How My Internship Helped Me Collect Material for Tales I Can Tell as a Grandma

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Lavanya Pawar, C+S ’18

(Source: Vinoth Chandar/Flickr)

India has had a rich history of storytelling, especially oral traditions. Stories intertwined with personal narratives have been a medium to pass down cultural values and traditions to future generations. The greatest epics of the land—the Ramayana and Mahabharata—have been passed down for centuries with these picking up historical (most often, inaccurate) anecdotes along the way as they steered through time.

Naturally, storytelling has taken a new form in modern times and is now largely comprised of personal narratives. I grew up listening to stories from my grandparents about the charismatic personality of Gandhi from when they participated in protest marches during the Indian struggle for freedom from British rule. My parents, on the other hand, often speak about being eyewitnesses (and in a way, being participants) to the transitioning of India from the rags that oppressive foreign rule had left it in to the riches of today. Knowing well that storytelling—especially of the biographical variety—always romanticizes reality, I have nonetheless always wanted to witness a revolution in-person and tell tales about it later. For I do not wish to abstain from the joys of storytelling that generations of Indians have devoured themselves in.

This summer, I took up an internship position at Gramophone India, an agri-tech startup. Little did I know that I could very well be positioned to witness a third revolution of the Indian agricultural landscape. Working for one such organization and reading about various others, it became evident that the start-up community is shaping up to be one of the major contributors to the revolution already underway.

A majority of these enterprises are lead by a vision to connect directly with the farmers and/or aid in strengthening the administrative system of the government such that the role of the middlemen in the value chain is minimized. Taking advantage of the loopholes in the existing governmental structure and the close contact that they have with the marginalized farmers, these middlemen have been able to close the information gap between the farmers and the state. This leads to the farmers being unaware of state welfare policies, subsidized farm inputs and other economical choices that they can make, all while middlemen take a cut of their earnings.

The two agricultural revolutions of the past—namely, the Green and White Revolutions—are associated with a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity. But they were also accompanied by negative externalities such as environmental degradation. Research also shows that following the Green Revolution, socio-economic disparity increased between the rich and poor farmers, thrusting the latter into a spiral of debt and poverty.

For farmers that were able to keep up with the economic burdens of buying expensive high yielding variety seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, it took several years for the negative environmental and health consequences to become tangible. Many farmers found themselves dealing with nutrient-barren soils and adverse health effects, such as increased cancer incidence, infant mortality and birth-defects, resulting from the uninformed use of agrochemicals.

The differentiating element that sets apart the ‘technology’ driven revolution of current times is the fading of the economic divide within the sector as a consequence of the contribution from the start-ups. With the support of the ubiquitous presence and high affordability of information technology, they are fostering equality across the agricultural supply chain. They have been able to address the root causes of the problem by making resources such as unbiased information concerning state policies, financing aid and agronomic practices and infrastructure such as farm machinery, equally available to all at affordable prices. In addition, at the rear end—which is where I’m working—they are utilizing data to construct decision-making models for policy and trade so as to strengthen the value chain.

For instance, an ongoing endeavor of which I got to be a part at Gramophone India aims at combining satellite imagery along with data direct from the field to get farm-level insights throughout the growing season. This includes building crop classification maps and monitoring crop-health status. This data could also be combined with other variables such as weather and proximity to water bodies and then fed to yield estimation models to further link these to determine expected commodity prices at the mandis (local markets). The farmers could use this information in various ways including tackling plant-stress in early stages and determining fair price for their produce among others.

The project that I described is one among the multitudes that are currently being undertaken in the country. Even then, this could just be called the tip of the iceberg. There remain limitless possibilities and countless avenues wherein technology could be utilized to reform broken systems and empower the most marginalized farmers, driving them out of the vicious circle of oppression and poverty. What has started small seems to be gaining strength quickly and surely looks to be headed towards a complete rejuvenation of the existing system.

Let the story-telling of the grandeur of our times begin!

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