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Why farmers adopt certain technologies but leave out others

Exactly 125 years ago, John Augustus Voelcker, a British Agricultural Scientist, warned in his ‘Report on the Improvement of Indian Agriculture’: “India is a country about which one cannot make a ‘general remark’ and, certainly, with regard to Indian agriculture, this is strictly true.” These words are just as true today as they were in 1893 when Voelcker first published them.
Are Indian farmers slow to adopt scientific methods of agriculture? Like Voelcker, my answer is both yes and no. The same farmers in Punjab who grow brand new varieties of wheat like HD 3086 also continue to use 30-year-old, water-guzzling varieties of paddy like PUSA-44. Similarly, in Bihar, you can find farmers who are growing both modern hybrid maize and a 50-year-old wheat variety, Lok 1, in adjacent plots in the same cropping season. Most farmers in India now own mobile phones and many use them regularly to find information on crop prices, but pay little attention to messages on best practices for their crops.
A more appropriate question, therefore, is: why do farmers readily adopt some technologies, but not others? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Instances of both rapid and slow diffusion of agricultural technologies are more like Tolstoy’s unhappy families. Each has its own reasons. Still, there are some common hurdles to the diffusion of innovation in agriculture. I will discuss two of them here: poor communication of science to farmers; and excessive reliance on distortionary subsidies to promote technology adoption.
The ongoing Soil Health Card (SHC) scheme is a case study of ineffective communication between scientists and farmers. Soil tests are often poorly done and farmers know it. Even when the test is done well, we translate test results into recommendations in ways that do not align with farmers’ interests. For example, since 2011, the price of phosphate and potash have more than doubled while the price of urea has remained unchanged, but the equations used to generate fertilizer recommendations have not changed. SHC recommendations try to maximise crop yields while farmers want to maximise profits. To add to that, test results and recommendations are printed in the SHC like they are presented in journal articles.
In a country in which nearly 44% adult women and 25% adult men in rural areas cannot read a sentence in their native language, how we communicate science to farmers is as important as the message itself. When poor quality science, uninformed by even the basic economics, is communicated to its audience, in a format alien to them, the outcome is what we are seeing with the SHC scheme: it has had no effect on fertiliser use in agriculture. Worse, we may even have sown the seeds of distrust in farmers towards science-based recommendations.
Subsidies are the government’s favoured policy tool to promote agricultural technology in India. Every technology, from quality seeds to new machines, is backed by high subsidies. If designed well, subsidies can accelerate technology adoption and create incentives for innovation. However, our public subsidies are often highly distortionary and mired in red tape and unnecessary regulations that stifle competition and limit farmers’ choices. 80-90% capital subsidy on solar pumps is a good example.
Such high subsidy encourages companies to add unnecessary bells and whistles to a product instead of developing cheaper versions of it. It also attracts players who are more interested in capturing the subsidy rather than developing the market with better products and after-sales services.
In a country dominated by smallholders, affordable access to any capital-intensive technology needs financial and institutional innovations that would reduce the capex requirement, ensure high capacity utilisation and create competitive rental markets.
High pro rata capital subsidy crowds out such innovations and does not allow the development of a non-subsidised market.
Distortionary subsidies have been around for decades and their glaring failures are evident to everyone. Yet, instead of learning from the experience, our policy makers continue to do more of the same while promising different results.
Many other major challenges to accelerating technology adoption by farmers like small fragmented holdings, high transaction cost of reaching smallholders or low levels of functional literacy among farmers require concerted grassroots level efforts, both by government and the civil society, in agriculture and non-agricultural sectors of the economy.
As opposed to that, more effective communication of science to farmers and rationalisation of farm subsidies, at least some of them, can be started by a small group of policy makers and technocrats, rather quickly, to create a huge impact on sustainable intensification of agriculture in India.
Avinash Kishore is a research fellow at IFPRI, New Delhi.
The views expressed are personal

Amazon delivers bedsheets, eye shadow at 11,562 feet

  • At an elevation of 11,562 feet, Leh is the highest spot in the world where Amazon offers speedy delivery
  • Local soldiers and monks are big customers for Amazon
  • The company began offering doorstep delivery in Leh as part of an effort to better serve the remotest corners of India

With big ambitions in India, Amazon has recruited hundreds of small businesses to get packages to the most remote customers — including those 11,562 feet up in the Himalayas. (Atul Loke/The New York Times)With big ambitions in India, Amazon has recruited hundreds of small businesses to get packages to the most rem… Read More

NEW DELHI: Perched high in the Himalayas, near India’s border with China, the tiny town of Leh sometimes seems as if it has been left behind by modern technology. Internet and cell phone service is spotty, the two roads to the outside world are snowed in every winter, and Buddhist monasteries compete with military outposts for prime mountaintop locations.
But early each morning, the convenience of the digital age arrives, by way of a plane carrying 15 to 20 bags of packages from Amazon. At an elevation of 11,562 feet, Leh is the highest spot in the world where the company offers speedy delivery.
When the plane arrives from New Delhi, it is met by employees from Amazon’s local delivery partner, Incredible Himalaya, who then shuttle the packages by van to a modest warehouse nearby. Eshay Rangdol, 26, the nephew of the owner, helps oversee the sorting of the packages and delivers many of them himself.
The couriers must follow exacting standards set by Amazon, from wearing closed toe shoes and being neatly groomed to displaying their ID cards and carrying a fully charged cell phone.
Amazon began offering doorstep delivery in this region last fall, as part of an effort to better serve the remotest corners of India. Sales volume in Leh is up twelve-fold since Incredible Himalaya took over deliveries from the postal service, which was much slower and required customers to pick up packages at the post office.
Rangdol and the other couriers get to the shoppers via motorcycle and scooter. When the snow is heavy in the winter, they will occasionally use a car. But two wheels are generally better than four to navigate Leh’s narrow, bumpy roads and dodge the ubiquitous cows.

Skalzing Dolma, a frequent Amazon customer, was Rangdol’s first stop on a recent day, receiving a delivery of bedsheets and eye shadow. Dolma has bought everything from clothing to kitchen appliances on Amazon and estimated that she has spent a total of Rs 1, 00,000 on the site. With few choices in Leh stores, cosmetics and clothing are popular categories for Amazon here.

Orders typically arrive in five to seven days, slower than the two-day delivery that Amazon’s big-city customers receive but quicker than the monthlong journey they often took with the post office.

Fortunately for Amazon, the local soldiers and monks are big customers. Thinley Odzer, a monk at the tiny Kartse Monastery, received a backpack. In the past, he has bought mobile phone cases and parts for his motorbike.

Amazon may never make money shipping products by air to customers in Leh. But the idea is that profits from dense urban areas like Mumbai and Delhi will subsidise service to more remote ones. “We want to make delivery convenient to where our customers are,” said Tim Collins, Amazon’s VP of global logistics. “Over time, the economics will work themselves out.”

PNB to close most operations in fraud-hit Mumbai branch: Report

  • The 123-year-old bank has lost more than half its market value since the fraud came to light in late January
  • The move to downsize the Brady House branch comes as PNB seeks to tighten controls and restore its reputation

Punjab National Bank's Brady House branch in Mumbai. Punjab National Bank’s Brady House branch in Mumbai.

MUMBAI: Punjab National Bank (PNB) is closing nearly all its operations in a Mumbai branch that was at the heart of a $2 billion fraud, according to four sources with knowledge of the decision.
The move to downsize the Brady House branch, which has come to symbolise the biggest banking scandal in the country’s history, comes as India’s second-largest state lender seeks to tighten controls and restore its reputation.
The 123-year-old bank has lost more than half its market value since the fraud came to light in late January.
PNB will move all big client accounts out of the branch in downtown Mumbai that according to an internal investigation saw “exceptional growth” in the past few years largely because of its controversial dealings with firms owned by two related jewellers.
PNB has alleged that a handful of staff at the branch issued fake bank guarantees between 2011 and 2017 to help the firms of Indian diamond magnate Nirav Modi and his uncle Mehul Choksi raise billions of dollars in foreign credit. The duo have denied wrongdoing and are currently abroad.
Fronted by an imposing colonial facade, the branch has a foreign exchange department and handles mainly mid-sized corporate accounts. It also has a small retail operation, which will stay open after the restructuring, said the sources who declined to be named as the discussions were not public.
One of the sources with direct knowledge of the matter said that PNB was transferring some employees and big accounts – each involving annual transactions of more than Rs 50 crore ($7.28 million) – to large corporate branches for “better monitoring”.
“The bank has already started moving accounts to neighbouring branches,” said one of the sources. “Only a small retail banking operation will remain at the branch for the time being.”
The bank will consider similar steps for some other branches too so that risks are minimised, said one of the sources.
PNB Chief Executive Sunil Mehta did not respond to requests for comment on the Brady House plan. He said in a statement on Friday that the bank was on track to “bounce back within six months”.

Three of the sources said that more than two-dozen employees were informed this week about the decision to cut back the Brady House operations. The sources said the branch could eventually be shut down.

Business at the branch’s foreign exchange operations has come down “substantially” since the fraud came to light, said one of the sources.

PNB has mainly blamed a couple of Brady House employees for executing the fraud, but Reuters reported last month that a 162-page investigation report by the bank has found widespread risk control and monitoring lapses by 54 staff, many outside the branch.