Upscaling SRI – Unpacking innovation, investments and institutions

SRI performance has been spectacular under diverse conditions. Many small, marginal and tribal farmers, are reaping better harvests with SRI, many a times with indigenous or traditional varieties. Farmers are innovating constantly and have extended SRI principles to crops other than rice. Upscaling such farmer innovations need investments and institutions to take it further.

SRI in India has now had over a decade of experience in the field, and this is a good time to look back and reflect on how has SRI scaled up overall, what specifically in SRI has scaled up and what not, what appears to be preventing further scaling up of SRI, and how can policies be formulated to support greater scaling up. Discussions on SRI, even in the highest policy circles, often start with an assumption that SRI has not scaled up sufficiently, and this perspective is often shared implicitly by many promoters of SRI without any critical scrutiny.

Inherent in this assumption is a view of SRI as a technology that can and should be invariantly applied across all agroecological and socio-economic conditions, or that it is just a fixed set of six principles. This perspective mimics the well-known scaling up of Bt cotton or the expectation that all agricultural innovations could be spread the same way as telecom, even if such questions were not asked about the spread of toilets and the sanitation deficit in India!

To us the upscaling of SRI needs to address three fundamental I’s – the nature of the innovation, the investments that need to back an innovation, and the presence or absence of the right kinds of institutions that can back the innovation. We shall look into each of these in the case of SRI, but we also need to remind ourselves about the larger ‘political economy of uncaring’, following Vasavi’s recent work on the shadow space of agriculture, that characterises agriculture in twenty-first century India that has seen the tragic scaling up of farmer suicides, seldom considered in such terms.

Innovations and enhanced peoples choices

Upscaling strategies and assessments should not be divorced from concerns with the nature of an innovation, asking the fundamental question whether the innovation has enhanced farmers’ options when facing increased input costs, reduced state support, and greater vulnerability due to market, ecological and climate stresses. In an environment where farmers’ choices among technologies can increase their debt and vulnerability, even leading to desperation and suicides, it is important to look for innovations, not always technological, that enable farmers to make safer, more beneficial choices about best use of their natural resources or improving factor access that could have a favourable impact on their well-being and livelihoods. ‘Miracle seeds’ have been the preferred option for government-promoted technological interventions and yield improvements made under the banner of the (first) Green Revolution (GR1).

The only change in recent thinking has been on who is the key player in a second Green Revolution (GR 2). It was the state research and extension systems that led GR1, whereas it is private actors, of many hues, that are considered at the forefront of GR2. The mode of operation for this GR2 in terms of its geographical focus, its preference for irrigated areas, and the space (or rather its absence) for farmers’ innovation — and an excessive fixation on yield or productivity — remains the same.

SRI, on the other hand, should be seen as a game-changer in terms of how we look at agricultural innovations. If only the contemporary discourses on innovation that are often discussed by management thinkers who project India as an innovation hotspot were to be extended to agriculture, we would be giving more meaning and substance to the adjectives ‘frugal’, ‘Gandhian’, ‘open’, ‘disruptive’, ‘reverse’ that are attached to innovation today. Game-changing innovations, not technologies, cannot and should not be measured merely by our existing dominant yardsticks of yield increase or productivity, but according to a larger set of parameters that help us better understand the innovation.

If yield were the only criterion for success in SRI, then the celebrated story of the SRI farmer Sumant Kumar and others in Darveshpuravillage of Nalanda district in Bihar would suffice to redirect agricultural research and extension. The world-record SRI production significantly did not come from the rice bowls of the GR – Punjab or irrigated delta tracts – but in Bihar that has been traditionally known for its poor, indeed paltry, yield performance.

Dr. Joseph Stiglitz, the celebrated Nobel Prize-winning economist, recently visited the district in Bihar to look at both the innovation and the institutions that enabled innovations such as these. There has been spectacular SRI performance under diverse conditions, not in noted GR areas.

There have been successes by small, marginal and tribal farmers, with often better response to SRI principles from indigenous or traditional varieties, not seen in GR 1 or GR2. Extension of SRI principles to crops other than rice is now gaining momentum, for wheat, ragi, sugarcane, and mustard, for example. There has been increased yield difference between SRI and non-SRI crops in seasons with climate stress from drought or floods. These results open up enhanced and positive choices for farmers all across India.

Agricultural policies that are unduly focused on yields or productivity gains alone tend to miss the need to focus critically on making a sustainable transition from the dominant Green Revolution paradigm to a more agro-ecologically-based one. Unfortunately, this need and opportunity for change has been realised more often by farmers than researchers and policy makers. The latter prefer to limit, or rather block, discussions by repeatedly framing their questions within the purview of the innovation as a conventional technology, as a fixed suite of six practices, with dogged resistance to using the name SRI and a predilection to subsume the new ideas under the rubric of BMP or Best Management Practices, thereby redefining and limiting the innovation to make its theoretical and practical contributions meaningless.

No innovation can proceed unless backed by investments in research and other institutions that need to be in place that can enable, refine and accelerate a transition or ‘revolution’. Discussions contrasting SRI spread with GM crops often are mute regarding the scale of investments made in the latter by government and corporate decision-makers in contrast to the miniscule support given thus far to the former.

Two examples from the field will illustrate this point. A recent international multi-institutional initiative to improve productivity and livelihoods in the eastern region of India had invited ideas in their preliminary meeting about ways to improve productivity. In their presentations, research institutions, both central and state, and leading civil society actors clearly pointed out SRI as an important option for food security and productivity enhancement. However, given the contestations that have occurred internationally, the lead institution preferred to ignore local voices and promoted its own package of practices.

In another instance, a senior government official, perhaps enthused by the promotion, and projection of SRI in a southern state, suggested a sequential manner for promoting SRI over four seasons starting just with line sowing, not the complementary set of packages recommended for SRI. He stated that tribal and small and marginal farmers were unused to certain practices and therefore needed to start with just one practice, namely line-sowing. This assumed that farmers are incapable of following several principles at the same time.

Surprisingly in SRI, resource-poor small and marginal farmers have actually been more open to innovations and changes and have shown that they are willing to go faster, provided they are backed by institutions that support the transformations over three seasons rather than with hit-and-miss, or train-and-vanish, approaches that can provide material inputs but do not impart and demonstrate ideas.

Among the ways in which thinking on SRI has changed the ways that agricultural development is proceeding, mention should be made of the unique position of researchers from India in the furtherance of ideas on SRI and agroecology. Although the numbers of Indian researchers working on SRI and similar agroecological innovations today is small, their research is having visibility and impact.

Indian researchers have been at the forefront of most conferences on SRI, and articles by Indians have constituted a significant, if not the highest, number of overall papers on SRI. What this suggests is the merit of making a shift in investments so that the Indian research establishment could become a leader in agroecology rather than a laggard in the kind of technological innovations of a paradigm that has run its course.

We conclude by sharing some insights on the third ‘I’(institutions) that can enable SRI spread or upscaling. In this we draw upon the recommendations of the sub-group of the Twelfth Five Year plan on ‘upscaling innovative technologies’ whose recommendations were unfortunately not integrated into the final plan document to the extent that the ideas deserved.

A new institutional architecture for SRI upscaling

There are no reliable estimates of the SRI spread in the country or even in a single state due to the large number of actors and current methods of estimation.

A guesstimate from various government data and donors across the country would indicate over 1.5 – 3 million farmers have experimented with SRI principles with a spread of over 1 – 3 million hectares. SRI is clearly more than a niche innovation.

This spread has happened due to a diversity of institutional mechanisms that can broadly be grouped in three categories.

The largest spread is through Departments of Agriculture (especially in Tamil Nadu, Tripura and Bihar), and there is another set of states where upscaling has been largely or solely through Civil Society Organisations supported by donors such as Sir Dorabji Tata Trust (SDTT), Deshpande Foundation, Aga Khan Rural Support Project, etc. The third is in states where upscaling is happening through one of the following means: NABARD stream (with direct implementation by CSOs or working in a consortium mode like in Andhra Pradesh), Rural Livelihood programmes (Jeevika in Bihar, MPRLS in Madhya Pradesh, Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa Livelihood Mission (OLM) in Odisha), or with private sector players such as Basix, AgSRI, Usha Martin, etc.

A review of the spread of SRI in the last decade in India indicates the following:

– While yield increases vary, there is extensive evidence of productivity enhancement without varietal changes through agroecological innovations without a concomitant decline in the first year or season. There is the added advantage of improving soil health and conserving scarce resources such as irrigation water and fossil fuel-based agri-inputs.

– These innovations can go to scale with modest investments, but require different institutional mechanisms that are neither conventionally public extension nor private sector but community-led. This potential of Community Based Organisations (CBOs) organising themselves to transform agricultural practices through their institutions has not met with the recognition or support in agricultural policy that it deserves.

– Upscaling SRI requires innovations in extension methodology. Current extension systems that are focused on technologies and are input-centric, have led to heavy dependence of farmers on outside agencies and on commercial transactions and debt. SRI is based on improved knowledge, skill and management. Farmers are expected to enhance their on-farm management capacities (timing of operations, labour use, water management, etc). Experience indicates that this requires at least 3 seasons/ years for internalizing the principles of SRI by the majority of farmers.

– Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have an important role in enabling this shift to thinking on technological paradigms, regimes and extension systems. State governments that have innovated their extension systems by working closely with Departments of Irrigation, Rural Development, and Panchayati Raj Institutions have taken SRI much further that those that have relied only on conventional extension systems.

– Women farmers have played important roles in enabling this transition through community-based institutions in several states, and women’s roles has conventionally been ignored by the Departments of Agriculture.

– SRI enhances farmer’s capacities to manage changes in the external environment such as drought and has greater potential in both mitigating and adapting to climate change.

– SRI can lead to diversification of farming systems providing greater choice for farmers and enhancing biodiversity. Indigenous varieties have responded well to SRI management, enhancing the scope for farmers to focus on varieties that improve household nutritional security in many parts of malnourished India.

– SRI is bankable. NABARD has demonstrated that civil societyled SRI can enhance farmer incomes and improve soil health, with definitely positive benefit-cost ratios.

– Finally, India has the potential of being a world leader in agroecological innovations. Not only does India have the widest spread of actors involved in SRI, including a confident and emerging community of practice of researchers who are open to working with farmers and civil society organizations, also showing how SRI can be extended to other crops.

Broadly speaking, intervention strategies need to appreciate the phase in which the innovation is and institutions need to respond or evolve accordingly rather than follow a one size fits all approach.

Some of the phases for upscaling based on past evidence can be tried for taking SRI into a new area. It needs to be recognised that the upscaling of knowledge intensive innovations requires greater investment in the initial years and the multiplier effect or tipping point occurs after the right institutional conditions have been created.

A process that focused first on adaptive research at the grassroots through Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), and a pilot in a contiguous area for upscaling (300-600 ha in each district) in collaboration with an experienced NGO as well as sustainable community-based organizations and further upscaling by CBOs is a strategy that has worked quite well with SRI.

The key to upscaling is having a novel institutional architecture that will take up steps to change attitudes of farmers and provide long-term support in the field (Fig 1). The new institutional model envisages a bottom-up approach based on creation of a cadre of Community Resource Persons (CRPs) who are experienced farmers from surrounding areas who have themselves had positive experiences with the technology.

This approach seeks to treat farmer groups as co-travellers and envisages operating through farmers’ groups rather than approaching them as individuals to provide them with a mechanism of mutual learning. The extension staff from the implementing agency – the Agriculture Department, ATMA, NGOs or CBOs as relevant – will play the role of Master Trainers(MT)–and will provide constant support to the CRPs.

Large-scale adoption of an innovation is not expected to happen with one–shot supply of inputs or with support for just one season. The extension mechanism has to engage with the farmers in their habitats and be a co-traveller with them for a period of at least three years so that they can lead the processes by the investment made in creation of local capacity.

A sustainable transition is not possible without leadership and sensitive facilitation that empowers grassroots actors. The institutional design would consist of a State-Level Resource Organization (SRO) spearheaded either by a government agency, NABARD or CSOs. The Department of Agriculture (DOA), Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), Non- Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Community-based Organizations (CBOs) would be members of the SRO and would be responsible for the implementation of the program.

The SRO is expected to play this role by drawing insights from various resource organizations in the State/District, constantly assimilating learnings from the field, upgrading the innovation and feeding it back to the field. It will be a knowledge body and a think tank on food security at the state level. The SRO will pick and choose the subject matter specialists (SMSs) from the research organizations, SAUs, CSOs and other departments.

There would be a pool of master trainers (MTs) who would be the staff of the NGO/CBO/CSO/DOA/KVK, etc. These master trainers would train the Villager Resource Persons (VRPs). VRPs would work with the grassroots farmers’ groups or self-help groups (SHGs) which in turn would be enabled to reach out to individual farmers. The idea of SRO is not new, but the role envisaged is to promote inclusive innovation forums. These inclusive innovation forums have been tried out in several states in the form of learning alliances, consortia, workshops, etc. and have enabled knowledge flows within the existing innovation system.

It is envisaged that the role played by the state-level consortium would be in partnership with a central National Consortium on SRI (NCS). An umbrella body like NCS is important for making sense of the diversity of approaches and setting guidelines and systems for planning, coordination and effective monitoring and evaluation with respective agencies. NCS would ensure a transition eventually from incubation to upscaling to mainstreaming of the innovation.

The second part has to be done by the Agriculture Department, whilst the first one can have a smaller role for the Department of Agriculture with intermediary agencies such as CSOs, NABARD, etc. seeding the innovation. A strong Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEAL) system that can use principles of adaptive management based on continuous and fast learning will make such a system more effective and efficient.

It is important to emphasise that the above institutional architecture is not an ideal type but a synthesis of insights from field-based experiences. With SRI spreading across the country there is an urgent need to also undertake micro-studies to examine current strategies and examine their sustainability. Recent research on SRI from PhD students of Wageningen University indicates significant variations in SRI practices in regions and even among villages. Understanding farmers’ decision making in complex and diverse settings will be a critical factor in taking SRI to larger number of farmers in future.

The SRI community needs to engage in several studies to better understand this phenomenon both technically, socially and institutionally. Recent studies by NCS on indigenous varieties and SRI and comparisons of SRI policies have indicated that there are newer dimensions that need to be brought into policy discussions on SRI, questions on the role of civil society government relations and their bearing on attitudes to community based institutions or how could choices be enhanced for farmers by focusing on varieties that can enable nutritional security.

SRI in India has scaled in diverse ways in the last decade moving beyond the scientific controversies of 2004 through more empirical evidence that has in its wake thrown newer light on rice physiology and opened newer scientific challenges. There is indeed a strong case for specific programmes, both technical and socio-economic, that can research these questions. The innovation needs to be backed by sufficient investments and appropriate investments in institutions that can enable a much needed sustainable transition from Green Revolution to agroecology while at the same time enhancing farmers’ incomes and choices.


The authors would like to thank the members of the Sub group on Upscaling Innovative Technologies and several policy actors who have helped contribute to the thinking behind this paper.

C Shambu Prasad and B C Barah

Shambu Prasad
Professor, Rural Management Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar, Orissa

B C Barah
NABARD, Chair Professor, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi

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