Big design interventions for small farmers

Small and marginal farmers, those with landholding smaller than 2 hectares, play an essential role in the Indian agrarian economy. Almost 50 % (about half a million) of the Indian population depends on agriculture for employment and livelihood. Small and marginal size farms form 86.21 % of total agricultural landholding, according to Agriculture Census Division 2018. Along with other issues like climate change, lack of resources, and awareness, these farmers are unable to afford modern farm machinery and tools, which affects their yields adversely. This inability to use modern solutions stems from lack of capital, rising labour cost, inflation, and scarcity of appropriate technology.

A design research methods approach has been used to investigate the problems these farmers face. It would be worthwhile to try and ameliorate the issues of small farmers by applying principles of industrial design and appropriate technology. This got me interested in the research project titled, ‘Design intervention in farm equipment for small Indian farmers’. As graduate research scholars of the IITB-Monash Research Academy, we study for a dual-badged PhD from IIT Bombay and Monash University, spending time at both institutions to enrich our research experience. The Academy is a collaboration between India and Australia that endeavours to strengthen academic relationships between the two countries.

The research aims at designing and developing appropriate, affordable, context-specific solutions for small Indian farmers. Ideally, the tools developed from this research would help in improving yield while reducing long term costs and drudgery of agricultural labour. The framework developed to design these tools would also ideally help other researchers, designers and engineers to work more effectively in the farming domain. In the long run, the research also aims at improving the livelihood of small farming households while improving food security for the country.

India is known for its diversity. This diversity also reflects in the agricultural domain where the land condition, climate, crops, farming techniques and methods vary across the country. We started with formal research through what is present in the published literature. Initially, we decided to limit the scope of the study to rice farming and focus specifically on different stages and the tools used. We prepared a mind map and morphological representation of how rice farming activity is carried out through different stages. The enormous amount of data from various sources was represented visually in different layers. These overlays and the mind map made a strong reference point for further studies.

Next, we needed to confirm on the ground what we had studied in the literature and texts. So we decided to conduct a workshop at a Small scale farmers’ meet at Dharakwadi village where we used the mind map of tools used at different activities of rice farming. The workshop helped us in understanding farmers needs vis-a-vis currently available tools. We also visited Amale village in Thane district to understand and consolidate the needs and wants through observation and informal discussions with the farmers. These needs were then mapped as an overlay onto the mind map to understand the current state of tool usage and deficiencies in farm implements for small scale paddy farmers.

The question we now faced was, what would be the factors which need to be considered while creating and evaluating new sustainable, appropriate tools? To answer this question, we observed the tools used by the farmers along with the solutions that they come up with to derive possible parameters which can then be used in a framework to design farm implements.

Informal workshop with small scale paddy farmers and Mr Sanjay Patil of BAIF development research foundation

on these field visits and the workshop conducted previously, a tentative list of parameters was prepared and refined. We also mapped the standard set of activities required for farming after a study of activities involved in growing the top seven annually produced crops in India.conducted two more field visits at Jawahar and Naigaon villages of Maharashtra. We also explored factors affecting tool selection, studied solutions developed by farmers and possible directions of research in terms of tool design.

We then classified the parameters which evolved from these discussions and observations under various factors of human, technology, and environment by mapping them onto a Design Futures (DeF) framework developed by my IITB supervisor, Dr Sugandh Malhotra.
We also visited four villages (Kheda, Dharampuri, Rakhadia and Meghnagar) in Jhabua district, Madhya Pradesh. The objective of these visits was to understand the farming needs of small farmers in tribal areas of central India and study community-managed projects and holistic rural development initiatives.

In the next phase of the research, We hope to generate required product specifications from identified needs, which can then be used to design and develop a set of tools.

Traditional wooden plough used by small farmers in Amale village

Since I grew up in an urban suburb with minimal contact with agriculture, this project has been an eye-opening experience. I realised that we carry a lot of latent prejudices and biases when we envision life in rural India and their issues. The ingenuity of these rural small farmers in developing solutions for their needs despite the lack of resources and support has been a humbling experience. It will hopefully make me a better designer and researcher.

I also realised that women in rural areas contribute a lot to farm activities and perform back-breaking skilled labour while getting almost no recognition or support in terms of both policies and tools. Lack of education and awareness also hamper farmers, when it comes to making use of policies and schemes which would help them. This translates into a lack of marketing and technical skills, which puts them at a disadvantage when compared to medium or large scale farmers of the country. However, these farming communities seem much more welcoming and helpful when compared with my experiences in urban areas of the country.

As a privileged male in a patriarchal society, I have the advantage of having a voice and being heard, which can be used effectively to bring to light issues which are generally invisible to the majority of people who can bring about positive change.

I hope the effects of this research will not just be heard, but also change the lives of many for the better.

Research scholar: Sanket Pai, IITB-Monash Research Academy

Project title: Design intervention in farm equipment for small Indian farmers

Supervisors: Dr Sugandh Malhotra, Assoc. Prof. Selby Coxon and Dr Robbie Napper

Contact details:

 This story was written by Sanket Pai. Copyright IITB-Monash Research Academy