PTD emerging in South India – an overview

H.N. Chanakya

Drawing parallels with the appropriate technology movement, the author presents in this feature the experiences and merits of the farmer-centred participatory technology development for experimenting with and adapting agricultural technologies to suit the needs of resource poor farmers.

Central to the concept of low external input sustainable agriculture (LEISA) is the shared vision of empowered resource-poor farmers (RPF) as well as the need to constantly improve the agricultural technology components to suit the changing socio-economic, ecological and environmental needs and concerns. Many NGOs and farmers believe that empowerment occurs best only when RPFs have greater control over the means and inputs of agricultural production.

For the casual visitor to a LEISA farmer’s field there could arise several questions on a variety of issues.

  1. What is LEISA?
  2. Mainstream research versus Participatory Technology Development (PTD) – what are the distinctive features?
  3. Processes involved in dissemination and acceptance?
  4. Has the introduction of peoples’ technologies helped or lead to further innovations? Will this lead to a multiplier effect?
  5. Have attempts to innovate, experiment and adapt also led to a research / technology development capability? Are there parallels from the sphere of “appropriate” technology?
  6. Will or can the poor take the risk to experiment?

LEISA, qualified in the introduction, is a means and a path to remain “competitive” in spite of the onslaught of impoverishing “hi-tech” solutions from various quarters of the system. The goals of the farmers pursuing LEISA thus extend far beyond the simple mindset of quick profits into the hard issues of ecological soundness, sustainability, self-reliance, etc.

Having placed these three criteria before everything else, it is obvious that anyone would consider and possibly take to traditional agricultural technologies (pre-1960) as model technologies which easily pass the above criteria. These technologies being time-tested, the logic ‘if it was good then, it will continue to be good now’ – appears difficult to refute. The farmer can thus fall back on something that s/he can trust. However, it appears that the problems grassroots agricultural ‘extension’ workers faced, have now acquired a greater degree of complexity covering a very diverse set of issues.

So, taking recourse to traditional knowledge or technology has not been easy either. Traditional beliefs, practices and other storehouses of knowledge were destroyed in the process of modernization and also in the act of removing “superstition”. As a result, the materials used in traditional technologies eg. traditional seeds, equipment, etc. are no longer readily available. In reality, traditional technologies are either lost or key segments are difficult to revive. On the other hand, modern agricultural technologies are becoming increasingly unviable either due to economic, social, ecological or cultural conflicts between what is required and what is available. Thus, for agriculture development a people (user) centred alternative option akin to appropriate technology (AT) is required.

Experiences with Appropriate Technology Development:

A closer examination of AT as an alternative development mode and the lessons and experiences therein, reveals that there were two types of people involved – one segment of committed technology developers who empathized with the end-users and another (very large) group who developed technology without great empathy for the end-user, (largely because AT was well funded). While the former was a slow process with enduring outcomes, the latter generated technologies/devices with rapidity – many of which are now lost into oblivion. Technologies that eventually gained wide acceptance had a few key ingredients in their development process.

  1. End-users most often had a significant say in the design of the technologies or in the manner in which they had to be used.
  2. Considerable time was spent in adapting prototypes to match end-users’ perceptions. There was sufficient flexibility in this process of adaptation, without loss of efficiency.
  3. In most cases the major beneficiary was the end-user – being empowered through reduced drudgery, greater self reliance and a higher social standing.
  4. The major critics of the technologies were the larger communities who either accepted or provided appropriate reasons for rejection. In other words technology was evaluated by the community as a group, that also led to its dissemination.

Parallels in Participatory Technology Development:

Likewise, a review of various alternative agriculture systems  promoted during the very same AT development era, indicates that very few survived, because of fairly similar factors. Thus, when working on the technology needs of RPFs, an equivalent set of criteria are likely to apply. In order to meet this growing need to develop suitable technologies for RPFs, an alternative mechanism becomes necessary, where the end user is also an innovator, his/her immediate society the critic and the RPF the major beneficiary.

Participatory technology development (PTD) has evolved under very similar circumstances, primarily to address the needs of RPFs and in keeping with the criteria for farmer-centred technology development. The end-user (RPF), critics and evaluators (farmers’ groups) and facilitators (catalysts, NGOs) are the key actors in the process.  However, unlike AT where much of the material, skill and funding inputs came from outside sources, PTD largely uses local skills and knowledge.  It is thus expected that innovations will occur gradually and in smaller units. The cases discussed below illustrate how this is happening.

Case 1:

There are no easy ways of disposing 50-100g /capita of kitchen waste generated everyday by a farm household. It is too small to start a compost pit, but sufficiently valuable to consider alternative options. Vermicompost technology promoted currently requires the use of 500 litre concrete tanks and a great deal of protection. At such a scale of operation the quantum of waste required is high. Sunderammal of Kulathur village of Tiruchi district has created an alternative method for  small-scale compost making, based on the concrete tank technique. She uses a 30 litre earthern pot as the container (costing Rs.30) to accumulate her kitchen waste over a few days. She mixes with it a small quantity of vermicompost and a few earthworms as initial inoculum. The earthen pot placed at the base of a creeper maintains optimum temperature even in peak summer. It also removes any excess moisture rapidly (earthworms are susceptible to flooding). An earthen cover for the pot protects the earthworms from pests and predators. This simple innovation has eliminated some operational problems associated with vermi-composting, and provides sufficient vermi-compost for her  20m2 kitchen garden, to meet the family’s requirements of vegetables and greens. It is now being tested by other women farmers of the village.

Case 2:

Apical dominance is a common feature in many crops. It enables farmers to raise limited numbers of large fruits that command an attractive price in the market. On the other hand when cucurbits (ash, snake, bottle gourds etc.) are cultivated in kitchen gardens, the plants are allowed to spread on the thatched roof where there is little competition for sunlight. Apical dominance then becomes a serious limiting factor for household level consumption as it allows the growth of large gourds, all of which can neither be consumed in a single day nor  stored. Trimming apical buds leads to profuse flowering and staggered maturation of appropriately sized fruits, ideal for the daily needs of an RPF family.This locally adapted technique (brought in from another region) is spreading rapidly among small-scale vegetable farmers and RPFs. It is of immense value to them as it is likely to save about Rs.5 /family /day (unspent) on vegetables and promote a measure of self-reliance, particularly among the women farmers.


Case 3:

For an RPF who works as an agricultural labourer, digging a compost pit single handed can be quite difficult. On the other hand if 5 to 6 of them function as a group the initiative is stronger, the work gets completed  quickly, and there is better collective wisdom on how and where to locate the pits and the suitability of materials for composting. Four sub-groups of a 20-member farmers’ collective at SRDT worked together and to overcome the problem of inadequate time to work on their own small farms. Now each farmer has access to some compost, generated collectively during the relatively short window available for agricultural operations in this semi-arid zone.

The above examples provide three emerging scenarios of technological adaptations and innovations by RPFs.

  • Those developed, emerging and evaluated from within networks/NGOs spreading outwards.
  • Those brought in from outside and open to new and locally adaptable ideas.
  • Innovations and adaptations related to implementation strategies evolved by users.

Adaptations and innovations, unless tested adequately and without bias, have little or no use for others. Any  innovation in agriculture is not easy to reproduce either in the same field in the following year or in the neighbour’s field, because a large number of factors influence the single important parameter – yield. In traditional wisdom, the final yield has been related to various climatic and genetic factors as well as resource use patterns (inputs) for a crop. Their capability to alter the final yield has also been quantified in a certain sense. In the conventional agricultural system there is an insistence on a minimum degree of rigour and precision of measurements, without which any innovation or improvement cannot be pronounced repeatable or reproducible. It is also necessary that the RPF takes a minimum set of precautions and a level of precision before others judge these innovations as something that the innovator and they could adapt to their own lands. Thus any innovation or improvement which RPFs will adapt to their agriculture, needs to be –

  • tested by the RPF in his/her plot,
  • criticised, evaluated and approved by the larger farming community, and
  • reproduced on a larger scale in RPF’s main agricultural field.

In Essence:

The concept of trial and experimental plots thus becomes critical in the RPF’s constant strife for improvement. It requires the farmer to develop the purposefulness of a researcher and the extent of success be judged by her/ his fellow farmers; and all these need to happen without the benefit of formal training. To determine how much of these have been found in the field will require a deeper study. At this stage it is sufficient to point out that

  • The PTD processes initiated by networks/NGOs has enhanced the level of agricultural innovations/ improvements normally found in agriculture.
  • An important aspect has been the evaluation of every innovation or improvement by a group of fellow farmers. Thus expansion of all claims not reproducible are immediately aborted.
  • Local innovations and a hope that RPFs themselves would one day innovate to improve their agriculture, brings in a vision of a brighter tomorrow.
  • There is hope that they would one day become empowered and self-reliant.

Innovations and adaptations have a certain rate at which they are expected to appear. A single-minded desire or a great ability to innovate are singly or put together, often sufficient. There are many great actors as well as steps in a typical innovation or adaptation chain. Only when all these occur close together in time and space, can innovation and adaptation become accepted and disseminated (Krishnaswamy & Reddy, 1989).

 [Disclaimer! Much of the information obtained for this article is based on interactions with a large number of farmers involved with /practicing LEISA in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu.  The author is grateful to them for sharing their vast knowledge, experience and interpretations.  However, the opinions expressed and analyses brought out are exclusively that of the author.]


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