Mahua for Livelihoods

Back in 2013, when I was still a dreamy eyed development worker in Mandla, I had a crazy brainwave for transforming rural livelihoods in the tribal districts that I was working in. I got into trouble for that because in the Indian aid sector, one is supposed to be Gandhian and not Bacchanalian.

We had some Italians visit our field area for work. The gentlemen, having clandestinely tasted the alcoholic Mahua beverage, declared that the Mahua drink was “better than their Italian wine”. This got me thinking. The Indian Mahua drink had an untapped domestic and international market. As any straight-thinking development worker should, I asked the stakeholders themselves what they thought of my idea. I wished to know if they thought that it would be appropriate to collectively brew, package and sell Mahua based alcoholic drinks to which many women had responded, ‘अछा हो जायेगा मैडम’ (It will be good, Madam). A lady, without mincing words, stated, “शराब बनानेके लिए ही तोह महुआ बिन कर लाते हैं” (It is for the manufacture of alcohol that mahua is collected).

I quit Mandla a long time ago and have since discussed this idea with quite a few city dwellers. Nearly, everybody responded enthusiastically and asked why this had not been done before.

So, what is the Mahua all about?

The Mahua (Madhuca indica) tree is a deciduous tree, often found in Teak forests, that grows across India under dry tropical and sub-tropical climatic conditions. It provides important Non Wood Forest Products (NWFP) such as green manure, oil, oil cake, liquor (from flowers) and raw materials for several products. The tree can grow on a large range of soils right from the sandy loams to stiff clay and calcareous soils. As the tree is affected by neither heavy rains nor drought, it has great potential for agroforestry.

The Mahua trees bloom during the summers and the Mahua drink is prepared from the collected flowers. Women leave home as early as 4 a.m. in the morning to collect Mahua flowers from the forest. The flowers are never plucked. The flowers that have fallen of the trees are collected.

Sometimes entire families shift base from their village to the nearby forest in the summers to collect as much Mahua as possible. Mahua flower collection is highly competitive as everyone wants to collect a lot of flowers. Competition is not restricted to the human race. I had once heard of a woman who reported that she had mistakenly thought that there was a human collecting Mahua on the other side of the tree only to find that it was a bear feasting on the sweet Mahua flowers!

Tribal communities of Central India produce and consume their own alcohol made from the flowers of the Mahua tree. Men, women and on occasion, children enjoy the Mahua alcoholic drink that is called Mahuli or simply Mahua. Some researchers report that “women and children are also fond of these beverages but consume in small quantity and preferably during festivals or ceremonies”.

Various local alcoholic drinks meet upto 5-10% of the daily nutritional requirements, playing supplementary role in the nutrition of tribal people. The Mahua alcoholic beverage is also used to treat dysentery by Baiga, Gond, and Kol tribes. Under the PESA Act, 1996, a tribal can store upto 5 liters of alcohol. However they are not allowed to sell it as that is an offence under the Central Excise Act, 1944.

Drinking Mahua in Kanha #mahua #indianativespirit

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The Mahua drink is reportedly so delicious that Felix Padel, a visiting professor of anthropology at the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) is of the opinion that ‘scotch and wine could face a tough competition in India if local varieties like mahua… are made available in their unadulterated form.’  This popularity and love for the Mahua among enthusiasts hints to the potential of business around the Mahua tree, that can help:

i. increase incomes of tribals;

ii. popularize Mahua drinks among and give legal access to the general public;

iii. set quality standards for Mahua beverage, and;

iv. combat deforestation.

Mahua and the Exploitation of tribals 

Alcohol production and consumption is the most important use of Mahua for tribal populations. However, tribals do not have storage equipment for these collected flowers which can lead to deterioration of the flowers’ quality. Tribals sell the flowers to traders for as low as INR 12 to 15 per kilo because they need the cash. The traders store these flowers. The tribals return from time to time to the same traders for buying the flowers that they had collected, when they need to brew alcohol. The tribal communities buy the flowers for as high as INR 20 to 30 per kilo. Sometimes the prices touch INR 40. Traders profit from the distress sale of mahua by tribals.

The dried intoxicating mahua 🙂

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This problem can be addressed by the creation of Producer Companies for the production and sale of the Mahua alcoholic drink. I suggest this under a Farmer Producer Company (FPC) because right now, the Indian government, under the auspices of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) and the Small Farmers Agri-business Consortium (SFAC), is trying to proliferate FPCs like mushrooms for anything and everything. The tribal communities could collectively produce, package and sell Mahua based alcoholic drinks. This will help popularize Mahua drinks among the public. As per the current laws, someone who is not a tribal cannot access the Mahua alcoholic beverage unless a tribal invites them to, since it is illegal for anyone to sell alcohol without a valid licence. If the beverage is produced, bottled and sold by a Producer Company, the product can be made available to the general public and it can possibly be exported.

Standards for the Mahua beverage

The Mahua beverage produced by the Producer Companies will have to adhere to strict standards of quality control without which the public will not warm up to Mahua. The commercialization of Mahua will lead to more research and development for this traditional alcoholic beverage of India. Studies are already on in the Central Institute for Subtropical Horticulture, Lucknow and IIT, Delhi for process standardization in order to prepare good quality Mahua flower wine. This will also help curb adulteration malpractices such as mixing of sugar or urea with Mahua liquor that heavily compromises the quality of the final product. 

Combating deforestation

The Mahua tree is considered sacred by the tribal communities of Central India and is never hacked for wood. It is not uncommon to find a deforested hill with only Mahua trees scattered on it because the villagers cut away everything for firewood but not Mahua trees. Often, some or a large part of the land owned by tribal people consists of skeletal soils or lithosols as per FAO classification. This kind of soil is called barra zamin by the locals. Unaware that skeletal soils can be used for growing horticultural plants (they sometimes use it for cultivating kodo millet and red gram), they consider this land to be useless. They often refrain from reporting this land too. They simply claim that that it will be of no use in any government scheme as it is useless.

Planting Mahua trees on fallow lands owned by tribal people will help to bring that fallow land under cultivation which in turn can boost Mahua production. Mahua monocultures are not an answer to bring more land under forests but are an important option for agricultural land use. They will serve the purpose of carbon sequestration. Moreover, the Mahua leaves are economically important for rearing Tussar Silk caterpillars. This opens another important commercial activity from the same cultivated area. However, there is the threat of villagers clearing off existing Teak, Ghost trees, Flame of the forest trees, etc. in deciduous forests for planting Mahua. I have not dwelt much on this but this is definitely a possibility in case the Mahua starts raking in the moolah.

Mahua monocultures (in regions where they grow naturally) are a better alternative to growing non-edible crops for industrial purposes in rural wastelands. A big corporate, whom I will not name, had once come to Mandla for promotion of Jatropha. The tribals had been promised that the Jatropha would be bought back by the company for a good price. Many tribal families planted the Jatropha on their fallow lands. The seed stock/saplings were provided by the company itself. Here is the tragedy. No one came to buy the Jatropha. The plants occupied the fields for some years till one day another team came with a government scheme for mango plantations. The Jatropha plants were uprooted with the help of JCBs, paid for under the WADI programme and mangoes were planted in their place. I firmly think that no plant ought to be encouraged for plantation in lands of poor, tribal families unless it provides some edible product(s). Otherwise, if the plant does not generate the expected income, then the wasteland is wasted further. 

Official reactions

I had suggested this idea to the concerned district officials who had invited ideas for establishment of FPCs in Mandla. Although they were convinced by the commercial potential of the Mahua drink, they were also hilariously embarrassed. Not wanting to take the burden of promoting a perceived ‘social evil’, they hurriedly praised me for my ‘out-of-the-box’ idea but quickly stated that ‘it is not fit for the social sector’. The aid/development sector is referred to as the ‘social sector’ in India. A senior official later also explained to me how alcohol production and consumption was the most important use of Mahua for tribal populations and how traders profit from the distress sale of Mahua by tribals. At this point, I had casually and jovially asked him why he had disapproved my idea of a producer company for Mahua based alcoholic products to which he replied that he had liked it a lot but was not in a position to implement it. Their concerns are valid given that success stories such as Hiwre Bazar and Ralegan Siddhi started with alcohol prohibition.

Legal aspects and recent commercial developments surrounding alcohol sale and consumption in Madhya Pradesh and in the Republic of India

I choose to elaborate the legalities of this subject briefly because I had managed to rub a few people the wrong way by “suggesting something so anti-social”. The establishment of farmer producer companies for manufacture, packaging and sale of Mahua wine or any other local brew like rice beer, should not face any legal hindrances in India for the following reasons:

a) Prohibition is incorporated in the Constitution of India among the directive principles of state policy. Article 47 says: “The state shall regard the raising of the level of nutrition and standard of living of its people as among its primary duties and in particular, the state shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the use except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health.” It must be noted that alcohol is not outright banned according to this Article and in point c), the reader can note that the Ministry of Food Processing is definitely not hindered by this Article 47.

b) The sale, consumption and purchase of alcohol are banned in the states of Gujarat , Mizoram , Nagaland , Manipur and the Union territory of Lakshadweep. There is no evidence of alcohol being banned in any other Indian states apart from these. In fact, in 2007, the Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition Act was amended to legalize the manufacture of wine from guavas and grapes, demonstrating the government’s willingness to popularize local brews.

c) The Ministry of Food Processing had issued an Expression of Interest in 2008 to set up the National Wine Board at Pune in the State of Maharashtra as a separate not-for-profit company under Section 25 of the Companies Act, 1956.

d) The word ‘alcohol’ is not mentioned at all in the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 .

e) Under the Fifth Schedule [Article 244(1)], Provisions as to the Administration and Control of Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes, Mandla district is a Scheduled Area in the State of Madhya Pradesh . In a Scheduled Area, a tribal household is allowed to store 5 liters of alcohol; however they are not permitted to sell it under any circumstances. Tribals already manufacture Mahua wine by their traditional methods. They can be directed towards making money out of their delicacy by selling it under the auspices of a producer company only.

f) The Madhya Pradesh government is acutely aware of the problem of tribals with regards to distress sale of Mahua flowers and their later repurchase by the same sellers at high prices. In order to protect the local community from exploitation by Mahua Traders, storage facility (godowns) of Mahua were planned and constructed under the Integrated Action Plan 2012 of Mandla. 10 Mahua godowns costing Rs. 100.00 Lacs were sanctioned to Forest Departments for constructions of godowns. 100 metric tons Mahua storage would be possible, 85 villages and 1200 Mahua collectors would be directly benefited. It is a matter of significance that the government has granted substantial sums for facilitating the storage of mahua given that ‘over 90% of harvested mahua flowers are used to produce country liquor’ .


With the liberalization and opening up of international wine market under the WTO regime, Govt. of India is trying to promote “Wines of India” and Agricultural and Processed Foods Export Development Authority has been entrusted to develop a strategy. The suggestion for large scale commercial production of tribal Mahua wine, under the auspices of a Farmer Producer Company, finds resonance with the policy of the Government of India with regards to wine. The implementation of this idea needs further elaboration without a doubt. Currently, FPCs are not known to do big business in India. FPCs for local brews like Mahua liquor, rice beer, guava wines, etc can change this scenario. If successful, the tribal belt will see great growth of income and our traditional brews will make it to the tables of the well-heeled. 

I welcome your comments, compliments and criticism.



Access to ICT4Ag in India

An advantage of having a peer coach is that you may never know what they might lead you to in your own sector. My WhyDev peer coach Eric Couper introduced me to the budding ICT4Ag industry in India when he was in Ethiopia! ICT4Ag means Information & Communication Technology for Agriculture. This introduction is for readers outside of the agriculture and rural development sector.  ICT4Ag in India largely comprises of mobile agricultural advisory services (mAgri) with Digital Green being an exception. Thanks to Eric, I listened to the webinar by Mr. Jawahar Kanjilal of Nokia India on how Nokia is making inroads into the agriculture sector with it Life Tools.

mAgri is the 21st century’s answer to 20th century TV shows like ‘Amchi Mati, Amchi Manasa’ (Our Soil, Our People). DD Sahyadri’s agriculture extention education show was undoubtedly one of the first ICT4Ag ventures witnessed by India and many Marathi families would without fail tune into the show 6:30 PM every evening before the arrival of cable television in India. The show continues till this date.

I decided to get the farmers we worked with to use these services and to know what they think about such services. Here is the story of the roadblocks I faced for the 2 services that I talked to farmers about.  On being explained the use of mobile advisory services for information on weather, crop inputs and market prices, farmers say that they will willingly buy these services. My mAgri popularization flight faced numerous logistical snags in the town of Mandla. It clearly isn’t easy to access mAgri services of several companies. My account here is that of someone operating from a tribal area of Madhya Pradesh, specifically the districts of Mandla and Dindori.

1)      Nokia Life Tools

I had seen this video of Nokia a long time ago but had completely forgotten about it and had never bothered to check out how they were going about it.

I explained Nokia Life Tools and its uses to some farmers in the Ghughri block, Mandla, Madhya Pradesh. People were keen on accessing such a service but here is the hurdles.

1. You have to buy a Nokia phone to be able to use Life Tools. Given that most people I had met already had phones, (Lava/ Micromax), there was no way they were going to buy a Nokia phone just for the sake of the Nokia Agriculture Life Tools service. Villagers say that they prefer the Lava and Micromax phones because they have long-lasting batteries which are necessary given erratic electricity supply in rural areas.

2. Nokia Life is not supported by BSNL cellular services. BSNL is the mobile network available in Ghughri, Mandla. Nokia will face this problem across India where BSNL is the only cellular service provider.

3. The non-availability of Nokia Life in the higher end Nokia phones is problem no.3. A wealthy farmer who has profitable business(es) apart from farming, or a rich sugarcane farmer who can afford a Nokia Lumia model cannot access Nokia Life despite being a Nokia phone owner.

2)      Reuters Market Light

Given that people have to buy a Nokia phone to access its ICT4Ag service, I searched for services that did not require the purchase of a cell phone of a specific brand. I found Reuters Market Light (RML).

RML provides agriculture related information on weather, market crop prices, insect and pest management details during the period for which the farmer has subscribed to RML. The customer has to buy RML direct cards just like mobile talktime recharge cards and activate the service on their existing cell phones.

I explained how RML works to some women’s self-help groups in Mandla block. They did show inclination to buy the RML service because they said that they would go to Jabalpur to sell their sugarcane stock if the prices were higher there as compared to Mandla. Moreover, the Mandla block does not have network connectivity problems as much as the Ghughri block does due to its mountainous and forest terrain. I checked the website of RML to know where one could buy RML cards. You can buy them only in Aadhaar stores.  The closest Aadhaar store was in Indore, 610 kms away from Mandla!  I decided to explore other ways of getting RML to our women farmers.  I found Mr. Manav Khosla of RML on Twitter.

I called up the RML toll free number. They put me in touch with their distributor for the Jabalpur division. This gentleman explained that customers will have to make the payment to the nearest branch of State Bank of India (SBI). The RML service will be activated on the basis of this payment. Nice!

Instead of sending the whole village to the SBI office in Mandla, I decided to visit SBI myself to understand the procedure. Turns out, that the SBI officials weren’t very sure themselves about proceeding with this and how to accept payments. Their lack of information ensured that I was turned into a shuttle-cock for a quarter of an hour as they sent me from one manager to another. After being tossed from here to there about 5 times, I finally got to the right person. Here is what he had to say.

“The RML people had visited us some months ago to make a presentation about RML. We do accept payments for RML but only if the customer has a SBI bank account.”

My question, “So if a person does not have a SBI bank account and wants to subscribe RML service, they’ll have to open a SBI bank account first?”

SBI Bank officer said, “Yes, madam.”

The problem over here is that the more popular bank in Mandla is the Central Bank of India (CBI), not the State Bank of India. Most villagers have accounts with CBI . RML should have kept the option of subscription via CBI open. People aren’t going to open bank accounts in SBI to access RML.

Moral of the story: SBI gets to decide whether RML can have more customers or not in areas that have no Aadhaar stores.  Methinks this marketing and sales strategy needs to be updated.

Given the logistical difficulties for getting the people we worked with to use ICT4Ag services, I decided to leave ICT4Ag alone and focus on the work I already had on hand.

Now for the famous LEARNINGS:

1. Purchasing ICT4Ag services in India is not yet as easy as subscribing to a mobile connection & buying mobile recharge.

2. Certain ICT4Ag services are dependent on specific cellular network providers.

3. Farmers across India aren’t yet aware of the existence of ICT4Ag services and this calls for better advertising and marketing.

4.  Indian farmers are keen to pay for ICT4Ag services for accessing market prices, weather information and insect & pest management information.

The Indian ICT4Ag sector is still setting itself up. Access to these services will simplify in the next decades. While there are studies on the content delivered by ICT4Ag services in India, a lot more feedback is needed from the customers for their perspectives on the ease of purchasing these services.

P.S.: Thank you WhyDev & Eric!

Edited on May 1, 2014 to include a better code for the Nokia presentation from Slideshare thanks to Nalini Kumar Muppala.

My Tryst with Organic Farming…on the farm.

The Ministry of Rural Development has taken it upon itself to promote organic farming across the length and breadth of India. Well that’s precisely what’ve decided to do in the National Action Plan for Climate Change and in the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture. Many NGOs have dutifully followed suit. This is especially true in some of the most backward districts of India. The self being a champion of organic farming (self-proclaimed of course and because I fancied myself a Planeteer as a kid) and an ICAR loyalist, decided to do organic farming in accordance to what may be prescribed by Indian Agriculture Universities only. To take after tosh recommended by these non-agriculture graduates working for sustainable agriculture in the rural development sector is sacrilege for me. Those iodine deficient creatures claim that “agronomists talk nonsense!” and hence have no credibility themselves!

When I was working in Mandla, I was keen upon the introduction of organic sugarcane production as many farmers near the town of Mandla have access to irrigation. The town is practically surrounded on 3 sides by the Narmada. I went about this in a thorough fashion and chose to do what is recommended by the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University for organic sugarcane production. Below is a description of how reality smacked me straight in the face.

Package of Practices for Organic Sugarcane Production by the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (TNAU)


Recommend varieties for organic sugarcane production in Tamil Nadu are Co 8021, Co 86032, Co 86249, CoC 90063, CoG 93076, CoG 94077 and CoSi 95071.

The recommended varieties for Madhya Pradesh are as follows:

Serial No. Variety Maturity group Cane Yield (t/ha) Resistance to diseases and pests
1. Co 8371 (Bhima) Midlate 1117.7 Resistant to smut
2. Co 85004 (Prabha) Early 90.5 Resistant to smut
3. Co 86032 (Nayana) Midlate 102.0 Resistant to smut, field resistance to red rot
4. Co 87025 (Kalyani) Midlate 98.2 Resistant to smut, susceptible to red rot
5. Co 87044 (Uttara) Midlate 101.0 Moderately resistant to smut
6. Co 91010 (Dhanush) Midlate 116.0 Resistant to smut
7. Co 94008 (Shyama) Early 119.8 Resistant to red rot and smut
8. Co 99004 (Damodar) Midlate 115.5 Moderately resistant to red rot
9. Co 2001-12 Midlate 108.6 Resistant to red rot and moderately  resistant to smut
Source: Sugarcane varieties for cultivation, Agropedia and List of sugarcane varieties recommended for commercial cultivation in different states (Both websites were accessed on 3rd December, 2013)

Adoption difficulty: High

Problem: Where are all these varieties available? An agronomist colleague asked me to get in touch with the local Krishi Vigyan Kendra (Agriculture Science Centre) as they keep planting materials. Turned out that the district had not been included in the plan for sugarcane development and hence no planting material was available. All the varieties in the list above begin with Co. Co stands for Coimbatore. This implies that farmers will have to purchase the planting material from Sugarcane Breeding Institute, Coimbatore 641 007. (They have a James Bond connection.)

Most farmers flatly refused to take the pains of ordering the varieties themselves because:

qndlq to coibqtore

Even though they might not actually have to undertake a tour through 4 states, they simply weren’t willing to take the pains of ordering something from Chennai Expressland! We need to power up the marketing of better varieties. Improved varieties should not have to wait for several decades for a marriage between research and policy to become available to smallholder farmers. In fact, the thinking has to shift from agricultural extention to marketing. On second thoughts, extension education and agri-input marketing is the same thing!

Land preparation

The land must be deep ploughed once or twice with disc plough and then followed by shallow ploughing three or four times using cultivator.

Adoption difficulty: Moderate


  1. People have to be convinced to undertake the extra per hour cost for a total of 6 ploughings. They generally do not plough more than 2 to 3 times.
  2. This is contradictory to the principles of conservation agriculture (CA) as prescribed by the FAO. CA prescribes zero-tillage i.e. no disturbance whereas TNAU wants farmers to cause the highest level of turmoil possible.

In my opinion, TNAU wants to destroy insect pests in the soil by exposing them to heat.


Row spacing: 90 cm. Furrows should be 20-30 cm deep. This spacing changes with planting season. 90 cms in November- December. 75 cms for planting in January and 60 cms for planting in March.

Adoption difficulty: Moderate.

Problem: People practically plant sugarcane setts at a distance of 10 to 15 cms. Ask them to plant the setts at a distance of 90 cms i.e. 3 feet and their eyes pop out. However, this can be dealt with. Many farmers who would scatter paddy seeds earlier have adopted the 25cms x 25cms spacing of the System of Rice Intensification. Sugarcane farmers will adopt too.

Organic manure

In order supply a total of 280 kgs of Nitrogen per hectare, the TNAU recommends the application of farmyard manure or compost or well-decomposed press mud at 80 t/ha either before last ploughing or in the furrows before planting. However, the quantity of N can come through one or more sources like farmyard manure, compost, press mud etc., depending upon their N content.

Difficulty level: As high as the Burg Khalifa.


Reaction of an agronomist colleague


Reaction of farmers:


People laughed at me when I discussed this with them on their farms. I remembered the words of Dr. Norman Borlaug himself.

At the present time, approximately 80 million tons of nitrogen nutrients are utilized each year. If you tried to produce this nitrogen organically, you would require an additional 5 or 6 billion head of cattle to supply the manure. How much wild land would you have to sacrifice just to produce the forage for these cows? There’s a lot of nonsense going on here.

From his interview on his 95th birthday.

Honestly, adding even in 1/4 th this amount is a very big deal. I checked out the recommendations of the TNAU in it’s package of practices for integrated nutrient and pest management in sugarcane, i.e. conventional sugarcane cultivation. They’ve recommended a basal dose of farmyard manure at 12.5 t/ha or compost 25 t/ha or filter press mud at 37.5 t/ha before the last ploughing under gardenland conditions. Still not possible! People laughed at me, again.

Don’t know what had gotten into me but I refused to face the truth. I was still not willing to give up. I was completely sold on the idea that organic farming is efficient. If not 80 tonnes of well-decomposed cowdung (farmyard manure for Mandla farmers means rotten cowdung), then I decided that they could use alternatives like:

a) Mahua oilcake: 2.5 kgs of N from 1 quintal @ INR 700 per quintal during monsoon and INR 1400 per quintal after monsoon.

b) Linseed oilcake: 4.9 kgs of N from 1 quintal @ INR 1800 per quintal

c) Niger oilcake: 4.7 kgs of N from 1 quintal @ INR 1700 per quintal

d) Poultry manure:  30 kgs of N, 20.7 kg of P and 10.4 kg of K from 1 tonne. Sold @ INR 650 per trolley (about a tonne) near Mandla. I do not know the prices elsewhere.

All values for NPK have been calculated in accordance with the average nutrient content values of bulky and concentrated organic manures on the Organic Farming portal of TNAU.

Taking all the financial and physical constraints into consideration, I started abandoning my hardline stance. Farmers should consider various permutations and combinations of these options according to their budget. This is certainly expensive business for lower middle class folks (sugarcane farmers in Mandla aren’t exactly poor, they’ll be middle class in 10 years surely). Organic farming is fine but not in such a fanatical manner that it ultimately appears comical. To be fair to the TNAU, they have stated what they calculated is needed in 1ha, so as to supply 280 kgs of N from organic sources only. Tough job that! I do hope to have the opinions of scientists of the TNAU or from other parts of the country about this.

Planting material

Setts must be from 6-8months old disease free nursery crop. Two budded setts should be preferred over three-budded setts. The seed material better be from organically grown sugarcane crop.

Difficulty level: Moderate

Problems: Not manyof the present set of varieties being used in Mandla are resistant to red rot and smut. People continue to use the stock that they have for many years now. The setts will definitely not be from organically grown crop.

Sett rate and planting

75,000 two-budded setts are required for planting one hectare with a distance of 90 cms between rows.

Adoption difficulty: None

Problems: None except for helping farmers overcome the shock of keeping a 3 ft distance between rows.

Green manure intercrop

Green manure crops like daincha or sunhemp need to be sowed on one side of the ridges on 3rd or 4th day after planting sugarcane and raise it as an intercrop with sugarcane. Harvest and insitu incorporate the intercrop around 45 days after transplanting.

Difficulty Level: Low

Problem: Almost none. Some green manure crop seeds will always be easily found.

Weed management

Hand hoeing and weeding at 30, 60 and 90 days after planting. Only non-chemical weed management technologies like hand weeding and mechanical weed control methods are to be employed.

Difficulty Level: Moderate

Problem: The current practice of sowing the sugarcane crop very close practically leaves no space for a human to enter to the sugarcane field and hence weeding is not carried out. This does not mean there is no weed growth. However, by introducing a gap of 3 feet between rows, it will now be possible to carry out weeding. This increase makes sugarcane cultivation more labour intensive and this burden generally breaks the back of women farmers and hired women labourers.


Apply 5 kg each of Azospirillum and Phosphobacteria respectively on 30 and 60 days after planting of sugarcane. Mix the biofertilizers thoroughly with 500 kg/ha of farmyard manure to increase the bulkiness before application. This should be followed up with light earthing up and irrigation.

Difficulty level: High


My reaction:


Mid season, when farmers have more or less exhausted their stock of decomposed cowdung, obtaining 500 kgs will be as difficult. Application of fresh cowdung is not an option. Farmers will also find it difficult to buy so much azospirillum and phosphobacteria because they cost INR 25/kg and INR 70/kg respectively. Not much for a middle class pocket but that’s a lot of money for smallholder farmers. However, they can try and apply as much as they can afford.


Remove dried and senescent (old in simple language) leaves in the 5th and 7th month and apply as mulch in alternate furrows.

Difficulty level: None

Benefits: This is an activity that is not a part of current set of practices and can be adopted. Will require more labour.

Irrigation schedule
Germination (up to 35 days)

Every 7 days

Tillering  ( 36- 100 days)

Every 10 days

Grand growth (101-270 days)

Every 7 days

Maturity (271 days to harvest)

Every 15 days

This schedule is for medium type of soils. The interval is to be reduced for light soils and increased for heavy soils. When there is rain adjust the interval depending on the account of rainfall. Ridges and furrows method is inexpensive and best. Convey the irrigation water from source to the field head through pipelines to reduce conveyance loss.

Difficulty level: None

Prevention of lodging

At 7th month after trashing, a wet earthing up will help to reduce lodging of canes. Tying the canes with trash-twists (trash twist propping) will also help to reduce lodging.

Difficulty level: Very low

Insect control

Early shoot borer

Trash mulching, frequent irrigations and light earthing up at 35th days will result in lower incidence. Release 125 fertilized female Sturmiopsis parasite/ ha when the crops is at the age of 45 to 60 days.

Difficulty level: Moderate

Problem: Where do we obtain Mrs. Sturmiopsis? (pregnant & therefore married.)

Inter node stem borer

Cards pasted with 0.2 cc eggs of Trichogramma chilonis parasite are to be obtained from parasite breeding laboratories. They are to be placed in the field @ 25 cards/ha in 25 places once in 15 days when the crop is 4-11 months of old.

Alternatively, pheromone traps are to be introduced in the field @ 25/ha spaced at 20 meters apart when the crop is 5 months old, trap and kill the male moths of internode borer. Replace the pheromone vials in the traps in 7th and 9th months.

Difficulty level: High

Problem: Trichogramma & Sons are just as hard to find as Mrs. Sturmiopsis. I enquired about the points of sale for Trichogramma and many people led me to Trichoderma! Not the same thing! Not even close! And a trichologist will be of no help in this case whatsoever. An acquaintance (an agronomist) told me Syngenta sells these and he sent me information of their Bioline line that is only available in the UK. Facepalm!

Pheromone Traps are available with only one dealer of the Pest Control of India in Jabalpur (for supply to Mandla and surrounding areas) and these have to be pre-ordered. This can be managed and farmers can be ‘trained’ for the same through the infamous capacity building sessions.

Red rot disease

In places prone to red rot disease only resistant varieties such as Nayana, Kalyani, Shyama, Damodar and Co 2001 – 2012 are be planted.

In case susceptible varieties are grown, adopt the following practices.
1. Select and use disease free setts
2. Eliminate and burn affected clumps
3. Stop flow of irrigation/rain water from diseased fields to healthy fields
4. Do not raise ratoon crop from the disease affected crop and
5. After the harvest of affected crop, grow rice crop and destroy the soil debris inoculums.

Difficulty: Medium

Problem: Resistant varieties are not available for reasons explained earlier. Other precautions can be introduced in the area.

Smut disease

1. Obtain setts from disease free canes
2. Remove and burn affected clumps.
3. Do not allow more than one ratoon crop and
4. Grow resistant varieties.

Difficulty level:  Medium

Problem: Same as for red rot.

Grassy shoot disease

Treating the setts in an aerated steam therapy (AST) unit at 50°C for one hour can destroy the disease causing organism in the setts. Use the setts from 3-tier nursery raised using AST treated setts to avoid the disease.

Difficulty: High

Problem: What is an aerated steam therapy unit? How does a farmer access one? What are the alternatives for smallholder farmers on field?

Cane harvest

The canes are to be harvested when they are fully mature. The sucrose content of the juice of the crop will be more than 16 % and the purity of the juice around or more than 85%. In general is advisable to harvest at the age of around 1 year. The canes are to be harvested 2 to 3 cm below the ground level using a hand axe. Topping should be done at the point of break.

Difficulty level: Low.

Cane yield

When all the package of practices are carried out appropriately in time, the cane yield will be around 150 t/ha. In well-drained fertile deep soils, the cane yield can go up to 250 t/ha.

Problem: Given that it is next to impossible to follow all the package of practices, the cane yield will not be close to that that has been stated above. I chose not to torment my soul with what may be the output of any farmer’s heroic efforts at implementing this package of practice.

Green Cane Trash Blanket

Short description: Elimination of burning as a pre-harvest treatment of sugar cane, and managing the resultant trash as a protective blanket to give multiple on and off-site benefits. This is a sustainable land management practice from Australia that I wanted to introduce in our area since farmers burn their fields after harvest to kill weeds and insects. I wasn’t successful due to the setbacks I faced in the previously described intercultural operations. The green cane trash blanket is not a part of the package of practices of the TNAU and is something that I wanted to integrate. Colleagues gave me an almost paternal look that said, “Let the child try weaning farmers off their burning habit as much as she wants. She’ll come around.” Well I did come around and how! The simplest solutions are not simple to implement.

More here: WOCAT – Green Cane Trash Blanket

Ratoon cane yield

If the ratoon crop is managed well with all the appropriate package of practice, the cane yield from the ratoon crop will be almost equal or marginally lower (around 5%) compared to that of the previous plant/ ratoon crop.

Problem: We weren’t getting started on the first yield properly and hence decided not to wreck our brains on the ratoon yield.


Organic farming is difficult because

1. Adding the requisite amount of NPK is very difficult due to a lack of organic materials in necessary amounts and exactly when they are needed;

2. The non-availability of inputs for biological pest control in many locations as compared to the ease of access to chemical inputs and

3. The high cost of organic inputs.

I know that organic farming enthusiasts will be offended by some or the other part above. I won’t even touch upon the part concerning the alleged higher nutritive values of organic food. I doubt that myself. It is pesticide-free but more nutritious? Haven’t got a clue. I continue to harbour the hope that there should be some way to practically implement organic farming on the farm, outside control conditions. I continue to hope that WorldWatch is right and Dr. Borlaug was not. What is to be done? Many are sitting on the fence. I’ve jumped from the ‘enthusiast’ camp to the ‘on-the-fence’ camp. Paul Neate on CGIAR Climate is right that organic farming needs more debate. If it is organic, it needn’t necessarily be right.


I sincerely thank the TNAU for the excellent website that they have set up. They have presented the principles and techniques of conventional and organic farming is the most simple manner possible.  This post and everything that I learned, unlearned and relearned about organic farming and sugarcane cultivation would not have been possible without the treasure trove of information that is available on the website of the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University. The learning was very intense indeed and many of the things that I read there made me revise entire chapters in the Handbook of Agriculture. Now every time I think about organic cultivation, I never take a step forward without referring to the TNAU. I strongly encourage anyone interested in sustainable agriculture and organic farming to do the same.

Dear readers, we can now have a verbal slug-fest in the comments section.

The Futility of Penalizing the 3rd child

Here is a reproduction of a blog post I had written back in 2008.
There are talks in the Kerala government circles these days regarding the imposition of the ‘two-child’ norm for couples failing which they will be penalized Rs. 10000 per ‘extra’ child and disqualification of the 3rd child for of free healthcare and education. This rule might be forced to bring down the birth rate further. Kerala already has the lowest birth-rate in India. I sincerely appreciate and approve of their intentions but sadly, they have missed the point. I wish to know whether beggars, commercial sex workers and slum dwellers will be made to shell out the fine for it is always this category of people who seem to have a gaggle of kids with them. Making something compulsory will make people resent it. Moreover, it will add to the workload of our sufficiently stressed law enforcement agencies. Instead, there should be higher emphasis on sex education so that people started making educated choices in their sex lives. We must adopt a sensitive approach towards educating the masses about safe sex and use of birth-prevention methods. Experiments in Uttar Pradesh are already bearing fruit. In Lucknow, a youth-oriented initiative, called Saathiya, is working closely with chemists to educate clients, especially those from weak economic sections of the array of birth control measures available and even reducing the awkwardness associated with the sales of condoms. This has lead to an increase in condom sales, some areas even reporting a 300% jump in the sales of condoms. This project was launched by Private Sector Partnerships for Better Health and USAID, the development funding arm of the US government. A 2006 project called “Condom bindaas bol” was intended to tackle a fall in condom sales in 8 Indian states that represent 45% of the Indian condom market. The more recent launch of the “Condom Condom” ringtone to popularize condoms in These states – BiharChattisgarhDelhiJharkhandMadhya PradeshRajasthanUttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal – constitute 40% of India’s populace of more than 1 billion. The Kerala government can take a leaf out of these initiatives and promote them instead of cooking up stupid money-minting schemes. The more recent launch of the “Condom Condom” ringtone to popularize the word ‘condom’hits bull’e eye. It will undoubtedly help deflate the shame associated with the word in popular usage.
We cannot blindly imitate China and impose a ceiling on the number of children couples can have. China is slowly confronting problems related to an ageing population and low number of youngsters. The one child norm created a preference for boys, which in another 10 to 20 years may translate into higher crime rates by testosterone charged single males unable to find partners. The situation is also grave in countries like Japan, Russia and Germany where employment might take a hit if there aren’t sufficient numbers of young men and women to replace those who retire from active work life. The Japanese Health minister, Hakuo Yanagisawa, went overboard by saying that he wants ‘birth-giving machines’, aka women, to have more babies. It is easy to imagine the outrage he managed to cause! Germany is concerned about 30% of its adult women being childless by choice; the figure touches 40% in case of female who have completed graduation. The Germans have also debated compensating working parents with €3,000 annually for childcare costs against tax, urging women to have more children. A number of other countries facing declining birthrates have offered similar incentives. Australia offers a $4,000 additional benefit for each child and in recent times has proposed to reimburse all child care expenses for women who desire to work. Numerous European nations, with France, Italy and Poland, have offered some arrangement of bonuses and monthly compensation to families. Closer home, Singapore has a principally bountiful plan: $3,000 for the first child, $9,000 in cash and savings for the second; and up to $18,000 each for the third and fourth. Several Japanese regions, in the face of almost calamitous population loss, are offering rich incentives. Yamatsuri, a 7000 strong municipality, north of Tokyo, offers parents $4,600 for the birth of a child and $460 a year for a decade. In a throwback to the Stalin era, the Duma intends to tax childless couples either to encourage Russians to have more children, or make childless Russians help absorb the costs of the government’s maternal capital program, which gives 250,000 rubles (9,200USD) to mothers for the birth of another child. In fact, for every sixteen Russian deaths, only 10 Russian tots join the population. All the mentioned countries are now confronting the challenge of supporting the retirement of its seniors who are turning into an unproductive, economic burden in the absence of youth.

These nations mentioned here are naturally at the other extreme of the demographic spectrum, their problem being the antithesis of our problem. The irony of demographics across different continents should teach everyone some lessons. Undeniably, we do need to stop our people from having very large families but that does not imply that we start imposing fines. The countries with low birth rates also have 97 to 99% literacy amongst their women. The government can do much good by improving sanitation and other facilities in schools so as to keep girls in school. The lack of toilets is often cited as a reason for girls dropping out early from schools. According to a survey conducted by National University of Educational Planning and Administration, only 37.42 per cent of the 11,24,033 schools in 604 districts had toilets for girl students. The absence of toilets can be a major disincentive for pubescent girls to pursue schooling. If local governance bodies like Gram Parishads and Zilla Parishads start ensuring that the local schools have separate functional toilets for girls and boys, that may help keep girl longer in schools, thereby increasing literacy and decreasing the chances of early marriage, often responsible for high fertility. All Indian states should adopt the scheme in Bihar, Mukhya Mantri Balika Cycle Yojana (Chief Minister’s Cycle for Girls Scheme), and provide cycles to girls for going to school so that transport between their residences and schools does not prove to be a hindrance for education. The Indo German Watershed Development Programme in Maharashtra has shown that watershed development in villages leads to reduction in migration due to lack of employment and leads to women’s empowerment. This also leads to improvement in literacy levels as children get to go to one school for an academic year and do not have to miss out on school due to their parents’ search for employment form town to town. The IGWDP has successfully shown that within 2-3 years of the implementation to a watershed management program, the demand for education amongst women rises. Higher levels of education do transform fertility rates as well as income levels. Better facilities for women will encourage more women to pursue careers. Dividing time between work and family, inevitably calls for a small family. That will predictably cause people to have just one or two children. Even if some families opt for bigger sizes that should not pose a problem.

Improvement in literacy levels cannot certainly be the only solution to high levels of fertility. There must be adequate efforts to improve the perception of the girl child. If people continue to consider daughters as liabilities, then early marriage to get rid of the ‘burden’ will be inescapable. The preference for sons also leads people to keep having more girl children in order to beget a boy. There also lies one cause of high fertility. But urbanization of semi-rural and rural areas may help curb such extremist reproductive behaviour over the coming decades although it may not reduce the bias against girls. Affluent areas of BombayBangalore and New Delhi continue to have some of the worst sex ratios in the country, but at least the families remain small. There must exist efforts at the grassroots levels to convince people that educated women are beneficial to the family. Very often, people favour less educated girls for a daughter-in-law as they believe that better learned girls are disobedient and headstrong. This is far from the truth. Educated women take better care of their families as compared to uneducated women.

Keeping in mind the myriad problems of gender and perception of education that we have in this country, a fine to bring down the birth rate with prove futile. Those living below, on and slightly above the poverty line will be de facto exempted from such fine. People will not be treated equally when it comes to imposition of such fines. The attempts to reduce the birth rate should be sustainable and must be implemented in such a manner that we do not end up like China, Germany, Japan and Australia in about 40 years. Otherwise, it is our generation that might become a burden for our children who may not be sufficient in number to support an ageing population.

Getting India subtitled

If I were to be given the choice to do just one thing for India’s development, then I would make it compulsory for every TV channel in India adopt same-language subtitling (SLS) for their shows. Live TV can be spared. This idea has compulsively played itself on a loop in my cranial development jukebox for the longest time now. Yes it sounds crazy but its ok. I had myself used SLS to learn French and had raved about its effectiveness on my old blog here. Having personally experienced the benefits of SLS, I have come to conclude that making SLS obligatory for TV channels will help India improve its HDI rank (136 out of 187 countries).

Dr. Brij Kothari, professor at IIM-Ahmedabad and an Ashoka Fellow, is the pioneer of Same Language Subtitling in India. He is the winner of the 1st Internation Literacy Prize of the Library of Congress that was announced last week. SLS was first used on the Gujarati programme Chitrageet in 1999. It immediately caught the fancy of the masses. Doordarshan being a laggard paid heed to Dr. Kothari’s patriotic idea only 4 years later in 2002.

The Problem.

  1. Officially, India is home to 778 million “literates” and 273 million illiterates, however an estimated 389 million “literates” are, at best early-literate.
  2. The results from the Programme for International Student Assessment of 2009 make experts estimate that an Indian class 8 student is at the same level as a …class 2 student from Shanghai when it comes to reading skills.
  3. The Education NGO Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report for 2011 found that in Class 5, 51.8% of the students could not read a Class 2 level text.
  4. Studies conducted at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, confirm that over 50% of ‘literates’ in India cannot read the headline of a newspaper.

See Mr. Kothari inform Mr. Shashi Tharoor about this on Twitter:

So what is functional literacy?

There are varying levels for being literate. Here are the 3 important ones.

  • Baseline literacy: the ability to read and write at a level that enables self-confidence and motivation for further development.
  • Functional literacy: the ability to read and write at a level that enables someone to develop and function in society, at home, in school and at work.
  • Multiple literacy: the ability to use reading and writing skills in order to produce, understand, interpret and critically evaluate texts received through a variety of media and in many forms (print, digital, audiovisual)


What does SLS offer?

While watching a subtitled show, the viewer subconsciously associates the spoken word with the words displayed on screen, thus practicing reading in an unobtrusive and hassle-free manner. It involves no extra cost or time investment for the viewer. This method effectively increases literacy levels even with just 30 minutes of exposure to such programs every week. SLS on television shows unobtrusively gets TV viewers to practice reading thus helping viewers who can’t read properly to become functionally literate.

Planet Read – Film Kyun Ho Gaya Na Image copyright: Eros Entertainment

Which sectors will benefit from SLS?

  • Literacy for the sake of literacy.

Nielsen-ORG survey, conducted in 2002 and 2007 to measure the influence of subtitling, showed that only 25% school children could read a simple paragraph in Hindi after 5 years of education. However, this touched 56% if they also watched subtitled songs for 30 minutes a week on Rangoli. Subtitles can even help children acquire reading skills before they start school. The Freakonomics reports that “In Finland, whose education system has been ranked the world’s best, most children do not begin school until age seven but have often learned to read on their own by watching American television with Finnish subtitles.” (What Makes a Perfect Parent? Freakonomics) Trust the Scandinavians to pull off something like this! 148 million of the 231 million households in Indian (2012 TAM data) stand to gain from SLS. Out of these, 79 million households are in rural India. During my stint in rural Madhya Pradesh (Indian state with the most severe level of hunger), I noticed that rural folks do not have the time to follow TV soaps due to the agrarian nature of their work. What they do watch on TV when they have time are channels that broadcast films, songs and of course satsaangs. So if we leave out the general entertainment segment and if only movie, music, children’s and religious channels were to start subtitling their shows, the benefits would still be enormous. Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Reports will finally start recording huge improvements instead of the status quo.

  • Improved public health

A study conducted by the Department of Sociology of the University of Cambridge had found that the average income level is only a statistical red herring as an indicator of the state of public health. The literacy rate of a district was the truer indicator. Districts with lower average incomes but good levels of literacy tend to enjoy good health as compared to those with lower levels of literacy. The most significant impact of literacy is has been observed on the infant mortality rate (IMR). It is estimated that for a ‘typical’ Indian district in the early 2000s, a reduction of 25% in the poverty gap would have led  to the saving of 1 child per 1000 live births. The same effect could also have been achieved with only 4% increase in literacy rate! Even if one Hindi general entertainment channel (GEC) was to start SLS for its shows, it will lead to great improvements in functional literacy rates in the states of Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Punjab, Haryana & Himachal Pradesh which in turn can lead to a dip in the IMR of these states along with improvements on other indicators of public health as well. It must also be understood that SLS is not a panacea. IMR cannot touch a low of 2 per 1000 live births (Scandinavia, where else?) without significant investment and upgradation of neo-natal healthcare facilities across India and strong political will for the strict enforcement of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. SLS will lead to higher levels of functional literacy, which in turn will lead to better public health. What more can we ask for? Apparently a lot more.

  • Easier TV viewing for the hard-of-hearing

The estimated 60 million hearing impaired people in India will without a doubt welcome this move (well those who have TVs at home) as already experienced by Zee Studios. The Zee folks received a letter from students of an institute for the deaf-mute thanking them for the subtitles as they don’t have to lip-read now. 

  • Crime fighting

This one can convince the reader that optimism has taken pathological proportions within the author’s head. I assure you, madness is my middle name. Jessica Aptman of the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment writes on Good that “up to 80 percent of incarcerated individuals are functionally illiterate; studies show that if a child reads on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, there is a 99 percent certainty that child will never be incarcerated”. Thanks to Ms. Aptman’s article I did some cyber snooping on the link between functional literacy and crime and here is what Wikipedia served me:

According to the paper ‘The Health Literacy of America’s Adults‘ of the National Center for Educational Statistics in the United States:

  • Over 60% of adults in the US prison system read at or below the fourth grade level
  • 85% of US juvenile inmates are functionally illiterate
  • 43% of adults at the lowest level of literacy lived below the poverty line, as opposed to 4% of those with the highest levels of literacy.

According to ‘Literacy Statistics’ page of

  • Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.
  • Low literary costs $73 million per year in terms of direct health care costs. Pfizer puts the cost much higher.
  • 16-to-19-year-old girls at the poverty line and below with below-average reading skills are 6 times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than their more literate counterparts.

This data is based on the United States of America so may be the US can also benefit if more of its citizens watch TV with the sub-titles for the hearing imparied turned on when the children are around. What needs to be studied however is whether there exists a causal relationship between low levels of literacy and crime rates in India. In all probability it does. I shall leave this to the experts. If funtional literacy can indeed help prevent crime, then SLS can also make society safer by turning TV viewers into TV readers.

  • More revenues for channels

A conversation regarding the introduction of Hindi subtitles on a popular Hindi GEC with a TV executive of that channel had him asking, “It’s good for deaf people but what’s in it for us?” Well, more viewership. Almost every English language channel that airs in India has English subtitles. Viewership of  Star Movies saw a 12% increase after the channel started airing English movies with English subtitles. One might argue that an English language channel is bound to gain in India as English is not the mother tongue of most Indians. However, even Hindi music shows Chitrahaar and Rangoli on Doordarshan saw a jump of 10 to 15%.  Since the subtitles garner more eyeballs, it is bound to make the whole triad – audiences, advertisers and broadcasters – happier.

Can there still be inhibitions for implementing SLS?

Some people in the TV business might still harbour multiple reservations regarding the adoption of SLS. Some might say that it is not their job to make up for poor quality of education in public schools. Some viewers might themselves consider SLS to be an ‘insult to their intelligence‘. Subtitling takes time and this can prove to be a hindrance for daily soaps and others might simply complain that this will hurt their bottomline. More importantly, only people who have access to televisions stand to benefit.

How can politicians take an interest in this?

SLS needs political support for widespread adoption and important policy directives can benefit from the implementation of SLS. The Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, had stated in 2009 that literacy, especially female literacy,  was crucial for the successful implementation for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the National Rural Health Mission and the Right to Information Act that he had flagged off back then. In 2009, the UPA had aimed at achieving 100%literacy by the end of 2013. We stood at 73% according to census 2011 data and we plan to touch 80% by 2015. According to the 11th Five Year Plan, the literacy rate for persons of age 7 years or more was to have touched 85% by 2011-12.  However, this can change dramatically, even in a span of 6 months, if major GECs start subtitling all their shows or are made to adopt SLS.

The Human Resources Development Minister M M Pallam Raju has stated that India plans to achieve 80% literacy rate in the period between 2013 to 2015. In order to touch 80% literacy in 2 years, the HRD ministry is also willing to  undertake requisite administrative and if required legislative measures to integrate formal, non-formal and informal learning and to formally recognize forms of education other than formal. The HRD Ministry is presently developing a Core Curriculum Framework for adult education and is willing to adopt ICTs as a medium of instruction. SLS definitely fits in with this measure.

Politicians can definitely choose to make SLS a part of public policy as they help fasten the race to meet many of the MDGs for 2015. Infact, the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Ministry of Rural Development, the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare ought to endore the implementation of SLS on Indian television. There really isn’t a need for endorsement from either Mr. Amitabh Bachhan or Mr. Shah Rukh Khan to popularize this as Mr. Kothari himself has regretted. 

Where will the money come from?

SLS is in itself a TRP boosting move and hence makes sense for the TV channel to invest in it. To make things easy, SLS can be woven in to the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy. The new Companies Bill recommends that companies with revenues exceeding INR 1,000 crore (roughly 117,658,130 Euros) spend up to 2 percent of their average net profits on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the funds spent on CSR are to be mandatorily reported in company balance sheets.  I do not know if it is legally acceptable to use CSR funds for an activity that will also lead to profits for the company. This suggestion is open for debate.

Implementing SLS across all channels will be in tune with the 12th target for achieving the Millenium Development Goals for 2015. It is “to make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communication, in cooperation with the private sector.” India is already on track for the achievement of this track. This move will only strengthen the current efforts.

Smaller channels can be given the option of accessing government funds if necessary. A part of the yearly allocation for capacity building and job-led education can be set aside for the implementation of SLS. For the financial year 2013-14, Rs.65,869 crores were earmarked for this sector.  The SLS is very cheap investment since reports that every US dollar spent on subtitling a nationally telecast program (Chitrahaar) of Hindi film songs, gives 30 minutes of weekly reading practice to 10,000 people, for a whole year which is the equivalent of one paisa per person per year in India. In specific states or languages, it would range from 5-20 paisa per person per year. Implementing sub-titles across most Indian TV channels will provide a great boost to the subtitling business which is estimated to be a Rs 100-crore industry in India.

What can we do?

Television addles our brains in many different ways but Professor Emily Oster found out that Ekta Kapoor turned the TV into the Empowerment Box for rural India. Implementing SLS on all Indian TV channels will fire up the television driven progress of Indian society. Write or Tweet to your favorite TV channel to subtitle your favorite shows if you agree. Cheers to armchair development practice and more power to Dr. Brij Kothari!

Clarification – added on December 3, 2013

Some readers asked me if I meant all shows should have subtitles in Hindi or in English. What I meant is that the subtitles should be in the same language as the speech. For example, Marathi television channels should have subtitles in Marathi, Gujarati channels in Gujarati, Kannada channels in Kannada and so on.

Petition for Subtitles:

Do sign this petition created for implementing subtitles on Indian TV:

The Government of India: Implement Same Language Subtitling on Music shows in India for higher functional literacy

The pros and cons of being a development professional in India

This could also have been titled: Things no one told you during your development studies degree’ or because you didn’t know other dev workers before you started working.


1.       Corruption

More often than not, you are surrounded by people who are out to make a quick buck. Most NGOs are created to siphon off funds. People blatantly report achievements of one project in another and ‘economize’ funds for themselves. You find yourself agreeing with the description of Greg Mortenson’s antics as using his NGO as his personal ATM. That’s what a lot of people do. You start resigning to the fact that a whole lot of old and respectable players are money launderers. To put this in French, ‘On dépense pas de l’argent, on le détourne.’ (We don’t spend funds, we siphon them off’.) Donor bodies have transparency and accountability last on their priority list. 11 out of 17 French NGOs refused to participate in a confidential study regarding corruption in 2008 so even if those posh white blokes have their hearts in the right place, their money definitely isn’t! Monitoring is deliberately loose so as to leave loopholes for exploitation. Suggest the emulation of the Ugandan government’s successful newspaper campaign to reduce corruption in the education department by publishing all details of funds in the newspapers and colleagues cribbing about corruption in the sector suddenly become ‘mañana mañana about it.

2.       Lack of respect

Given the rampant corruption in the development sector, the public (middle aged and senior citizens mostly) outside the development world looks at you with such a suspicious eye , that it becomes difficult to hold ordinary, easily forgotten conversations in the most regular settings. Sample this:

Doctor: So what do you?

Me: I work for a NGO on an agricultural development project.

Doctor: Is there any meaning in all of this? All the good-for-nothing people that I know are running NGOs.

Her expression suggests that she would dearly love to whip one or two of those good-for-nothings.

Me: A simple nod and hectic cerebral activity to search for some other topic to chit-chat about during a very routine examination.

In fact, even within the development sector, there is a general agreement that this sector seems to attract the worst people from society or as one colleague unkindly put it, garbage!

3.       Wrongful respect-induced embarrassment

While I have whined about how this profession does not command respect, I also the feel the need to crib about how awe-struck some friends can be. While I do not share photos of the self with smiling children, I do at times share pictures with farmers. Here is how friends might comment on the photos you share about work.

Sample Facebook Comments of admirers

Sample Facebook Comments of admirers

Ok, attention is enjoyable and one does know that it is a rarity to see a city dweller leave the comforts of urban living and come work in a village. However, it is not flattering but embarrassing to be at the receiving end of blind praise. You feel grateful for all the appreciation and praise but since only you know how much you have truly achieved, beforehand praise makes you uncomfortable. Anyway, young people who praise blindly today will be hard core critics tomorrow. See point 2.

Good job, precious job, impressive job: Mr./Ms/Mrs. Outsider for the Dev Sector, you don’t know the findings and remarks of the monitoring and evaluation people from the donor body. You don’t know if we had bribed the monitoring guys to write a goody-goody report despite bad work. Many of the capacity building sessions i.e.trainings, often amount to nothing more than recording attendance and tea with snacks. You haven’t run into the cartoons who narrate stories from the Ramayana to explain sustainable agriculture with the effect of boring every beneficiary to day-dreamland. Despite all the sitting down that dev workers do with the farmers, the project may or may not have achieved its results and there may have been many discrepancies. One doesn’t become ‘great’ by choosing to be dev worker. There are men heading women’s empowerment projects who have been angered at the birth of their second daughters (but they do deserve thanks for not having checked the sex of the foetus and gotten it aborted). There are women working against domestic violence but who themselves are dating married men. There are social workers working ‘to end human trafficking’ but who actually prey on rescued children themselves. Don’t praise just like that. Many NGO founders believe that they are doing ‘good work’ and that by running a NGO they are ‘good human beings’ (why can’t a bank clerk be one too?). Worse, there are people who think that they are doing a favour to the people their project is targeting (WhyDev, I didn’t say ‘beneficiaries’) via their work. The general public’s gullibility and eagerness to praise development workers makes it easy for criminals amongst us to take a whole lot of people for a ride. Take a cue from Professor Alastor Moody’s book, constant vigilance while dealing with the ‘good human beings doing good work’!

4.       Lack of access to essentials

Working in remote locations exposes you to exactly the same problems that locals face. You face things that are only news items in your city life or were someone else’s problem from your development degree curriculum.  It hurts in a manner that I can’t put to words to have money to buy something but to find out that it is simply not available.

You have the money for certain medicines, but your local chemist does not stock them. He (always a ‘he’) might have something that you need but only the cheaper generic alternative that according to what some doctor friend has told you may not be viable.

Same for hospitals as the rural health center treats you for minor trouble but you might have to urgently drive out 150 kms to get treatment for excruciating abdominal pain. On reaching the hospital, you find out that it was a minor ailment that gets fixed in a matter of 2 hours without requiring hospitalization. How did it reach ‘excruciating’ levels? Because it started in such a minor manner that you didn’t consider it very serious, you procrastinated because you didn’t want to approach the local doctor because you assumed that he/she would be ineffective and you kept telling yourself that you would visit the closest city on the weekend having no clue that the ‘minor’ pain was going to seem life-threatening within the work week itself.

Even access to certain food items is troublesome. Your location might not have a single dairy and there  may be no fruit bearing orchards in your area, yet.

While grains, pulses, vegetables, hens and eggs are not in short supply, for the past year, I haven’t purchased milk or fruits because they simply aren’t available for sale with vendors here. The only time I’ve had fruits here is when some woman farmer refused to send me back empty-handed from her home and gave me a papaya or a jackfruit (talk about hospitality) or when I bought mangoes during the summer when I would go 40 kms away to Mandla for some work or the other

5.       The Good life takes a backseat.

Your location has no libraries and no bookstores. Your area hasn’t seen an English newspaper yet and hence no Jug Suraiya and Aiyar or whoever your favorite columnists are. You can catch them online but that’s not the same thing as reading them in the newspaper.  You can’t buy good music (illegal downloads are an option but I choose to be holier than online pirates). There are no chamber music concerts to attend and absolutely no one shares your love for Raag Malkauns! Dark chocolate is unheard of and there is no cappuccino to accompany you on pensive evenings. They don’t store ice-creams outside of summer so no vanilla to satisfy your taste buds. You keep thanking engineers and tech startups for the internet, PCs and all wonderful things like YouTube, iTunes, GoodReads and plenty of other websites where you can get yourfix of culture. You shall remain eternally grateful to Flipkart and Landmark or the website you shop on for delivering books within a radius of 50 kms from your location. (Hey, you can cover the last miles, right?) Right now, Jeeves and Wooster keep me company in the evening.

6.       The Know-it-all

Development workers and even the government officials specifically involved in development work are more often than not, big time ‘Know-it-alls’. The worst offenders are the types who hold degrees in Sociology or Social Work (In the Indian context, alumni of TISS and Jamia Milia seem to be exceptions) and have inflicted themselves upon the development sector. Not all of them are unbearable creatures, but most of them are. Why? Because they mistakenly believe themselves perfectly capable of running any project irrespective of the problem it seeks to tackle, be it public health, agriculture, adolescent girls, sanitation or watershed management. The term ‘social worker’ starts sounding like an abuse. The blame cannot squarely be placed on their poor shoulders as they are given the responsibility to implement these projects. You start wondering what the HR guys were thinking before they hired them. Or on an even more serious note, whether the project implementing body even has a HR department. (Yup, there are bodies like that!) SEAWL tells us things are the same in that country called Africa.

While in certain contexts it is important to be a Jack of all trades, master of none i.e. a generalist, specialized fields need people with university degrees in those areas. The project management skills and experience of the MSW species is considerable but it is frankly as irritating as hearing a blackboard being scratched with nails to hear someone with a Bachelors of sociology and a Masters of Commerce and Social Work try and lecture you about correct fertilizer doses for a certain crop. One iodine deficient being had actually said, “We didn’t need degrees to learn agriculture, we learn’t it by practice.” Statements such as these make me want to throw the 1.5 kg each Handbooks of Agriculture, Horticulture and Animal Husbandry at their faces while the brain screams, “BUGGER OFF! BUGGER OFF!”

7.       Parental objection

A child always wants his/her parents’ appreciation and approval and choosing the development sector is a sure way to close the doors for that. Your mom fears that you aren’t interested in building a healthy bank balance and your father fears that you are out to become Mother Teresa. They worry with good reason that you might not get to hospital in time in case of a severe illness. They have nightmares that you may have simply decided to not get married at all! And given the fact that they have seen the ways of world far more than you have, they hate the fact that you are in sector “where 95% people are corrupt.” How they arrive at that figure is a mystery but they aren’t very far from the truth although I wouldn’t say 95%. Things aren’t that bad either.

The Pros

1.      You and your friends are hardy travelers

This applies to all expats and even domestic development workers. You have all at some point of time or the lived and not simply vacationed in different corners of the world. Your conversations can be full of experience from different parts of the world and you kind of try to live those experiences, albeit vicariously. Look at this:

  • You are friends with a French law graduate turned organic agriculture enthusiast who has interned in Denmark, Jerusalem and Panama, a French business administration graduate (degree from an Australian university) who had interned in Bangladesh before turning into a full time aid worker in Haiti, an American with a degree in tropical medicine who had been volunteer with you in Rome and is now volunteering in Guatemala, an Italian and a German vet who volunteered in Botswana, the list goes on… (By the way, 3 out of the 5 are girls.)
  • Two of your acquaintances had short stints in protected Indian Tiger reserves.
  • Another did his internship in a snow-capped Greater Himalayan village.
  • And you yourself had worked as project assistant for nuclear submarine construction project before doing a master in sustainable agriculture in Paris, volunteering in Rome and then taking the post of a project coordinator for sustainable agriculture programme in a Central Indian forest or something on similar lines.

 2.      Spectacular night sky

The city life offers us streets and the sky full of yellow street light. You do spot the moon and some bright stars and planets but that’s it. Living in a remote location, you can simply look up to find yourself under a breathtaking canopy of a thousand stars and you tell yourself, relish it till it lasts. My night sky isn’t as spectacular as the one in Patagonia but it sure makes me feel privileged as I had never seen a clear Milky Way in Bombay, Paris and Rome.

3.      Wildlife

While city life does not offer more than crows, dogs and cats, here is what  you can come across.

You may have picked up a snake because you thought it needed rescuing from vehicular traffic.

Rescued snake and me

Rescued snake and me

You might have spotted a vulture that is now a rarity in India.

Mummy vulture

Mummy vulture

You can come a across a 4 feet long Bengal monitor that will scamper off before you could get a photo.

Beautiful birds that you didn’t know exist like the racket tailed Drongo and the Neelkanth turn up every day in your office campus.

We were once very casually told (I won’t say warned because it did not sound like a warning) by Forest personnel that ‘there is a leopard that is in this range’. More fortunate colleagues have spotted pythons, the spotted deer and even a tiger in the jungle.  To flutter in and out of the National Geographic channel is a part of a regular work day you see.

4. Becoming a photographer

As it is highly important to properly document what you do and illustrate it with suitable photos, apart from the fact that you are an inveterate traveler, you get yourself a good if not the best camera and shoot to your heart’s content. Since you take photos practically every day, you decide you might actually refine this skill and start following some photography page on Facebook or elsewhere to keep getting your dose of tips and tricks. After all, if you have to capture breathtaking views, you better try and do it like a pro!

5. Adventure takes front seat

You’ve crossed rivers on foot when they were shallow enough. You had to row on a river to get to a village on the other bank.

A friend called me Indiana Jane.

A friend called me Indiana Jane.

100 km long bike rides within a day, 2 or 3 times a day are a part of your week. Trekking 16 to 20 km through a dense and hilly forest to get to your farthest beneficiaries is normal. As the closest movie theatre (no illegal downloads remember?) or some similar modern mode of entertainment is 150 kms away, you and your colleagues decide to chill-out by having barbeques on the bank of the Budner or swim in the Narmada for close to 5 hours on Sunday. In your case but not due to the lack of modernization, it might be the Lake Braccianno, La Gonave Bay beach, Koki beach or may be you lament the fact that you can’t swim in the Lake Victoria because of crocodiles.

6.      Unadulterated joy of sharing

There are many things that you may have  studied in college or may have learned in capacity building sessions for project implementation personnel that are of no practical use for yourself but are highly useful for the people whom you work with. Well you are supposed to be giving trainings with that knowledge anyway but here is something that no one ever told you about. It turned out to be pure joy to make a Zero Energy Cool Chamber (ZECC) with a farmer. The ZECC is a low cost technology for short term storage of fruits and vegetables. He was reluctant to construct what I had asked him to because he could not fathom how a brick structure could be created without cement but when it was finally ready on my insistence and when I explained how it was supposed to be used, that chap heartily thanked me for showing him how. He told me that he had lost count of how much of his stock goes waste every year due to lack of storage space. I had never imagined it could mean so much to someone. Ditto for telling someone that they could use mahua oil cakes instead of urea and then being told that they were looking for alternatives as urea was killing their lands (that is because they never have enough farmyard manure to add to their lands before urea application). I would dearly love to read other aid workers narrate similar experiences in different contexts.

7.      Discovery of culture, heritage and even geography

Getting out of cities like Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Paris, Rome, New Orleans, Edinburgh, Washington or wherever you might be from and straight into some place that you didn’t even know existed before applying for the job helps you to discover cultures in a way that you can’t learn from books or documentaries. This is true for all people who travel and not just aid workers. While I love learning new things from books myself, I didn’t know the Gonds and the Baigas existed before I took up work here. I was blown away by the strong fragrance of Basmati rice in the kitchen of the palace of the Gond kings in Ramnagar even after 2 or 3 centuries of no cooking having taken place there. I had no clue about the effects of the Mughal invasion on the Gondwana. I found out about the Kanha, Pench and Bandhavgarh Tiger reserves only when I Googled about Mandla before arriving here. I had seen Bhedaghat in the movie Ashoka but didn’t know I was so close to it.  I understood what the lyrics ‘Mahua mahua, mehaka mehaka’ meant and the joy about it when I experienced the fragrance of Mahua blossom myself. An Italian male visitor told us that he found the Mahua derived alcoholic drink, sometimes referred to as ‘Mahuli’, to be better than grape wine. Keeping in mind the local culture, I’ve conveniently forgotten my love for wines and beers and have not yet tasted the ‘Mahuli’ as that can ‘give a girl a bad name’. Once while having jackfruit with a neighbor I surprised her when I mentioned that it can taste like fish if you fry it after it coating it with rice flour mixed with a little salt and chili powder. The herbivore absolutely loved this vegetarian fish dish. It’s fun to learn things from locals and to teach them stuff from back home.

8.      Firsthand experience of good change

On being asked whether the FAO did much in India, a senior (British) told me, ‘India does not need people like us. There are many people doing good work there.’ That was indeed a moment of pride. It was here on the field that I found out how true her statement was. Wi-fi networks are now available in villages, at least at the block level. Irrespective of how much I may grumble about corruption, the truth is that implementation is taking place. Government bodies, although slow, are doing their work. Good (read least corrupt) NGOs are delivering results. The middle class and the media are becoming more demanding. India is infamous for bad roads but that is changing fast. More and more villages (in Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh for sure) have excellent cement concrete roads. Many suburbs in Bombay don’t have such good roads as seen Ghughri and Dindori blocks for example. This is a result of work done by the State as well as the Central governments. The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana is bearing fruit. NGOs and government agricultural departments are doing visible work for the promotion of line sowing in nearly all crops and especially for the promotion of the System of Rice Intensification. And thanks to the success of the NABARD – WADI project, we can now enjoy mangoes at INR 50/ kg, something that was unimaginable about 5 to 7 years ago. The promotion of women’s self-help groups across India is helping more participation in democratic institutions, financial empowerment and more importantly, helping put an end to the ‘purdah tradition’ in many places.  NGOs and State Rural Livelihoods Missions are taking ICTs to villages and many semi-educated farmers are now using gadgets like pros. Check out the work of PRADAN, ASA, SERP and BRLPs with DigitalGreen.

9.      Gratitude

The life of a rural development worker has made me grateful for the following things:

  1. The privilege of having been born in a hospital.
  2. For parents who fussed over food, medicines, clothes and almost everything.
  3. For all the painful vaccination shots (I don’t remember the earliest ones  but I definitely remember that I feared injections when I was 5).
  4. Excellent food throughout my life.
  5. Stable government and functioning police. Yes there is corruption and inefficiency but what cannot be overlooked is the fact that most of rural India lives in peace and maintaining law and order is not difficult. The police is truly feared, in a good way. I was once searching for jobs in South America and a colleague who had worked there told me to never answer a phone call in the evening if I was out on the streets as I would get robbed and to never carry a laptop me as that would get me killed. No such problem in the motherland.
  6. For the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force’s rescue and rehabilitation work in cases of natural calamities. Thanks to them, the species that makes its living by moving from one emergency to another is not needed in India

There will definitely be additions to  both lists in the coming years. Till then, what’s your take?