Kerala’s Food Security Army: a win-win for farmers and agricultural workers

KERALA’S FOOD SECURITY ARMY

This trip was somehow getting postponed for some reason or the other for nearly three years now! It was in early 2011 in an internal meeting of ASHA in Wardha that Sridhar Radhakrishnan of Thanal shared about the Green Army concept that was emerging in Kerala – we were talking about how we need to create win-win situations for farmers and agricultural workers for farming to sustain itself. While this does not mean that one gives up on the need for land reforms in favour of the landless, it is also a recognition that given the severe agrarian crisis in Indian agriculture right now, we need to evolve interim win-win solutions too – ones that help collectivise agricultural workers, reduce their drudgery, improve their earnings, give them an enterprise too which is not risky (the farmer’s enterprise is risky in any case!), and most importantly, give them a status and dignity that they want.

It was all very exciting to hear Sridhar share some details about the Green Army in the Wardha meeting, and since then, there have been several attempts at visiting Thrissur and Wadakancherry, the locations where this Food Security Army concept is being actualized.

My colleague Ananthoo and I made it at short notice without much planning and we are grateful to all the various people connected with the Food Security Army and Green Army who still took us around, spent time with us and shared as much information as they could.

So, what is the Food Security Army?

When we told our auto rickshaw person that we want to go to the Agricultural Research Station (ARS), Mannuthy, he wanted to know which of the two stations we wanted to visit. As soon as we mentioned Prof U Jaikumaran’s name – the agricultural scientist who is in charge of Mannuthy ARS – his face lit up and he pulled the auto off the highway and called up Prof Jaikumaran directly and found out some details about where to come etc. This itself was an unusual thing to encounter….

IMG_20150625_105938782_HDRAs soon as one walks into Prof Jaikumaran’s office, the image of a highly disciplined and organized person gets reinforced. The entire ARS has very good signage all over. Everything in his office is properly arranged with no sign of disarray in anything, whether it is the stacks of files on the tables, what is placed on the walls or where various other things are located. The famous military discipline at work! ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ are prominently written on two walls behind him.

The story goes back to 1993 when Prof Jaikumaran’s station acquired a paddy transplanting machine from China. It has to be noted that Prof Jaikumaran himself is an agronomist and not an agricultural engineer. In a situation like Kerala, where there is acute shortage of labour for farming, where more and more land is being kept fallow in addition to being diverted away from food production, where one of the reasons for such fallowisation is also the dearth of timely labour availability, having a machine which can sow paddy seedlings in half an acre in one hour’s time, with half a liter of diesel and at a cost of Rs. 75000/- per machine, it seemed like one important solution to the region’s problems. Prof Jaikumaran went ahead and organized a training on how to use the machine. He also gave the machine to farmers to use after the training, rather than keep it as a museum piece (which many machines in various agri-varsities appear to be, incidentally). He did not leave it at that either. He then organized one more follow up session for reviewing the performance of the machine in the field and got confronted by many questions by the farmers who used it – yields from machine-transplanting vis-à-vis manual transplanting, seed type/genotype, spacing, nursery-raising, spare parts and servicing, repairs and maintenance – were all issues placed on the table. He went about addressing these systematically, by studying all these parameters in carefully conducted research for three more years. And the University came out with a recommended Package of Practices after that. However, the question of popularization with farmers was still unaddressed.

This is where Prof Jaikumaran showed himself to be different from other agriculture scientists. This is where the unusual story begins. As the story unfolds, the painstaking work of one man called Prof Jaikumaran, of trying to take forward many of his innovative ideas towards actualization, gets apparent. Social justice issues start getting woven in, and every opportunity seized, to make several concepts real, and to improve several livelihoods.

Usually, agriculture scientists think that their job is over when research is done, a paper published or a PoP (package of practices) put out. However, Prof Jaikumaran, — who was bubbling with enthusiasm to contribute to Kerala’s agricultural economy, to its youth and their employment potential, to the food security of the state, to empower women and take up skill-building and to elevate human labour to lend it dignity and a noble status, — decided to take the initiative to its logical end.

In late 2003, he took up a 22-day training to popularize the use of transplanters, and with this, added in some social issues – all the 19 trainees were from 2 Kudumbashree units from Kodakara and Tholur Panchayats. It was apparent to him by then that the training has to be followed up by not just subsidized provision of machines, but also maintenance and repair services, in addition to ensuring that trainees worked as collectives or ‘battalions’.

The first training was on the ‘hardware’ of the machine (transplanter) wherein the trainees get to know every part by disassembling the machine completely and reassembling it, and on the ‘software’ of agricultural practices to be adopted.

It was seen that the training increased the confidence of the women trainees tremendously. Follow up was ensured to see if the trainees are able to work as ‘units’ or collectives.

This is how the journey began – over the years, the main elements that got emphasized in the creation of the “Food Security Army” or “Bhakshya Suraksha Sena” (training modules were usually 18 to 22 day long) are:

  • Dignity and ‘nobility’ to agricultural labour – in fact, the term labour is not used since it usually denotes an undignified status, unfortunately.
  • Reduction or removal of drudgery in agricultural operations, as well as ensuring health and life security in such operations.
  • Social Security for the members of the Army – this includes contributory provident fund, a welfare fund for interest-free or easy loans and insurance (life, accident and medical).
  • Service Provision by the ‘Army’ – it is not wages that they earn, but service charges for the professionalized, skilled and disciplined services rendered to the farmers.

The FSA became well known with a challenge that it undertook in 2009, called Operation Ponnamutha, of transplanting in ten days’ time 1733 acres of wetlands below sea level (a Ramsar site in Thrissur district) by deploying 9 ‘regiments’ of 24 ‘battalions’ of trained/skilled workers into action. 9 regiments got into a contract of Rs. 5 lakhs each for taking this up. Each battalion had 7 persons at that time. For 45 lakh rupees’ contract, this Food Security Army of 168 people managed to do their contracted job in 5 days’ time. To help with this huge challenge, mobile repair and servicing units, food catering units, monitoring units for coordinating and monitoring the implementation of the contract, temporary toilets especially for women, changing rooms/temporary sheds, medical kits and services were all pressed into service. At Rs. 3000/ per acre, the regiments delivered their commitment on nursery-raising, transplanting and gap filling and earned profits for themselves.

The entire effort therefore consists of the following pathway:

Step 1: Careful selection of trainees for the Food Security Army basic training modules as well as Master Trainers’ training module (these are usually trainees sponsored by Kudumbashree collectives, or Panchayats, or Padasekhara Samithis (paddy farmers’ collectives, also defined so in the ‘Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act 2008’). Each such training costs around Rs. 15000/- in all, and there are different modules.

Step 2: Training imparted with a lot of emphasis on practical experiential learning, which also tries to imbue the trainees with a revolutionary spirit, about their contribution to the nation and invests on confidence-building. Work ethics, dress code, discipline and punctuality are all emphasized upon. A passing out parade is also organized to give visibility to the effort and to recognize the skill-building that has taken place.

Step 3: Formation of AMOSCs or Agro-Machinery Operation Service Centers which are collectives of agricultural workers, organized in various models of hierarchy (referred to as Battalions or Regiments by Prof Jaikumaran, and referred to as Groups and Teams elsewhere, for instance) – these are usually registered as Charitable Societies. These could be new Cooperatives, or SHGs and in some cases, individual entrepreneurs working with their teams of employees.

Step 4: Renting the machinery at very nominal prices (by Panchayats or Primary Agricultural Credit Cooperative Societies, usually, which make the investment to purchase the appropriate machinery) to the AMOSCs, who in turn start service provision to farmers and Padasekhara Samithis. Service provision charges are fixed for various agricultural operations, with most of the work concentrated on paddy transplanting. Some AMOSCs additionally provide ploughing, weeding and harvesting services also. However, post-harvest processing and value addition services are yet to be added to this effort.

Step 5: Continuing some support to the AMOSCs in setting up their institutions properly with High Powered Committees advising, and governance structures put into place etc. Further, repair and maintenance services are provided by various mobile units set up, in addition to spare parts kept readily available with the University’s ARS also. Some AMOSCs have reached a stage where they have in-house teams for this, including women professionals who have been trained for the purpose. This institutional side to the effort is indeed important if other aspects related to making this a viable labour bank, or professional service provision enterprise, which also includes workers’ welfare and social security rights, are to be upheld. There is also a mechanism of sharing of profits after decisions related to ploughing back into the Centre for more machinery purchase, or more asset building are taken care of.

While this is the basic model of the creation and work of Food Security Army, Prof Jaikumaran kept adding many innovations as and when the need arose. He has kept his ears tuned to feedback from experience on the ground, and kept improvising and improving the model. The following are the additional elements:

  • Having a mobile training unit, in addition to having trainees come to the ARS campus; here, the mobile training unit goes with the machines to the villages – however, it has been seen that coming to the campus is more conducive to imparting the training. Trainees themselves feel so and have opted for on-campus training.
  • Having a mobile service and maintenance unit which goes to various AMOSCs as and when required and scheduled.
  • Having a spare parts bank ready in the ARS so that no time is wasted for replacements when needed. This also takes care of cash flow issues as far as the AMOSCs are concerned, at times.
  • Building a cadre of AMOSEs (Agro Machinery Operations Service Executives) with 6 month or one year apprenticeships.
  • Scaling out the model out of Thrissur (which had 40 Centres running with the ARS’s efforts, along with interested Panchayats, Kudumbashree groups and Service Cooperative Banks) to such Service Centres all over the State. From 2012 onwards, the Government of Kerala has been announcing some budgetary provision for Food Security Army incrementally all over the state. In 2012 alone, 20 crore rupees have been allocated for 35 Agro Service Centres, with each Centre getting an investment of Rs. 32 lacs. Within the 32 lacs, 25 lac rupees are spent on machinery, 2 lakhs for office running costs, 3 lakhs are revolving fund and 2 lakh rupees for paying the salary of a Facilitator who is usually a retired agriculture department official. As the story of Green Army in Wadakancherry described later in this note tells you, this is an initial investment that does allow the enterprise to take off successfully without the need for further infusion of funds. 14 of these Service Centres have been marked as Model Service Centres. Each year, the budget has been adding more and more centres all over Kerala. The High Powered Committee for each Service Centre has the Block Panchayat President as the Chair with the ADA as the Convenor. These Committees have AMOSC office bearers, panchayat (current and former) office bearers, agriculture department officials, service cooperative bank officials etc., as members.
  • An “Organic Force” or “Jaivam Amrutham” battalion will be created soon – these members will be trained in organic farming practices and have right now taken up 73 acres of certified organic farming. The target is 30000 hectares in the coming years for the Organic Force. These will also be shaped as bio-input producers and sellers.
  • A “Barren Land Cultivation Force” has also been created for bringing back fallow lands into cultivation, which uses additional machines and takes up additional operations.
  • A National Centre of Excellence for this model is being proposed now.
  • Harvesting operations which also take care of baling of straw and supply to livestock rearers are also undertaken. Here, straw baling machines are deployed, where the farmer is charged Rs. 23/- per bale by the AMOSC. In turn, the farmer can earn Rs. 72/- for an average of 12 kgs of straw @ Rs.6/kg. At 500 bales or so per day, the AMOSC earns at least Rs. 11 per bale as its net earnings.
  • Today, AMOSCs could have transplanters, tillers, threshers, harvesters, weeders etc. Some are getting into producing and selling bio-inputs, vegetable seedlings, other nurseries, soil testing labs, tissue culture, counseling etc.
  • A Coconut Crown Force has also been created, in addition to a “Tractor Regiment”.
  • A Green Cadet Corps module and unit have also been piloted in one school – here, a module for 50 weeks a year has been created, for the Saturday of each week to be devoted by the GCC students to cultivate their own crops, assisted by the school in terms of leased land or land in the campus. Students keep meticulous records of what they have grown, growth of the crop, practices adopted, results etc. and share the same while passing out.
  • A Garden Force for urban landscaping, and for assisting urban gardeners is being shaped at present. Similarly, a Water Security Force for efficient water harvesting is also being planned.
  • A Food Security Army Service Training College is also on the anvil!

ECONOMICS

This model of Food Security Army (FSA) is indeed a win-win proposition in a state like Kerala (a) where the market wage rates for ‘unskilled’ workers (what is called as unskilled) is around Rs. 400/woman-day and Rs. 600 to Rs. 750/man-day, (b) where there is acute labour shortage especially when there are time-bound operations like paddy transplanting involved. A farmer typically spends around ten thousand rupees at least, per acre, for paddy transplanting (25 person-days/acre).

In the FSA model, the farmer places an order for a given area of land to be transplanted on a given day, with a given seed variety. The seeds are selected by the farmer, germinated and then provided to the AMOSC’s designated people. Thereafter, the AMOSC raises mat nurseries carefully, to suit the machine’s requirements. At Rs. 3500/ per acre, raising of the nurseries, transplanting of an acre after 15 days of raising the nursery and any gap-filling is taken up by the AMOSC. For the farmer, this is already a savings of around Rs. 6500/- per acre at least (in addition to not having to deal with the hassle of growing a nursery of seedlings).

From its side, the AMOSC deploys a team of 5-7 skilled workers who can do transplanting on 2.5 acres per day fetching around nine thousand rupees. The actual expenditure is on wages to the members, diesel for the machine, as well as food and conveyance costs paid to the members. Typically, this could add up to five thousand rupees at the most. The remaining earnings are earmarked for running the enterprise (office space, some employees etc.), for social security and welfare fund of the members and to invest on asset acquisition. Depending on the number of machines and membership in the labour bank of the AMOSC, a typical transplanting season could fetch a profit of 3 to 4 lakh rupees, after all the above costs are met!

Typically, 30% of the service charges earned are kept for depreciation of machinery (10%), working fund (10%) and social security for members (10%). Profits are shared equally or re-invested on asset acquisition including new machines.

Latha Raveendran, a successful FSA entrepreneur:

IMG_20150626_093134293We had an opportunity to meet Latha Raveendran (an organic farmer and an Agro Service Centre entrepreneur from Mullur village of Tholur Panchayat), who was an office bearer in a Kudumbashree group, before getting trained as a FSA member. She was one of the first trainees. Her model is that of an individual entrepreneur who benefited from the training and machinery she received, who today owns 7 different machines. She provided transplanting services on 4300 acres last year, by charging Rs. 3000/acre through her Sivasakthi Agro Service Centre. The work is staggered all over the year, over seven months or so in different areas, and she does not find time to provide services other than transplanting mainly. The demand is more than what she can cater to, she says.

She employs 27 women and 17 men and is herself a trainer for others. Her first machine (a transplanter) came as a donation from the padasekhara samithi of her village. Later, 2 more machines were donated by the Parappur Service Cooperative Bank. The ownership rests with the Padasekhara Samithi or the bank, and she gets to rent in the machines at a nominal Rs. 50/day/machine. She now has 3 transplanting machines, as well as a harvester, brush cutter and sprayer. She admits that the first two years were of losses, given that they did not know how to maintain the machines properly and there were not many orders when the machines became idle. After Operation Ponnamutha in 2009, she made profits and invested in more machines.

A team of 5-7 persons works together and transplants on two to four acres each day. She pays Rs. 750/- to the male employees and gets them to work longer hours per day. She also pays for food and transportation/conveyance. For women, she pays Rs. 400/day. There is insurance cover for all her employees, in addition to welfare fund that is utilized for weddings and other needs in the family.

She herself does ‘precision farming’ in nethouse on leased in land (7 acres) using only organic methods and inputs. Marketing is not an issue since her Panchayat as well as the Parappur Service Cooperative Bank organize markets regularly where she gets to sell. She proudly shared with us that her skills with the machines are so good now that she has trained 6 Master Trainers in Wadakancherry, and can also give instructions for repair and servicing over phone when people seek her assistance. Her Service Centre gets orders from other districts also, and she was on her way to a neighboring district that morning, when we requested some time from her to learn from her experience.

GREEN ARMY IN WADAKANCHERRY

IMG_20150626_104235927Here, the Agro Machinery Service Centre took the form of a Charitable Society, which calls itself the Green Army Labour Bank. We were fortunate to have interactions with Anoop Kishore, the President of the Peringandur Service Cooperative Bank whose brainchild the Green Army has been; Raveendran, a retired agriculture officer who is now employed by the Green Army and Mr Aravindakshan, the President of the Green Army. The Green Army has been in existence for 7 years now, and has 300 members. In the first year, to overcome the hesitation and skepticism from farmers, they did free transplanting for educating farmers.

Here, “Teams” of 5 members each (one Leader, one Deputy Leader and 3 Helpers) are formed, and 5 Teams are together clubbed to be a “Group”. There are 164 women in the army base of 300 members. There are 10 Group Leaders, out of which 3 are women. There is also an in-house Mechanical Team and the team leader is a woman. There are differential payments for different members in the hierarchy of the Green Army, depending on the skills and grading that they receive each year. Some are paid on a daily wage basis while some others get a monthly salary. However, all workers have a pension cover, a welfare fund that they can dip into and insurance (life/medical/accident).

IMG_20150626_105646280Green Army office takes orders from Padasekhara Samithis before the season begins. They not only provide transplanting services, but also de-weeding, trainings in other blocks including in programmes like Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana, harvesting etc.

The Green Army has 67 transplanters, with 52 of these owned by the Block Panchayat and 15 by the Bank. The Green Army acts as the “custodian” of these machines, and pays 5% of the profits to the owner institutions. 84% of the earnings go to pay Green Army members directly. Another 16% goes into running costs including rent for the office space, office costs and salaries of 7 employees etc. They have an office in Athani town, and also have a training centre and a machine yard.IMG_20150626_123748413

The governance is in the hands of one Executive Committee and a High Powered Committee.  The Green Army has not made any losses so far, and has made annual profits of 3 to 5 lakh rupees on an average.

WHAT SEEM TO BE CRITICAL ELEMENTS HERE….

  1. The initial provision of investment on machines by a Panchayat or a Bank seems very important – if a new AMOSC has to start borrowing money to invest in purchase of machines, they might take more time to establish themselves, be able to share profits and benefits with all members etc.
  2. The coordination and convergence between various agencies: The agriculture university which is providing skill-building trainings through the Mannuthy ARS and forwarding the Food Security Army concept; the agriculture department which supplies seeds to farmers; the Panchayats and the Agriculture Credit Cooperative Societies/Cooperative Banks; Kudumbashree set up; the Padasekhara Samithis which place the orders and from where the demand is mainly created for the Army services, and the AMOSC units whichever shape they take (individual entrepreneur, SHG, cooperative, charitable society etc.) are working in close coordination with each other. This is very critical for the success of the initiatives.
  3. Diversification into various agricultural operations and services – this also seems to be important, especially to cross-subsidise new initiatives within a labour bank until the new operation breaks even.

SO, IS THIS ABOUT FARM MECHANISATION AND DISPLACEMENT OF LABOUR?

The applicability and relevance of this model in the context of Kerala is very much apparent and obvious. In a situation of labour shortage and high wage rates, collectivization of workers; skilling them; improving their earnings; lending dignity and respectable identity (the badges and logos and uniforms are very striking); providing social security; reducing their drudgery and improving their efficiency through appropriate scale of machines (big machines have been repeatedly shunned as was witnessed by us, whatever the machine might be) are all very much needed. They are certainly creating a win-win situation for farmers and workers in terms of cordial and respectful relations as well as economics.

However, the applicability of this concept in a situation where agri-labour supply is high, and agri-labour is available at low wage rates, is somewhat questionable – mechanization that displaces labour from farm operations is certainly not advisable and desirable in such situations.

Prof Jaikumaran feels that even there, there are possibilities with some variations applied – for instance, by skilling agricultural workers and bringing in appropriate machinery (the stress is on drudgery reduction and not labour replacement), their wage rates can be improved.

For instance, where a farmer spends around 4000 rupees per acre for transplanting in places where wage rates are far lower than in Kerala (let us say, 150 to 170 rupees a day), a unit of 5 FSA Members can still earn Rs. 3000 to Rs.4000/day for transplanting on 2 acres at a charge of only Rs. 1500-2000/acre. This is still a saving for the farmer, and higher earnings for the worker. If there is a system of staggering of work orders between the workers (the membership base has to be wider), with everyone getting an opportunity to work at some point, and earning on a given day more than they would get over several days, it would also bring in leisure time into their lives.

The FSA idea is being explored now in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It has to be seen how norms around “appropriate mechanization” can be enforced so that labour displacement does not become the norm unthinkingly.

For now, it is clear that states like Kerala, Punjab, Haryana etc., can benefit from the FSA model.

In other states, without the machinery aspects of the FSA model coming into the picture, the other aspects related to collectivization of workers, skill-building to improve work efficiency and reduce drudgery through appropriate tools and implements, professionalization of services and increased wage rates, social security etc., can all be emulated. It would still be a win-win for farmers and workers.

ps:

The official website is: www.foodsecurityarmy.org

Total number of trainings/batches so far (June 2015): 190; 2544 men and 1809 women inducted into the Army so far.

http://rkvy.nic.in/download/RKVY_Sucess_Story/Kerala/Food_Security_Army.pdf is the initial investment that went into this idea.

http://www.keralaagriculture.gov.in/APS_2014-2015/wi_2014_pdf/1401.pdf is now Kerala government’s ‘mainstreaming’ of this idea.

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