Monday, June 26, 2017

The Crossroads of Extension

‘The Gene’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee fascinated me. It may be selective perception problem, but I loved it so much because it, among other things, looked into the social impact of development in genetics. It opened up a whole new world for me showing how far-reached the impact of science can be on socio-psychological and political aspects of the world. Based on the concepts of genetics, a whole race was almost wiped out, another race was reduced to slaves just because their genetic make-up was considered inferior based on the phenotype. And we, as scientists, cannot be oblivious to the impact of our inventions and discoveries. Seeing the book on my reading list, recently a plant breeder was really impressed as he thought it was a text or reference book on Genetics and was surprised seeing a social scientist reading and talking about gene when geneticists themselves are struggling to understand the core concept of the subject. But I will always remember the tone with which he said, “Oh! It’s about implications! Anyone can understand, like arts type!” The comment hurt me a bit because Siddhartha Mukherjee is not only one of my favorite authors now, but a Pulitzer Prize winner and a celebrated physician and oncologist. But more than that, it made me realize how disconnected different disciplines are in agriculture, and why, in spite of all the investment on agricultural research, so less translates to farmers’ field.
The problem is multi-faceted (research don’t have relation to field condition, extension has no connection with research, unrealistic technologies are being given for dissemination in farmers’ field so extension obviously fails, extension system is so overburdened that they do not spend time in understanding the context of technology at all) but before delving into that, let’s talk about the apathy or negligence with which the ‘core science’ disciplines consider humanities or social science, especially extension. I do not know if this comes from the attitude we are brought up with where everyone has an obsession with ‘science’ and arts is the subject of the ‘academically poor’, or because of the curriculum which fails to introduce the concept of multi-disciplinary research and education at Masters level where actual research starts. I know for a fact how much every discipline in agricultural colleges works in silos where no one has any idea about what the other discipline is working on. In my personal experience, I have had many arguments with friends/colleagues from other disciplines who doesn’t consider extension to be a significant discipline having tangible impact (the most conveniently ignored fact is development cannot be tangible and cannot be measured in concrete terms always. Read this Guardian blog for further clarification). And recent workshops across the country about justifying role of extension SMS in KVKs only prove the point. And somewhere it cannot be ignored anymore because our discipline is as much to be blamed for the apathy. But the question is, what are we doing wrong? Or doing different, for that matter, that others cannot? 

First, let’s explore why humanities, especially extension, is required for agricultural and rural development (ARD). Extension machinery has the highest reach to farmers, their socio-economic, psychological and political environment that affect their overall lifestyle and life choices. While it is very hard to put a finger on which aspect of development will completely change a person’s socio-economic condition, it is a safe bet to say all of them contribute in more or less big way depending on context and so, identifying the factors and focusing on them can play a major role in bringing about change. The intimacy with the grassroots also provides extensionists the leverage on the knowledge on locally relevant needs which will ultimately make technologies developed through research practically useful. But extension goes beyond technology transfer in today’s world. It is the only discipline that can act as consultant to provide end to end services; can act as innovation brokers linking producers with all other relevant stakeholders in agricultural systems; can help organize farmers in groups and make them self sufficient in producing and marketing; can act as management experts and help farmer groups with managing their activities; can take up monitoring and evaluation of development projects/initiatives and suggest way forward – the discipline hold the power to bring about real change at the ground level, to bring about development at the grassroots. And with development of technology and increased efforts to integrate them for rural and community development, extension needs to learn a lot of lessons from other fields like refugee rehabilitation for 'upping the game'.

Then why the apathy and negativity, you may ask, if extension has so much power to effectively deal with many third world problems? The blame does not go solely to the ignorance of other disciplines. It is us who have failed to prove our worth. In a country like India, where there is one of the largest public extension systems in the world, what do we do differently that others cannot? There has been no significant contribution of extension either theoretically (theories, models, etc.) or practically (in the field) in last few decades. Field level extension personnel only disseminate the technology that they are told to without taking any practical interest on how that translates from lab results in the practical world. Issues are diverse and so let’s break them down based on education, research and field extension.

Education: So how equipped is extension education to deal with the modern agricultural challenges? Not a bit. Let me tell you why
1. The curriculum is the major problem. It still talks about the principles and philosophies of eighties and nineties. Sure, the foundation should be strong but it should go somewhere from there. Many advances in extension models and methodologies since the late nineties still do not find any mention and consequently, neither do they translate in research. But will come to that later.
2. Extension is social science and so, understanding sociology is very important part of it. It is not just about communication, diffusion or HRD but goes way beyond that. Unfortunately, none of that translates into the existing curriculum. Rural sociology is a very small part of the nine year syllabus (4+2+3) and that too does not delve into any major theories, just gives some half baked ideas. So, all these education and calling ourselves social scientist doesn’t actually qualify us to talk in depth about social impact of our work or even understand the whole spectrum of socio-psychological aspects of what we do.
3. We are either yet to discover what multi-disciplinary research means or are knowingly ignoring the topic. Extension, in education system, is regarded as the most inferior subject and all one has to do to pass is memorize, so goes the common consensus. And this kind of ignorance arises only because there has never been any initiative to invoke a discussion among disciplines on how they can complement each other.
4. The way the subject is taught is also another issue. Social sciences are people oriented but practical field exposure is too low. While some professors take the initiatives to work on the communication skills of the students, the curriculum is not evolved in a way to address the issues of practical communication skills or field exposure other than in RAWEP (Rural Agricultural Work Experience Programme). And when these students are inducted in academia or field extension, for obvious reasons, their bookish ideas of social change does not match with that of the real world.

Research: In an ideal agricultural research ecosystem, social science research should influence that in other disciplines and vice versa but practically, that is a rarity in India. The issues in research starts with the faulty education system but goes way beyond that.
1. One important aspect is student’ research. A large amount of resource is being invested every year for research conducted by Masters and Doctoral candidates in extension in 60+ universities across the country but how much of that is field oriented, well thought-out, and planned to find practical solutions to practical problems? Most of students’ research doesn’t go beyond the library shelf or a few research paper in journals that no one actually converts to anything usable. So what is the use ultimately? Repeating well researched topics every year with just a change of place or obsessing over ‘significant difference’ does nothing to contribute to the existing knowledge on extension or research and it is high time that some serious thought is given into that.
2. The largest research organization in the country in agriculture is the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and their contribution to agricultural research across disciplines has been immense. But problems still persist. Major activities of extension division of ICAR is demonstration and training on technologies developed by other disciplines in which the social sciences have very little to contribute. While some technologies have fared exceptionally well, many have failed too to get attention of the agrarian community because of the non-feasibility, a problem that can many a times be avoided with prior extension research. Research is dictated more by what the scientific community thinks the farmers needs without actual consultation and the need to publish and patent, and this in part, is a failure of extension as well.
3. Extension research by the ICAR system is yet to catch up to global trends or national needs. While it is undeniable that many good research have been conducted, but the scope for betterment is also huge and the focus needs to be more on practical problem oriented research on either to build new theories or models, or on how to best use the existing ones. Upping the methodology game is also very important.
4. The appraisal system of scientists/researchers in any system is still faulty. While major focus is on producing research papers for career progression, the feasibility of the research or its importance in the related context and its applicability remains untested in most of the cases. This limits the scope and replicability, which is the basic point ultimately.

Field extension:
As I mentioned earlier, India has one of the largest extension system in the world and at present, the private sector in extension is catching up fast to the needs of the farmers, while the public system is falling behind.
1. The public extension system has the strength of huge resources, if managed efficiently but the case is just the opposite. Human resource is engaged in everything - from election and census duty to implementation of MGNREGA projects in some states. Then there are large amount of paper works and subsidy distribution which leaves very little scope for real extension activities or documentation of what is done for that matter.
2. KVKs have been unanimously agreed to be working tirelessly for agricultural development at district level. But my question is on what? Research or extension? Each KVK has a maximum of 6 Subject Matter Specialist (SMS) and a few other project staffs. So, when working in full force, they have a workforce of at most 20 staffs who work for a whole district, which, depending on size, can have up to 10,000 farmers. Now if that is nor overburdening, I don’t know what is! And with this kind of burden of both research and extension, how does an organization increase efficiency?
3. The extension staff of public extension system are outdated on technological information - be it on agricultural technology or information and communication technology and most of the time, there are no initiatives from the state departments to take up the issues and conduct refresher training programmes or awareness programmes on recent technologies. I have  struggled a lot with emails sent to some state departments where I have been told to follow up with phone calls after sending every email. Then what is the point of having all the technology at our disposal?
4. Communication of agricultural technology to state extension machinery is minimal. Many of the officials have no idea about the recent developments in agriculture and agricultural extension. While a few on their personal initiative will learn on their own, majority do not have the time or enthusiasm to do so. And as mentioned earlier, with the extra workload, they cannot be put to blame always either.
5. Visibility of extension work is very limited. Development doesn't happen overnight. Neither does research, but while there is a tangible output to the latter, development efforts are not always so prominent and the external factors effecting them are varied and cannot be controlled always. For example, while increasing production of vegetables like chili, tomato and onion has been a problem in the past, that have been overcome in recent years. But with the bumper harvest, the price farmers are getting are not even half the production cost and this has given rise to farmers' agitation across the country. So the priorities in the sector changes very fast and it is part of the job of extension mechanism to forecast these problems and plan accordingly, which it has miserable failed to do. Even with the farmers' suicide, the problem is not solely agricultural but socio-economic and socio-cultural and extension should work with social works and RD departments but I rarely see such efforts either.
Visibility also comes from social presence in today's world and social media has opened up a huge opportunity. True, many aspects still needs to be considered before recommending social media use but the advantage of increased visibility, awareness and dialogue for development cannot be ignored either. Documentation is another important aspect. Archiving the good practices in extension, farmers innovations, challenges and ways to overcome them build the foundation for future growth but unfortunately, is the most ignored aspect of extension.
6. Other than that, budget constraints, lack of planning, monitoring and evaluation, pilotitis and so on are yet to be dealt with.

So, the problems of extension as a discipline, as a science and in practice are multifaceted and obviously, there can be no one solution to deal with these. But we might start somewhere as well and then define our goal as we move forward. Some of the following steps might be taken initially -
A. Make research more field problem oriented and multidisciplinary. Neither technology nor extension can always stand on their own to achieve the benefit they intend to.
B. Research also needs to identify the gaps of the existing models and theories in extension and find ways to make them sound and applicable.
C. A major reorientation in education curricula is required to make extension, as an academic subject, practical and relevant to present times.
D. Field extension system needs a revamping, especially in public sector for increased relevancy with changing agricultural needs and conditions, needs to go beyond technology transfer most importantly.
E. Engaging with and encouraging private sector in agriculture with proper regulations to protect the rights of farmers are required. Also, private consultancies and agripreneurship needs increased focus from all quarters, as being done through the AC&ABC scheme.
F. Farming needs to be a business and extension should emphasise on that, rather than portraying it as something charitable. Farmers should be hardcore businessmen with focus on sustainability and profitability at the same time. It needs to be emphasised that one doesn't necessarily mean foregoing the other and it is the job of extension to drive the point home.

In a nut shell, extension needs to change not for the sake of proving its importance to others but for its own sake, for the purpose it evolved in the first place - to change lives for better, to bring along development, to make people understand what's best for them and act on it, to change the rural society for good. And it won't harm if in the process we can again establish ourselves as an indispensable part of scientific research and development.


  1. Yes... It's high time for change in extension.... Research part is absolutely true.. Suchi Di keep it up. Love ur blog...keep posting..

  2. Thank you madam for your commendable appraisal. It is undeniably,a high time to introspect..!!

  3. Probably with this blog, no one will ignore whatever you write in future.... Closing is very very assertive and thought provoking... Keep writing.

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  5. Nicely written suchi..Keep it up..We need more people who think in same line to change the outlook.All the Best

  6. It is good to see the issue on public domain; it might lead to some meaningful dialogue, though I have my own doubts many will participate.
    I have often experienced similar anguish and frustration. The issue needs a two-dimensional diagnosis – what do others have to say about Extension and why, and what have the Extension professionals got to say.
    There are again at least two distinct reasons why we see Extension in such a poor light. One, Extension, as a subject, is ‘fluid’ and we often find people fishing in stagnant waters! Two, the subject has missed bright, intelligent and, above all, passionate professionals. Think of it, how many ‘above average’ students have actually chosen B Sc Agri as a career choice as against the IT, other engineering streams in the past 3 decades? How many IIM/ IITians have chosen agriculture sector for careers?
    If we agree many bright students have not chosen agriculture education, we also know that it is, by and large, often those among them at the bottom of the merit, who go on to choose Extension for their post graduation. So, it is a perpetual cycle, students eventually turning into teachers and researchers...chicken and the egg ...

    1. Thanks for your comments Dr. Balamatti. I am with you in the 'fishing in stagnant water' part when it comes to understanding how extension or development works. But I am not sure I can totally agree about the average or below average students. IITs/IIMs are not always for geniuses, it is also as much about aptitude and interest. And partly, the fault is also with the education system at school level where we are still made to believe there is hardly a respectable career outside IITs/IIMs. But yes, extension in recent years have become an ignored subject in agriculture, may be because it doesn't have the glamour quotient of working in high end labs or 'look cool'. Concern for development or farmers is the last thing in mind of majority of the students. And this, I believe, limits the ways they can contribute for development.

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