        Small and fragmented holdings pose the most serious problem to Indian agriculture in coping with the WTO challenges.  The potential of the concept of small farmer consortium, proposed some time in the past, has not been fully explored.  Voluntary “interest groups” of small farmers have to be promoted more seriously.  Pooling their land resources and efforts, they may be able to gain the benefits of scale economy, at least to some extent.  “Self-Help Groups” seem to have kindled some hope in this regard.  Survival of such groups appears be linked to their voluntary nature, indicating that any top-down approach may become counter-productive.  Contract farming opportunities may be another approach.  Also, labour-intensive enterprises, tuned to the situational advantages we have, is an option.  Farmers must be guided to explore these alternatives.

Promoting sustainable agriculture

29        For a country like India, with narrow land-man ratio, soil farmed for ages, and depleted forests and farm environment, sustainable agriculture must be a matter of highest importance.  So far, this has not been a prominent part of the development effort.  Even the traditional practices contributing to sustainability have been ignored in recent years.  Therefore, sustainable agriculture, with emphasis on resource conservation, bio mass production, crop rotations, eco-friendly production practices and combination of enterprises, must be high priority extension goals, in the future.

Building people’s organizations

30        Further, development efforts in future have to be largely people-centered.  For, much of what requires to be done in the days ahead will be within the capability of local people. Resource management, restoration of environmental support and building local facilities will all be handled quickly, efficiently and economically, if the people concerned are sensitized, enthused and guided. Hence, organizing people for development will be a major future extension task.


31        Globalization of the Indian economy will have a pronounced impact on the agricultural sector.  The new market pulls will bring into existence an elite category of Indian farmers which is interested in and capable of entering into commercial farming, often catering to the international markets.  At the same time, this impact will also lead to the formation of a larger segment of small and marginal farmers, generally in the resource-poor category, basically engaged in subsistence-cum-cash farming.

32        The extension service required by these two segments will be distinctly different.  The commercial segment will require, over and above the general technical services, specialized technical services related to their commercial ventures, mostly from private agencies, while the larger segment of subsistence farmers will require general technical services, relevant to the times.

Farming community differentiates

33        The commercial segment will be a relatively smaller portion of the farm population, essentially made up of venture-some farmers.  These are people who are constantly on the lookout for new profit-making new ideas, in an enterprise-based agriculture.  Also, they will often take it as a matter of prestige to be on the forefront of the modernization process.

34        The subsistence segment is a large proportion of the farm population consisting of small and marginal farmers.  Meeting the family food needs will be their major concern.  Also, as compelled by the present day lifestyles, they must ensure some cash income to cover family expenses and farm expenditures.  Hence, they seek to combine cash crops with food crops.  Or else, they take up some off-farm employment.

Prospective extension service

35        The public extension system – For a long time to come, till the trade, industry and service sectors are able to absorb the surplus rural manpower, the country is bound to carry a predominantly large subsistence segment in the agricultural sector.  Most of these farmers are stuck in agriculture, with nowhere else to go.  They will have to be provided with a farm-door extension service, aimed at incremental farm improvements, within their resource limitations.  Here, attention will be devoted to improving the on-farm production efficiency, resource management and environmental support, along with market management.

36        The specialized technical service – Keen attention needs to be paid to promoting the growth of commercial farming, recognizing that this will create more wealth and employment in the rural sector.  Since the competence required to provide this service will be normally beyond the public extension system, groups of professional experts in different fields will be encouraged to provide this service, as private agencies.  A few such groups are already in existence.  This will be supplemented by the services provided by input firms, processing units and farmers’ organizations.

Reconditioning the extension service

37        As an economic sector, agriculture, compared to industry, suffers certain handicaps.  Depending on the monsoon, its productivity is unstable.  Also, in the market, it faces unstable price situations, since surpluses or shortfalls arise out of seasonal conditions.  It is a highly unorganized sector.  All the same, it is providing livelihood for the bulk of the population.  For all these reasons, the democratic regime will have to provide the extension service to the farming communities as a welfare service.  Hence the need for strengthening the public extension system to provide an efficient service, keeping the future tasks in view.




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