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DR. U. JAIKUMARAN

India,

Dr. U. Jaikumaran is working with agriculture laborers in India to prepare the agriculture sector to meet the country’s food needs, by organizing them into a Food Security Army and introducing technology, efficiency, and professionalism to their work. 

This profile below was prepared when Dr. U. Jaikumaran was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.

INTRODUCTION

Dr. U. Jaikumaran is working with agriculture laborers in India to prepare the agriculture sector to meet the country’s food needs, by organizing them into a Food Security Army and introducing technology, efficiency, and professionalism to their work. 




THE NEW IDEA

Seeing a historically undermined class of laborers as guardians of food security within the country, Jaikumaran created the Food Security Army (FSA), to unify agriculture laborers, upgrade their skills, and increase their efficiency, while also promoting mechanization and bringing dignity into their profession. 

Jaikumaran believes that professional agriculture services should be available to every farmer. The FSA, as the name implies, is an organized and easy-to-mobilize professional agriculture labor force. FSA units are cooperatives of agriculture workers that are rigorously trained in mechanized agriculture processes, such as operating, maintaining, and servicing machinery. By organizing laborers as agriculture service providers, Jaikumaran is able to address many of their social and economic challenges by introducing their transactions with farmers into the formal economy, and allowing for the regulation of price, which protects both farmers and laborers and eliminates gender discrimination (women laborers are normally paid up to 50 percent less for the same work). 

At the Panchayat level, each FSA unit maintains basic machinery and provides services to farmers as-and-when needed. The FSA personnel at the block level (4 to 8 panchayats) and the district level (4 to 10 blocks) maintain more sophisticated machinery and provide repair services. There is also a training facility for agriculture workers to upgrade their skills in a particular specialization. Furthermore, at the district level, the research and development center works to innovate and improve agriculture machinery design and identify progressive technologies. FSA’s organized structure and training facilities allow for rapid dissemination of innovation across rural areas, which is the key to its success. 




THE PROBLEM

Agriculture laborers constitute one of the most neglected classes in rural India, historically belonging to suppressed scheduled castes and tribes. With an extremely low income and irregular employment, they have no access to training to increase their skills and earn a better livelihood. As a result, they carry on unskilled agriculture work, as generations before have, leading to drudgery, health hazards, low wages and low productivity. Often, being an agriculture worker is rarely a choice, but a consequence of the absence of other options. 

The number of agriculture laborers has been steadily declining over the last few decades. While in the last fifty years the Indian population has doubled. The census data of the state of Kerala shows that over the last forty years the number of agricultural workers has decreased from 270,000 to 150,000. Other states in India are seeing similar declines of agriculture laborers due to the growing levels of literacy and rural-urban migration. As a result, few young people are entering the sector. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research projects that India will require a 30 percent increase in rice and cereal production, 140 percent in pulses, and 243 percent in oilseeds production, to feed India’s population in the next ten years. However, the growing labor scarcity may make it impossible for India to meet its food needs. While there is growing demand for food grain, by 2020 rice yields could fall from 15 percent to 42 percent and wheat by 34 percent due to a decrease in cultivable areas and the lack of agriculture laborers. These trends reveal a glaring need to reform the agriculture sector by increasing productivity and efficiency. 

 Mechanization is seen as a potential solution to the problem of limited labor for farmers, and to reduce unhygenic practices, such as handling farmyard manure. The use of farm mechanization increases employment opportunities, both on farms and in non-farm sectors, through an increase in the area cultivated, multiple cropping, development of agro-industries and related services. Mechanization also helps the farmer meet precise timelines for sowing, hoeing, irrigation, harvesting and threshing which is crucial for obtaining optimal yields from the crop and even fitting two crops a year. In an attempt to promote agriculture mechanization, the government has been allocating funds to subsidize the purchase of machinery. While in certain areas farmers have formed cooperatives to collectively purchase the machines, laborers who are often also small landholders are usually left out of these programs, unable to purchase costly machinery. 




THE STRATEGY

Through the FSA, Jaikumaran is achieving two objectives. First, he redefines the role of labor in agriculture and in society. Second, he is fostering agriculture development by creating a highly skilled and productive work force that penetrates mechanized agriculture across the country and builds social infrastructure to source innovation in rural areas. 

FSA is present at the panchayat level as the Agro Machinery Operation Service Centre (AMOSC). AMOSC is a cooperative of agriculture workers; mostly young people. Youth undergo locally organized training before they become enrolled as FSA personnel. AMOSC offers farmers operation services for crops, repair, and servicing of all agro machinery and training for all agro machineries. Each AMOSC has a bank account for the service payments to go directly to the account and the income to be distributed among the FSA personnel, with money set aside for pension, insurance, and other social benefits. This way of organizing agriculture laborers gives them social accreditation, significantly improves their work conditions by eliminating drudgery, and creates a basis for occupational security.

At the Panchayat level, each unit consists of a hundred agriculture professionals and maintains basic machinery. A farmer in need of agriculture labor services simply goes to the unit front office and describes his need. The manager estimates the amount of FSA personnel to be involved and the kind of machinery the farmer will need to rent. The farmer pays the service fee accordingly and the work is done on an agreed timeline. This time efficiency significantly increases the crop, and even creates an opportunity for a second crop that year.

At the higher organizational level, there are FSA centers at the block level that serve as a machinery repository, and as sophisticated repair workshops. Block level units rent machinery to the AMOSCs. As its been challenging for agriculture machinery companies to penetrate Indian rural areas due to servicing, Jaikumaran hopes to create multiple carrier opportunities for youth in agriculture through FSA, to become machine operators or certified mechanics. 

At the district level, there is a training center, a more complex repair workshop, and a research and development unit. To give an example of how a structure like this can transform the agriculture sector into a more dynamic space that is responsive to innovation, the district level FSA unit recently tested the latest Japanese technology for small farms. After, they advised AMOSC to buy the machine. Since then, ten AMOSC’s have acquired the machines and are trained to operate them. At present, Kerala Agricultural University serves as a district level FSA catering to fifteen AMOSC with 1,800 agriculture officers and preparing master trainers.

For youth to enroll in the FSA, they need to undergo unique field training. Currently, FSA has six mobile training units. Each unit trains twenty trainees, e.g. one master trainer is available to teach five trainees. Each unit is provided with a vehicle and one piece of all farm machinery. On demand, they move to villages to train laborers to use the machinery. They stay with trainees for twenty days and conduct a work-experimental training program. This includes morning drill, physical training, and briefing on a subject, theory, and practical use of the machine. The trainee graduates are directed and given guidelines to form AMOSC in their panchayat.

With the FSA recently receiving a lot of media attention, the panchayats have begun to see value in investing in the creation of the agriculture service providers. Panchayats from all over Kerala are submitting offers to sponsor youth training and form an AMOSC. Jaikumaran received support from the Government of India under the National Agriculture Development Program for the Food Security Army Service Centre Development Program, with a target of Rs 8.9 million (US$173,000) from 2010 to 12. This was to create another 700 FSA personnel, seven centers and two additional training units. Currently the University of Kerala supports the FSA by providing access to government funds that subsidize the trainings of the master trainers and hosting the Research and Development lab. 

Jaikumaran has quickly spread his idea by running several challenge campaigns to showcase the benefits of mechanized, skilled, and organized agriculture. For example, his “Operation Ponnamutha 300/5” where he, alongside FSA forces, took up a challenge to transplant 300 acres of rice paddy in five days; an activity that normally takes a whole month for the same 200 workers. These operations were planned with almost a military-like precision and efficiency and the transplanting was completed in six days which is five times faster than normal, drawing nationwide attention to FSA. 

With demand coming from other states and also from the private sector, Jaikumaran intends to build an independent enterprise to spread FSA across the country. In the next five years, he will train 100,000 people in Kerala and spread the mission to all other states and countries with similar conditions. Jaikumaran also aspires to establish an independent FSA training college for master trainers. 




THE PERSON

Jaikumaran grew up on a farm with twelve siblings and experienced the hardships of farming. He studied agriculture at university because he wanted to understand how agriculture work conditions could be improved. 

After college, Jaikumaran worked at the university, focusing on its agriculture extension activities. He came to the academic field because he realized that the agriculture space desperately needed innovation, and so he has spent part of his life spreading innovations and modernization across rural areas. Jaikumaran’s relationship with science is best described in his own words: “Agricultural scientists shouldn’t stop at imparting training and publishing papers. The technology we advocate has to be translated effectively on the fields and the necessary service force has to be built. We have been content with making micro-level trials. We should go in for macro-level exercises. Only then can we understand field-level problems.”

Constant interaction with the farmers at the field level for almost thirty years led him to understand farmers’ needs were neither understood nor addressed by policymakers. Coming from an agrarian family, Jaikumaran was deeply disturbed at how little societal respect and credit farm laborers received for their hard work, and how, as a result, young people did not aspire to be agriculture workers. Through his interactions, Jaikumaran realized they suffered from a lack of opportunities to upgrade their skills. At the same time, there were few professional services available to farmers. Jaikumaran saw that a lot of machines purchased by farmers in cooperatives under certain schemes were lying unused because no one knew how to operate or maintain them. For him, these conditions were the root cause of the stagnation in agriculture.

Jaikumaran has years of experience working on appropriate mechanization of agriculture: testing, improving, and spreading innovative agriculture machinery. While setting up his present station with the farm to test innovations, he created a unit of women who would be trained to use the machinery and able to provide services on the station’s farms. The success of this pilot was a first step to start conceptualizing the model for the FSA.

Over the last two years, Jaikumaran has worked full-time on FSA and has been able to convince multiple stakeholders about the importance and viability of this idea. He now intends to spread this idea across India; engaging universities, schools, government, and the corporate sector to be part of this model that he hopes will change the future of India’s food security.




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