Re-envisioning agricultural education needs more than a new syllabus
The recent move to introduce Natural Farming at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in agricultural education is a right step in enabling youngsters to learn and practice sustainable agriculture. However, effective integration and implementation of the proposed syllabus will need greater engagement with the rich history of agroecological initiatives and pedagogy that lie beyond formal educational institutions.
In 2003, following a seminal decision by the supreme court, environmental education was made a compulsory subject at all levels of formal education. Since the ruling, a UNESCO study estimates that over 300 million Indian students in 1.3 million schools have been exposed to environmental education. Educators though have pointed out that mere exposure to information isn’t enough to spur students to desired actions and initiatives. Higher awareness of environmental issues has not been matched with capacities to explore systemic interconnections and concerted efforts to participate in environmental governance, research and activism remain low. Mere changes in textbooks without processes to support teacher training or experiential learning means students are often left to navigate various concepts and activities on their own especially as they go into higher education. Curriculum in agricultural universities in India have rarely been in sync with rapid changes in the external environment, including the increasing ecological footprint of agriculture. How can these insights provide essential lessons for the proposed changes in agricultural universities?
The push for natural farming syllabus in Agri-universities
Following the vocal call by the Centre to promote Natural Farming and the circular released in December 2021 to include zero-budget natural farming in the syllabus at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, concerted efforts were made by the education division of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) to develop a curriculum. Within the next few months, a committee was set up to design a syllabus, and a draft was released recently. Comprehensive and exhaustive in terms of the content, the draft syllabus consists of 49 courses totalling 137 credits, spanning wide-ranging topics from ancient history and philosophy of farming to modern-day economics and practices. While these earnest efforts to introduce Natural Farming present an exciting opportunity to scale sustainable agricultural practices, the history and institutional architecture of the agricultural universities can not be ignored.
For decades, formal agricultural education institutions have been entrenched in the logic of yield maximisation. Indian agricultural educational institutions were modelled after the US-land grant colleges and imported much of the curricula prevalent in the 1960s, which was largely based on the knowledge of Green Revolution practices. The institutional arrangements emphasised technology transfer based on techniques developed by agricultural research institutions, aid agencies, and public organisations to incorporate them within farming communities. Uncritical adoption of these ideas displaced and invalidated much of the traditional knowledge systems leading to a gap between field experiences, complexities and institutional priorities. As a result, conventionally, the students of these institutions often have very little exposure to alternative paradigms even as various forms of
agroecology-based practices have been advocated for a long time across various geographies by individual practitioners like, - Sripad Dabholkar’s ‘Prayog Pariwar’ (Maharashtra), Natural farming methods practised by Bhaskar Save (Gujarat), Narayan Reddy (Karnataka) and G. Nammalvar (Tamil Nadu), Bharat Bhushan Tyagi (Uttar Pradesh), and Sabarmatee (Odisha) amongst others. A study by the Living Farm Incomes team as part of the Verghese Kurien internships examined 27 state university agricultural curricula of the four-year Bachelor of Agriculture revealed that there are low or no credits on organic farming in most schools, and the exposure at best is theoretical with no practical engagement or experiential learning. So, introducing an exclusive course on Natural Farming raises a few critical concerns that merit further thought – How should the existing courses be viewed in relation to the new syllabus? How can existing field experts and organisations operating outside the formal education paradigm be included in the pedagogical design of the courses? What forms of support and training are being provided to teachers and scientists at the Agricultural Universities to teach the proposed courses, with mounting expectations to change the narrative after years of focus on industrial agriculture practices? What kinds of employment opportunities are being envisioned for youth graduating with a degree in Natural farming, given that employers predominantly come from large agri-companies in the current set-up?
The proposed shift towards encouraging and researching Natural Farming practices also needs to engage with the sprawling institutional arrangements of agricultural education in India to better leverage existing resources. The agricultural education system in India comprises 75 Agricultural Universities (AUs) that integrate teaching, research, and extension. Additionally, 106 institutes within the ICAR, 721 Krishi Vigyan Kendras (Agriculture Science Centres), and 69 All India Coordinated Research Projects (AICRP) make India’s National Agricultural Research and Education System (NARES) the largest in the world. Exploring the possible roles that could be played by KVKs, for instance, could lead to innovative exposure modules for the students while invigorating these institutions with youthful participation.
Beyond knowledge – meaningful skilling for sustainability transitions
In anticipation of the curricula revision, the Living Farm Incomes team organised a panel discussion in 2022 with different practitioners to share their views regarding synchronising the current university curriculum and pedagogies to an interconnected and holistic domain of agroecology. They concurred that the process is a big challenge for the universities owing to the historical pressures of input-oriented agricultural knowledge. Overhauling the content needs to integrate meaningfully with field experience and exposure provided to the students. Suggestions included collaborations with existing farmers and CSOs engaged in agroecology, along with developing methodological rigour to map the effects of such practices. For instance, certificate courses with hands-on learning have been designed by Welthungerhilfe (WHH) in collaboration with Kerala and Kolkata universities. Thanal agroecology centre in Wayanad, Amrita Bhoomi Peasant Agroecology Centre, and the recently established Indo German Global Academy for Agroecology, Research and Learning (IGGAARL) in Pulivendula, Andhra Pradesh amongst others offer valuable avenues for collaboration. Dismantling older modes of knowledge will also require breaking the rigidities of learning methods and sources to incorporate innovative ideas and practices from the grassroots.
Against the backdrop of a growing number of unemployed youth, and migration from rural areas, agroecology and a transition to sustainable agriculture provides interesting opportunities for reskilling in agriculture. However, enabling this requires investments that recognise the historical baggage of institutional inertia and hierarchies in agriculture and deliberately open the space for the co-creation of relevant knowledge and practices. The fundamental need for dignified livelihoods can be made available through institutions like farmer-producer organisations that can and should be able to actively hire agricultural graduates. Based on principles of collectivisation, FPOs can help its members to overcome some of their disadvantages through access to a larger pool of finances and better market access because of supply aggregation. On the other hand, such enterprises in India have lacked commitment towards sustainable agriculture. Young people skilled in sustainable agricultural practices can play a significant role in rethinking the business model of these enterprises. This offers an opportunity for engaging rural youth in more sustainable, green employment while making inroads into agricultural production systems.
Deborah Dutta is a Research and Documentation Consultant in the Living Farm Incomes (LFI) project, IRMA.
C Shambu Prasad is a Professor of Strategic Management and Social Sciences at IRMA and coordinates the LFI project.