The Making of a Social Institution

 Manjulika Vaz

The LEISA Network, a unique semi-formal institutional set-up of NGOs and farmers across ten districts of Tamil Nadu collaborate for a common purpose – to promote low external input sustainable agriculture. Here, the author discusses the characteristics, modus operandi and common ideology that go into the making of a social institution.

When eighty two NGOs and over 1500 farmers from ten districts of Tamil Nadu come together because of their belief in a form of agriculture requiring low external input, and a desire to share, learn and further their cause, the questions that come to mind are:

  • Can sentiment and ideology alone keep them together?
  • How does coordination take place across districts and levels of people?
  • What is the sense of belongingness among the various Network members?
  • How is the balance between innovation and conformity to certain norms maintained?

A case study on Institution Development was conducted by The P&P Group, Bangalore, to understand the organizational features of the LEISA Network that contribute to its effectiveness and to obtain answers to the above questions.  Here, ‘institution’ is considered to be an ‘organization of organizations’ that facilitates collaborative behaviours for a common purpose. The main findings of the study, are elaborated below.


The Tamil Nadu LEISA Network was born out of the conviction of a few like-minded individuals that the paradigm of low external input sustainable agriculture (LEISA) had necessarily to be transformed into an action agenda. This is being promoted actively through innovative research – institutionally, as well as with farmers, to come up with viable alternative practices, to add to the pool of knowledge and check the negative tide of chemical intensive agriculture.)

Network organisation

The LEISA Network is sustained by an semi-formal organizational structure that enables optimal holding together and conformity across districts and people. It is not an independently registered entity and yet has clear systems in place to ensure effective communication, service delivery and accountability, and to foster a sense of belongingness among the member NGOs and farmers.

Membership: In order to be a member, an NGO has of necessity to be working with farmers on land based issues. During the formative years NGOs that became members had attended one of the AME training programmes.  Today, an NGO can take this training even after becoming part of the Network.

Network  Structure: Initially, the LEISA Network had an Organizing Committee consisting of the three founding organizations – KUDUMBAM (a local community development organization),  SFIP (a Forestry Information Project) and AME, each in charge of a particular zone comprising a number of districts.

For operational convenience Kudumbam was accepted as founder member with special status i.e.the ‘platform’ and co-ordinating organization. However, the growing membership and geographical spread, necessitated a change in the organizational set-up. Since 1996 the unit of coordination has been a district, to enhance functional efficiency.

There are ten District Organizing Committees, each comprising a lead NGO and ten other member NGOs. The head of each lead NGO holds the part-time post of District Convener, supported by a full time District Co-ordinator and a District Secretary.  The District Conveners are part of the State Organizing Committee. The head of Kudumbam is also the State Convener of the Network. In addition the state level LEISA Service Cell operates with ten staff, including an office co-ordinator, state level field staff co-ordinator, state level trial farmer coordinator, editors and computer operators.

Functions of the Network

The functional aspects pertain to coordination, communication and offering support services, for experimentation and research to develop technologies, capacity building, sharing experiences, documenting and disseminating knowledge – for the promotion of LEISA.

A major emphasis is on coordination and interactions across the various system levels of the Network, connecting ­field staff and Coordinators and Conveners at the district level.

Inter-NGO and inter-district interactions occur through planned activities, eg. field exposure trips, for farmers and NGO staff to observe field trials of innovative practices. Likewise, evaluations exercises across districts are carried out. A committee consisting of select farmers and NGO staff from one district, and a representative from the Service Cell visit experimental farms of an adjoining district. Besides these, training programmes, workshops and seminars provide opportunities for people from various levels and regions to interact. An interesting facet of the Network – many NGO staff are practitioners themselves, applying knowledge to develop technologies, and sharing those.

Whose Network – the Issue of Belongingness

A sampler of issues raised and the responses highlight the sense of belongingness among Network members.

  • When money from the donor is delayed, work does not stop. The lead NGO mobilizes resources from its other accounts to tide over this period.
  • NGOs readily spend more time and resources than budgeted, on Network activities.
  • There were two telling reactions when probed about a hypothetical scenario – closure of the Network

-the staff and farmers declared that the work would continue because they were committed to making their agriculture ecologically and economically viable and to improve the environment.

–      the second reaction was one of anger to a highly improbable situation, since the Network is not a physical entity but rather an ideology that they hold dear.


Members are aware of internal difficulties as well as external threats to the system. While experimentation and innovation is encouraged, conforming to stringent  procedures is insisted upon within the Network. Further, environmental factors seem to pose many a challenge, which they feel can be met by strengthening internal capabilities and useful partnerships.



*     With the growth in membership, the quality of experiments has suffered.

*Some experiments are very laborious, under stringent conditions, and there is resistance from the farmers to carry them out.

*Some of the experiments have important technical parameters which the staff have difficulty carrying out,  because they lack a technical background.

*     Documentation skills are inadequate in different levels.

*The extreme idoelogical position adopted by some members –  NEISA (no external input) rather than the more moderate position of LEISA.



*Ability to influence policy at the state and central level is weak.

*Commercial fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers with ‘organic names’ for their products are luring farmers because of easy application methods and other incentives.

*Difficulty in getting qualified technical staff with a development perspective.

*The new generation of youth is not interested in agriculture and hence empathy and participation of the community is low.—————————————————————————————————————————————


Over the years the LEISA Network has grown, stabilized and matured. Now it finds itself at the crossroads. Much as it would like to extend the principle of ‘low external input’ by putting an end to the external funding that supports it, doubts arise as to whether it is too early to take such a step.

The LEISA Network – an ‘organization of organizations’ have members whose  primary allegiance remain with their respective groups/organizations – farmers’ sangha or registered NGO. While differences may exist between each of these institutions in terms of norms and structure, as members of this Network system they work together within a well defined purpose and mechanism of collaboration. Thus, the LEISA Network has the makings of a Social Institution.




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