Grounded and Practical: An alternative vision for agri-education at Lokbharti
Many institutions, including the Indian Council of agriculture Research (ICAR), have schemes to attract the youth to agriculture. The Lokbharti Gramvidyapith, in Bhavnagar district, through innovative curriculum design has engaged rural youth to serve the large demand for grassroot experts in sustainable agriculture.
Anish’s father owns a construction materials business in Bhavnagar. However, he does not intend to get into this business. Instead, he dreams of starting an agricultural enterprise. Rather than aiming for a job in the public sector, he wants to work in his village. We also heard stories of how students coming from farming families, who had abandoned farming are willing to get back to agriculture or allied activities. This is largely because, at Lokbharti the students are able to see agriculture not only as a remunerative vocation, but a socially relevant cause to be pursued through continuous engagement with ground realities.
The Bachelor of Vocational Education (B.Voc) programme was started by the University Grants Commission (UGC) in 2018. The institutes can choose to run a B.Voc course on themes ranging from jewellery design to hospitality management. The attractiveness of these courses lies in the fact that, they provide an opportunity to pick up relevant skills, important for gaining employment in the respective sectors. Anish and his classmates, have also chosen the B.Voc program for this reason. They are enrolled in B.Voc in Organic Farming program designed at Lokbharti.
The small skilled workforce in the agricultural sector is inadequate to meet the requirements of the farmers. The knowledge related to sustainable agricultural practices available is even more limited. Recently, ICAR has formed a committee to design a curriculum on Natural Farming in 2022 to train a workforce capable of addressing the skill gap for sustainable agricultural practices. Lokbharti had adopted their B.Voc syllabus to this need back in 2019. They have taken support from locally successful natural farmers and experts to design the course and adapted it to the requirements of the region. The institutional legacy seems to have played an important role in their ability to cater to the local needs so effectively.
A need-based approach to education
Lokbharti was established by Nanabhai, a well renowned Gandhian scholar following principles of Nai Talim, which values context relevance and practical experience for students. The campus is spread over 160 acres and houses a cattle-shed, several orchards and farm plots. The residential campus is totally maintained and managed by students with guidance from teachers.
Established in 1953, Lokbharti is well known for its Bachelor of Rural Studies (BRS) course. This course attracts students from all disciplinary backgrounds. The course is taught completely in Gujarati and provides opportunities to the students to not only transcend disciplinary boundaries, but also provides abundant time on the field, for learning through hands-on work.
As Arun Dave, Managing Trustee and chair of the Community Science Center at Lokbharti stated, the courses, provided at Lokbharti have always catered to the needs and aspirations of the local youth. He remembers, his batch in 1966 was the first batch to get an official matriculation certificate, which was introduced to enable him and his peers to get into post-graduate programs.
Sticking to their strength, - community connect, Lokbharti has designed the two new B.Voc courses, mentioned above, in 2019. The teachers feel, these courses are able to further their goal of propagating socially relevant knowledge to address the needs of rural communities much better.
Virabhai, the faculty in charge of the B.Voc program noted, “when the course was first advertised, many enthusiastic students and parents commended the initiative for making agricultural education more inclusive.” The students felt that while agriculture can be a low margin activity, it is potentially more remunerative for them, than spending years chasing jobs in the public sector or any other urban sector.
Based on our interactions with the students at Lokbharti, we realized, most of the students who have opted for organic agriculture, do not have a background in science or a high score in the qualifying exams. These are often the factors which restricts them from getting into conventional agricultural programs, in spite of their willingness to be associated with the agrarian sector. In that respect the B.Voc program caters to the immediate needs of the community.
For the community, by the community
Talking about how their students are different from other agri-graduates, Vishal mentioned, students at Lokbharti may have limited technical knowledge, they have better understanding of the context. He said,
“while BSc. students may not be able to distinguish between seeds, our students can, even if they do not know the scientific name.”
Here again, we see the social relevance of the curriculum, “Upyog” as Arun Dave called it.
Virabhai explained, that their students learn directly from successful farmers and other informal groups, where they can get knowledge about the field. They spend about 12 months of the 3-year course with farmers. As a result, the students have already started receiving offers for jobs, while they are still a year away from graduation. The employers see, how new age farm managers can meet the demand of skilled professionals. But the students and teachers at Lokbharti have greater aspirations.
Towards a Gandhian vision of Rural Entrepreneurship
Autonomy of the village is a key component in Gandhian thought. Lokbharti has used this idea to inculcate an entrepreneurial spirit among the students. While the students do not mention “Swaraj” when describing their aspirations, they say they want to use natural farming to, “build start-ups, which keep the money from the villages in the village and bring the money from the cities also to villages.” The question remains, do these students get the support necessary for building successful start-ups in the sector?
The teachers are confident that once the institution gets a private university status, they will be able to connect the School of Vocational Training with business incubators, enabling the students to fulfil their entrepreneurial dreams.
Proper implementation of these plans requires support from industry experts, regular monitoring by the legitimate industry councils etc. They also need adequate connections with industries, for them to effectively carry out the process of internships and field engagement.
Lokbharti, despite its legacy of 60 years, and competent teachers, face bottlenecks with internship placements, and have not managed to create a proper start-up ecosystem. Therefore, while such initiatives for agroecological knowledge exist, they will require greater support and resources for scaling up.
Apart from civil society/ government departments, support can come from institutions like the State Agricultural Universities (SAU) or ICAR. Unlike autonomous institutes such as Lokbharti, SAUs have significant resources and exposure, therefore their support can be crucial. However, the apprehension about losing their autonomy is still keeping Lokbharti from seeking out such support. It remains to be seen if larger institutions will have the interest and capability of dislodging such anxieties and work together to build more inclusive institutions.
Arnab Chakraborty is a Research Associate and Chintan Patel is a Programme Assistant with the Living Farm Incomes project at IRMA.