Friday, August 28, 2009

Agriculture under Water stress: Design Opportunities in India

Design for Agriculture: Who is addressing these issues today?

Prof M P Ranjan

Image01: One of the first design projects done at NID by the first batch of Product Design students in 1967, a Seed Drill that could be pulled by bullocks in small Indian farms. Images are from the NID Documentation 1964-69 (Download 25 MB pdf here)

The World is facing climate change and India is facing severe draught across 250 districts, almost half the country, out of a total of 604 administrative districts have been declared drought hit this year. The stress will be on the local farmers who have to fend for themselves in such times of monsoon failure and they are at the mercy of the elements and also an uncaring administration that would wait till the media raises a stink before any action is taken and usually all too late. This is perhaps where design imagination should come in and anticipate such situations and have strategies in place to meet the contingencies with imagination and viable offerings well before the event takes over. Are we ready for it? Far from it, as it apparently seems to be, but why?. Our design infrastructure is quite incapable of making any immediate and specific offering since no investments have been done in the past to explore and address such systemic eventualities that seem to revisit us time and again. Agriculture is unglamorous and unlike fashion gets very little attention from the media and from the design community as well. In the 60’s and 70’s Bucky Fuller wrote about an anticipatory design science movement that could and would address many of these glaring eventualities and he went about setting a personal example with path breaking thoughts and conceptual offerings that could be followed by others in the years to come, most of them well documented. The Bucky Fuller Institute now has instituted an annual design competition that is looking for mega solutions that follow the Bucky Fuller spirit and each year one design team is awarded the coveted Bucky Fuller Challenge Award while several others are honored as runners-up and finalists, all showcased at the Challenge website here : Bucky Fuller Idea Index

Image02: A low cost grain thresher designed in 1968 by Product Design students at NID as a response to the challenge from the Eames India Report of 1958. (Download 360 kb pdf file here)

At the Government of India level however, we seem to think and act as if design applies only to the needs of organized industry which may perhaps explain why the National Institute of Design (NID) is located under the administration and budgetary control of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) and perhaps this also explains why NID has never had invested in an education programme dealing with design for agriculture all these years. On the other hand media thinks and acts as if design is located in the arena of fashion and huge media space is accorded to this form of design at the sad exclusion of all other kinds and genres of design, the kind that is desperately needed across as many as 230 sectors of our economy today. The National Design Policy too is silent on the needs of this vast sector and it is particularly so on the needs of the public goods and services that are usually the domain of Governments to serve, being mostly ignored by private industry since the consumer base is too diffuse to be of immediate value to them. The economists who advise our Governments and industry tend to overlook the sector as a whole and leave these matters to politics and legislative processes under the broad umbrella of development programmes, but usually to provide lip service just before the elections. There are a few exceptions to this rule however and they include Hazel Henderson who debunks the theories of Nobel Prize winning clan of the Chicago School and Brian Czeck who in his obscure book titled “Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train” debunks the “growth at any cost theories” of the Keynesian school and proposes a more humane and ecological form of economics that looks at a steady-state and sustainable models of development.

Image03: A small selection of NID’s Agri-Expo, Rural and Water related projects done over the years.

With much of India facing a severe drought we need to look afresh at the needs of our agricultural sector that are hard hit by the absence of water. Design schools in India have ignored this sector except in fits and starts and that too in some peripheral areas of need. Government too did very little to encourage the design schools to take up the challenges by providing the required funding and the mandate to act in these areas. The NID, did however design a major exhibition for the Department of Agriculture way back in 1977 but this was a trade fair and after much chest thumping about the success of the mega-show which was impact assessed in those days by slick marketing teams from the advertising industry everyone seems to have once again forgotten the sector as a whole. I recall that the early projects undertaken by the students of the first product design programme at NID in the late 60’s included several tools for the agricultural sector but over the years we seem to have distanced ourselves from the needs of this huge sector that provides maximum employment across the country. Perhaps we were still under the influence of the Eames Report and the teachers and studends did look at the grassroots for inspiration and direction for action. Why should not the multiple new NID’s that are proposed under the new National Design Policy look at these different sectors of the economy rather than taking the NID Ahmedabad as a role model and continue to address address only the market driven sectors of lifestyles and automobiles and the traditional sectors of manufacturing and communication sectors. The need is clear from over 230 sectors of our economy and we need to build a market for design graduates who are capable of working in these neglected sectors and the Government has a major role to play if this is to happen. In the late 80’s I do recall that NID had an assignment to design tractors for an Indian manufacturer but like all other product design projects from that period this one too was bound to sit on the shelf due to the lack of any competition in the Indian industry in those days.

Image04: A view from an earlier post on water harvesting system designed by Dinesh Sharma for Furaat Systems in Ahmedabad inspired on the traditional step wells of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Earlier on this blog I have shared the work of an NID graduate, Dinesh Sharma, who by drawing inspiration from the Gujarat and Rajasthan traditions of step wells made from modular blocks has designed a water harvesting system that is both elegant as well as functional. The Furaat Water Harvesting system is just one of the many possible approaches and we need too make concerted investments into the design and testing of hundreds of approaches to deal with water in our lives to face the realities of our situation in India and to find solutions for all of these, from region to region.

Image05: P Sainath as seen on Google Images search.

Farmer suicides are today a way of life in most drought hit districts since crop failures and the search for local ground water sources leave our farmers with huge debts that they cannot service and the spiral down to suicide is an almost foregone conclusion. P Sainath, an Indian journalist has spent many years studying the phenomenon of rural poverty starting with his seminal book titled. “Everyone Loves a Good Drought: Stories form India’s Poorest Districts”, in a stark commentary on the corruption and lack of care that is symptomatic of the Indian condition, particularly in rural India. According to the review on – “They reveal how poverty is compounded by corruption, incompetence, laziness, greed and stupidity. Instead of improving life, many government schemes/development programs only make the poorest poorer, while making corrupt politicians, land- owners and the complacent new middle class of Mumbai (Bombay) richer.”

A specific Quote from India Together online about the correlation between local borewells and farmer suicides tells us a chilling story. Quote
“Sinking borewells, rising debt 
P Sainath. 

June 2004: NALGONDA, MEDAK & NIZAMABAD (Andhra Pradesh): Musampally has more borewells than people. This village in Nalgonda district has barely 2000 acres under cultivation. But it boasts over 6,000 borewells - two to every human being. Over 85 per cent of these wells have failed. The rest are in decline. The desperate search for water has bankrupted a once prosperous village….” UnQuote Read the full story here.
And another view from Wiki on Farmer Suicide here

Image 06: Stills from an online video offered by Nature Magazine about the water hot spot developing in western India with severe water stress and ground water depletion in the States of Rajasthan, Punjab, Harayana and Delhi which also happen to be the food bowl of India.

The alarming news is that this water stress is being felt across the food bowl of India across the fertile plains of Punjab, Harayana and Western Uttar Pradesh. While the Design Concepts & Concerns (DCC) course has been addressing the various issues of water in our lives across many domains and verticals we have constant news flows about the shortage of water coming from many sources. The latest one is the result of a six year long satellite based study conducted by a consortium of scientific institutions led by NASA. The alarming video can be watched at the Nature Magazine website at this link here. We need to seriously address the issues that this holds for the design community in India and how we can rally to deal with these realities on the ground and how well we are currently prepared to face these realities. That design can address this kind of challenge is not really in question since this is the only discipline that can bring an integrated and focused body of human experience to bear on these really wicked problems with imagination and political will to find lasting solutions that will get us through this impasse.

Image07: One of the short listed projects under the Bucky Fuller Challenge–New Mexico Renewable Energy Strategy Maps for sustainable regional development.

The Bucky Fuller Challenge Award for 2009 went to the sophisticated Urban Transport solution that redefines personal transportation in our cities. But for me the runner-up, titled “Dreaming New Mexico” shows great promise as a way forward with local planning taking the lead and with the use of maps local communities are involved in envisioning desirable and viable futures which is followed by a sustained programme of “Bioneering” involving the use of imagination, innovation, technology as well as political processes to get the task done. Regional design schools could help locate these dialogues with the community and assist decision makers build new and imaginative solutions to address a host of local issues towards resolution of the same.

Image08: Paul Polak and his product offerings for marginal farmers in Asia and Africa through his international entrepreneurial initiatives.

India needs to look seriously at the needs of our agriculture and rural micro-industry sectors and not just the crafts sector that brings in export income by through a huge number of export oriented industries. The benefits of the huge export sector rarely reach the remote rural producers but increasingly the strategy has been to cluster the production in class two towns and cities and real rural producers are left to fend for themselves. Paul Polak–founder of Colorado-based non-profit 
International Development enterprises (IDE)—is 
dedicated to developing practical solutions that attack 
poverty at its roots, who in his book “Out of Poverty” outlines strategies and products and services that he has developed to achieve huge successes using appropriate design at the marginal farmer level with huge success. Design in India needs to look at these models of rural development and not just the “Lifestyle product” category for the export markets with our crafts capabilities. Another example of design at the periphery comes for the “d-school” in Stanford University’s Stanford Institute of Design where their Executive Director, George Kembel has taken their students to Nepal and Thailand to search for real challenges to create entrepreneurial designs for extreme affordability. (download pdf of the offering here)

India needs to take a leaf out of these initiatives and try and integrate design into our Agricultural Universities or focus the attention of the next NID fully on the needs of the agricultural sector as an integrated offering that looks after the design needs across all the sectors of need from water harvesting and management to managing the cold chain for reaching the food to the consumers across the land and all the tasks and services that come in between these two extremes from the point of view of our fragmented farm ecology all over the country. Wikipedia gives a list of 41 Agricultural Universities in India and it is my view that all of them need to integrate design abilities and actions into their many programmes if they are to be successful to prevent farmer suicides in the future.

Prof M P Ranjan

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