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Vegetable farmers’ forum- a digital endeavor during lockdown and beyond

Dr G K Mahapatro & Debashis Mohapatra

Rightly and in time, Centre has invoked The Disaster Management Act 2005, and Epidemic Act 1897 to fight the corona pandemic in India; drawing much applause and appreciation from international agencies. The initial 21-days Lockdown was extended for forty days, till 3-May; and further extended till May 31st 2020. The century-old coined term Quarantine, that stands for forty-days; stands for separation and restriction of movement of people who have potentially been exposed to a contagious disease to ascertain if they become unwell, so reducing the risk of them infecting others.

Historically, ships suspected to be carrying contagious materials, persons exposed to communicable diseases were subjected to be secluded on water in harbours itself, for an entire period of forty-days. India as a ship is self-quarantined, under lockdown till 31st May. Time to time, Centre has issued sets of guidelines during the four phases of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown. Good to note, governmental directives are to exempt all agriculture operations during lockdown period and ensuring continued availability of essential agriculture produce and supply while adhering to the protocol of social distancing, health and hygiene.

Living in a perilous time of COVID pandemic, we are witnessing massive disruptions in all walks of life. Thankfully, the governmental decision to keep agriculture in track and active during lockdown has a great relief. Nevertheless, practically the agriculture sector is also a victim in Corona-crisis. The farmers are deprived of direct contacts and consultancies of agriculture officials/professionals in time of need added to several allied problems. To address this issue, we come up with this novel idea of founding a platform, a WhatsApp group – the Vegetable Farmers Forum. Born on 20th April during the current corona lockdown, it is still an infant, hardly past four weeks, but worthy to cite, forum already running in full capacity. Planned and projected to reach at least 10,000 farmers in the first tier itself, in the near future, we offer herewith an introductory remark for the interested readers.

But of course, state/central governmental offices relevant to the agriculture sector are functioning with minimal staff, most of the staff working from home online, to the possible extent; mostly in the hotspot zones. In this backdrop, IARI Regional Station, Pune took the lead, reflected earnestly to contribute for the cause of farming community, while working from home, online. Online meeting via Zoom (Interface-in-internet meeting, 16 April 2020) with station staff, nearby KVK officials and other stakeholders. A Vegetable Farmers Forum was proposed to be raised to provide a platform for the farmers to discuss their pressing issues in vegetable farming in generals and on plant protection sector in particular.

A Novel Approach in Digital India

A WhatsApp group (Vegetable Farmers Forum) was raised, under this program, started on 20th April, but within a couple of days, it reached its full capacity on board. The members were drawn from various parts of the country – Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi-NCR, Gujarat, J&K, Karnataka, Kerala, Jharkhand, Odisha, MP, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, UP, WB, etc. Agro-experts were invited and they joined voluntarily from various fields – Agronomy, Soil Chemistry, Horticulture, Entomology, Nematology, Plant Pathology, Agricultural Statistics, Vegetable Science (Olericulture), Agricultural Economics, Extension, Protected Cultivation, Agro-Forestry and etc. A couple of serving and former Vice Chancellors, Directors, Project Coordinators, Head of Departments, District Agricultural Officers, NGO Consultants/Activists, Agriculture Journalists, and Bank Officials also joined the galaxy of experts.

For the last fortnight, we covered and discussed on several issues raised by farmers and members. In gist these were:

  1. Digital India – deliberation in this direction

Information sharing on governmental circulars/notifications relevant to agriculture such as Arogya Setu, Kisan Sewa, Kisan Rath App, www.marketmirchi.com, etc. A collage was prepared to applause and support the farmers, the real heroes of corona pandemic times, like dedicated health departmental staff, police force and other essential service staff. The collage was compiled by our station staff, and circulated widely, inclusive of this Forum.

  1. Make in India Mantra

Corona has offered a unique opportunity, the current crisis of the Indian economy that is the declining contribution of agriculture in GDP (now only 15%) has prompted us to review the country’s situation and it is realized that marketing and making a profit is the key to successful agriculture. COVID-19 is playing a catalytic role by enabling India’s agro- innovative minds to develop solutions towards easing the farming community. Perhaps it is time for India to emerge as a leader via ‘Agri-enterpreneurship’.

  1. Consultancy in Vegetable Crop Production and Protection technologies
  • Plant protection queries in vegetables and papaya, were addressed with suitable sharing of booklets/pamphlets, bulletins etc online.
  • Queries on virus problems in vegetable farming were addressed, like insect pests, insect-vectors, termite problems (website termitexpert.in) nematode problems, plant diseases – fungal, bacterial and viral (ringspot virus tolerant lines, virus diseases of tomato, chili, papaya, etc).
  • Deliberated on Safe use of pesticides, label claims, recommended pesticides, sharing of registered pesticides, pesticide formulations, banned pesticides etc.
  • Organic options were also discussed.
  • Relevant traditional knowledge in pest control is discussed.
  1. Hit India Fit India Movement
  • Safe use of pesticides, label claims, recommended pesticides, sharing of registered pesticides, pesticide formulations, banned pesticides, etc.
  • Organic options were also discussed.
  • Veggie decontamination/sanitization in Covid period – this was discussed with appropriate advice and suggestions.
  • Swatcha Kheti – Stressed on Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) as a domain of Swatchha Bhart Abhiyan.
  1. Doubling the farm income

Following points were pondered –

  • IPM – Integrated Pest Management, IDM – Integrated Disease Management, and INM – Integrated Nutrient Management – All-inclusive under the aegis of Integrated Crop Management (ICM)
  • Water management – per drop more crop
  • GAP – Good Agricultural Practices.
  • Sustainable Development
  • Integrating ITK and frontier science
  • Honey bee – Madhukranti.
  • Market oriented farming, post harvest management etc.
  • Protected cultivation

Lengthy discussions were there also on entrepreneurships in farming, need of effective marketing strategies, post-harvest management, organic farming, food supply chain issues,   in view of the current corona crisis etc.

  1. Facilitating the First Interface-in-Internet Meeting for Nutri-gardens:

Home gardens, often called backyard or kitchen gardens – have an established tradition and offer immense potential for improving individual household nutritional requirements. The Nutri-gardens, as we intend to deliberate herein, is home gardens upscaled to community level. Concept is not new, our olden Rishi’s Ashrams were invariably accommodated in their lap, such systems, from time immemorial. More than 93,000 model Nutri-gardens were established by Odisha Livelihood Mission within only last two years. Their relevant role in fighting malnutrition, as the millennial milestones in Indian context is discussed herein. In lockdown period, the women stakeholders of these nutria-gardens face no much hardship in marketing, as it is a self-sufficient reliable system that caters the need of malnourished children and women folk.

Ajim Premji Philanthropic Initiative (APPI) had signed an MoU with the Government of Odisha to Improve the Nutritional status of Women and Children across Odisha through mainstreaming dietary diversity interventions by building capacity and establishing a Nutrition Vertical within Odisha Livelihood Mission (OLM). Project aims at training of 7.5 lakhs women on Nutrition practices, establishing Nutri-gardens and Back yard poultry, across 750 Gram Panchayats of 107 Blocks in all 30 districts of Odisha. OLM has received Outlook Poshan Award (2019) for implementing this nutrition-sensitive project. At present about 93,000 Backyard nutrition gardens established across Odisha. APPI has identified and supported three resource NGOs (PRADAN, LIVING FARM and Harsha Trust) to work with OLM as Knowledge partners for this project. OLM has 3.5 Lakh Self Help groups and 13,000 community cadres to implement various interventions, so SHG platform and Community cadres of OLM have been contributing to implement this project.

This is the Beginning

The response till-date is very good in this Forum. The lock-down period is quite favorable for experts to divert their time. The upper limit of membership in WhatsApp is 256 only, and it is planned that Post-Covid India, we may switch over to an appropriate digital platform for better performance and wider coverage precisely. To ramify the network, make it reaching wider customers/clientele base, we proposed and has invited 100 nodal contact point persons (NCPP) from various regions/sectors/themes. They will in turn connect to 100 farmers/beneficiaries. This way we reach 10,000 farmers in first level. Second level if each beneficiary point connects to at least 10 farmers, we arrive at 1 lakh clienteles.

While fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, breaking the infection chain, and flattening the corona curve, we strive to make our Vegetable Farmers Forum chain a robust one, expecting soon to be on the exponential path, targeting multiples of One Lakh Goal. We yearn it honestly.

There are some bottlenecks, though trivial, few members put unwanted clips, messages, greetings despite repeated warnings. Some members find it as if pass-time job, asking irreverent casual questions, trying to show off their knowledge. But, such negative things are rather a booster to our tempo; we thrived to be more careful, composed, and correct in our discussion, maintaining mutual respect and decorum with utmost care.

In further addition to this forum, a Students Forum is initiated for Delhi and Pune-based school students. The WhatsApp groups raised by teachers/students of schools will form part of our NCPP. The central core group will share relevant information on veggies to students, and in turn students may clear their doubts via the concerned NCPP. Such active linkage is envisaged to make the public aware of healthy practices in vegetables, inculcate a love for agriculture, and enable the young minds to appreciate and take active part even, at their own capacities.

Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan, Jai Anusandhan.

(Dr G K Mahapatro is the Head and Principal Scientist, IARI, Pune and  Debashis Mohapatra is the Team Leader cum State Project Manager, Nutrition Project of Odisha Livelihood Mission, Bhubaneswar.)

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