My earliest memories on issues involving small holder farmers’ access to Information and Communication Technologies are with the introduction of the radio. I had recently migrated from Kenya to India in the early days of 1970 to study and everything was new and strange to me, including Indian village life.
My family had a farm in a village in Telengana in South-Central India. Villagers would gather daily around 6:30 in the evening at the Panchayat (community) building to listen to Krishi Darshan (Farmer’s Voice). The radio, a valve set operated on electricity to receive broadcasts in the medium wave (MW) band, was kept in a cupboard under lock and key in the Panchayat building. It was hooked up to a large, trumpet-like loud speaker, on a wooden pole outside the structure. The village children would gather in the front, while the male villagers sat on their haunches on the ground. The Sarpanch (village leader), who was usually the largest and richest landowner, sat on a wooden chair. There were rarely women, as they were not allowed to mix with the males socially.
The radio program would last for an hour in the local language, but usually as spoken (or actually written in the program’s script) by the highly educated and not in the dialect of the ordinary villager. The villagers could not fully comprehend the program because of the rather “snooty” language. There would be a talk on a farming practice and sometimes an interview. Following the farmers program, there would be broadcasts of folk songs or a small educational skit. At 8:00, there would be the news and after it, the session for the village radio would end and the actual radio would be safely locked in the cupboard. The Panchayat building was one of the few buildings that had electricity. There was always disappointment when there was no electricity and the radio could not operate.
This scene reveals a lot regarding ICTs and their access to the resourceful poor farmer. The control of the ICT in the hands of the Sarpanch, who also had the only capacity to operate the radio in the village, the hierarchy, class, caste and gender differences in the village community in the access to its broadcast, the design, and delivery of content along with the problems, regarding necessary infrastructure such as electricity needed to effectively use the technology.
The stranglehold on real control and access to the radio in villages in India was only broken when lower cost, domestically made “transistor” radios, were available in the market. Then, the radio could be owned and controlled by the farmer, so he could carry it to his field and the women in the family could listen to some of the programs in the evening in the privacy and seclusion of their homes. Of course, there were several social concerns expressed on the “bad” influence of the radio on the youth and women of the village.
The same scene repeated itself when television, initially through the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) (later through terrestrial broadcast) was introduced. Instead of the radio in the Panchayat building, there was the black and white TV set. However, for TV, it took more time to spread in order to be used by villagers. This was not only because of the cost, but also because it needed electricity to operate. Not many homes, especially among the poor, had access to electricity.
However, things changed, when the cost of TV was reduced through production in India, Cable TV became widespread and electricity connections in villages became more common. But, on the whole, for contributing to innovating farming and agriculture, it was largely a missed opportunity in using a powerful ICT. The content for farming and agriculture, largely from the government in an initially government-controlled media, were not paid attention to as an important public function. And, the private sector, with very little commercial benefit in generating the content, just ignored agriculture until recently. Now that rural incomes have grown and farmers are becoming consumers of products such as soap, cosmetics, refrigerators and washing machines, in addition to tractors and farm equipment.
Ownership of phones in India till late 1990s was only in the hands of a few. In villages, it was usually the richest that had a phone connection. All this changed when the public call offices (PCO) were introduced in India. Soon, all villages had at least one PCO. The cost of making a phone call was also reduced and almost everybody could use it. Within a few years, the cell phone was introduced and this brought in the shift in the ownership and control of the communication device. Along with it, the government introduced policies that made phone calls affordable by even the poor. Soon, many of the poor farmers had cell phones which they could use at their will and convenience. Today India has almost 800 million cell phone connections and is now ubiquitous.
With cell phones came several new services, including the Kisan Call Centres where farmers could call up government-run extension services for assistance on their farming problems. However, certain other issues in access continued such as the use of cell phones by rural women. In a country where women provide the majority of the agricultural workforce and many of these manage farms on their own, not being able to by social barriers use cell phones and other ICTs is a major constraint for rapid innovation and capacity development needed for modern farming in the country.
The new generation of ICTs coming into common use in rural India is the smart phone. The smart phone promises access to the instant messaging, the World Wide Web, audio and video recording, playback and streaming capabilities, and the ability to send and receive multimedia while participating in social media. Some smart phones can even use applications that can share, exchange and process data while supporting decision-making. This has the potential to revolutionize access to information from across the world by farmers. At the moment the same issues as with other ICTs in the past such as of its access, affordability, the generation and design of the content so that it is relevant and useful, the capacity to make effective use of the information are being repeated. Apparently, we need to study the past and learn from it to be prepared for ICTs to be more useful in the present and the future.