Knowledge and democracy: fables from SRI


FEW agricultural innovations have captured the imagination of as many farmers, civil society organizations, government departments, academics and researchers, both natural and social, as SRI or the System of Rice Intensification has in recent years. SRI can be seen as a technique, a counter intuitive set of six principles, which yields more from less in rice cultivation. Despite lower quantities of seed and chemical inputs and less irrigation water due to growing rice in unflooded conditions, the combination of practices of wider spacing, transplanting young seedlings, alternate wetting and drying, greater use of organic compost and regular weeding ends up giving much higher yields on farmers’ fields than do conventional techniques. Further, it does not depend on improved varieties and can work for any variety that a farmer uses.

As an innovation that had an unusual origin in Madagascar, it has spread to 36 countries across the globe in less than a decade after it went out of Africa for the first time in 1999. Ironically, the person who promoted it across different continents was also an American with the first name of Norman, but unlike the Nobel Prize winning Borlaug, he is a social scientist who received little support from big donors and funding agencies. Incidentally, SRI is still looked at unfavourably by most rice researchers, particularly from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) that tried hard to mire this grassroots invention in various kinds of controversies with a scientist even dismissing it as an UFO – Unconfirmed Field Observations – in the International Year of Rice in 2004. The increasing number of farmers using SRI with regular adaptations has, however, settled much of the debate and now even IRRI accepts SRI as beneficial.

The story of SRI can be told in several ways. As a grassroots innovation SRI has truly seen South-South cooperation. As a technique with radical potential of initiating newer inquiries into hitherto forgotten aspects of the relation of plants with roots and soil micro organisms, SRI is an invitation to the complex world of interrelations below the soil. SRI can also be seen as a way to understand extension of innovation in what is a new paradigm of knowledge-intensive agriculture, as opposed to the hitherto popular (and populist) input-intensive agriculture of the Green Revolution based on high response of varieties to often subsidised inputs like fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation water. SRI can also be seen as a way to understand how farmer to farmer extension is often more successful than the ever failing extension systems of the state.

SRI also presents fascinating cases in regional studies as to why some states do better, with the typically poorer states often showing greater promise. It also shows how not all Indo-US collaborations need be as disastrous as the highly undemocratic Indo-US Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture or KIA. SRI can equally be read as a lesson about knowledge as commons, a case where ICT has been used for development without the hype that usually surrounds the process. Farmers across the world have been able to link and communicate with each other by treating knowledge as a commons at a time when innovation is often measured in terms of the number of patents filed.


The System of Rice Intensification came late to India. At the first international conference on SRI in China in 2002, the lone Indian representative, T.M. Thiyagarajan from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University reported some saving in water, but otherwise not very encouraging results. In contrast, the other 21 countries claimed more encouraging results in larger areas. Much has changed since, both in terms of contribution to knowledge and on the field. Today there is SRI presence in all the rice growing states and agro-climatic zones of the country. SRI is practiced by all kinds of farmers – from small and marginal farmers with less than 0.2 hectares to some with close to 50 and more acres. Present in over 300 districts where rice is grown, the number of farmers practicing SRI is above 250,000 on a conservative estimate.

State policy has, however, been slow to catch up with the SRI phenomenon. The National Food Security Mission (NFSM), the only policy document that mentions SRI as a strategy for improving rice productivity, continues to see it on par with other strategies such as hybrid rice, even mindlessly proposing the use of herbicides in this agro-ecological innovation. Nevertheless, state governments have been quite pro-active in working out ways to realize SRI’s potential. There are interesting models and variations across different states with several small states such as Tripura leading the way through actively involving panchayat raj institutions, Tamil Nadu integrating SRI into its World Bank project on water management, and states like Bihar seeking linkages from outside the agriculture departments by involving women self help groups in a big way.


That all of this has happened in a short span of time despite limited funding suggests substantial rethinking on the way knowledge is conceptualised in agriculture on the field by farming communities in collaboration with civil society organizations, government agencies and research institutions, often in the same order. Agriculture policy that is otherwise obsessed with its repeated failure to break out of the jinx of Hindu rates of agricultural growth, and has consistently ignored the wider and complex settings of agriculture including large-scale farmer suicides, over 180,000 in the last decade, has much to learn from such fascinating stories from the field. This, however, is not the focus of the paper. Beyond the stories of what SRI can do for rice cultivation in particular, and agricultural revival in general, are the ideas and initiatives it has for conversations and possible dialogues on knowledge.

SRI sees knowledge as a commons and India has played its part, contributing to this pool as much as it has received liberally from the SRI global network. When Nature published an article on SRI titled ‘Rice Cultivation: Feast or Famine’ in 2004, in what has since been termed the ‘Rice Wars’, it was an Indian geneticist, Alapati Satyanarayana, who responded by giving details of how the SRI experiments in the state of Andhra Pradesh negated some of the observations of IRRI scientists. The contribution was important for the SRI debate, but from a science policy point of view in India it demonstrated that scientists are still willing to state their views, even dissenting when necessary. Of course, what really changed the nature of the debate was the more active dissent from the field – thousands of famers across the globe consistently showed higher results in their fields even as researchers were still to confirm them through trials. Here was a classic case of a land to lab transfer. The biologically dead soils in research stations could never provide the ground for capturing the SRI effect, whereas farmers were able to do so by following the principles of SRI since researchers were grappling with how to change several parameters of growing rice all at the same time.


The System of Rice Intensification is a complex knowledge system that defies conventional definition and categories. Its origins were not in the laboratory but on farmers’ fields and in Madagascar in Africa. As an innovation, SRI is neither traditional nor completely modern in the sense in which modern agriculture has been seen as an improvement in genetic potential alone. Nor is it a simple hybrid of traditional knowledge and modern science. Farmers across the world have found elements of SRI as part of earlier practice (non-flooding and transplanting young seedlings). Yet despite each of its six principles being independently known, it is the combination of these into a system of practices that makes SRI unique – a combination that is fascinatingly inclusive and allows both proponents of indigenous knowledge and sensitive modern scientists to discover, negotiate meaning and engage in a knowledge dialogue. Similarly, though the idea of knowledge being owned by a community and not an individual is part of the structure of many traditional knowledge systems, what differentiates SRI is that this community does not have to be bounded to a village, region or even country in today’s world.


As a system of innovation, SRI defies simple categorization into a local or national system. In our attempt to use the innovation systems framework to understand SRI, we soon found that there were several systems talking to each other in ways that were unique. An American professor was seen as part of the Indian system of innovation, even as Indians like Alapati or Thiyagarajan were a part of systems elsewhere. A state system in Orissa saw itself as incomplete without using insights from outside the state. Overall, the conventional categorization of farmers as users of knowledge and researchers as generators was proving difficult to maintain. Extension agencies were carrying out more insightful research into SRI and researchers could not contribute to knowledge if their feet were rooted to their laboratories; they had to engage with extension personnel, civil society actors and farmers, often on the latters’ terms.

The much preferred grease to an innovation system – the private sector – was almost non-existent in some places as SRI was seen as nobody’s ‘business’. There was no money to be made and yet people in the systems of innovation were interacting with each other.

The role of civil society in knowledge debates has often been underemphasized. Most often civil society has been seen as opposing a particular knowledge or technology and pushing the case for public understanding of science and scientists. Or as Michael Gibbons talks about in the context of ‘science’s new social contract with society’, that society is ‘speaking back’ to science. The stories of SRI in India seem to ask whether civil society can also actively participate in co-production of new knowledge with science. If so, how, and what implications might this have for the report, ‘Taking European Knowledge Seriously’.

Before addressing this question it is pertinent to note that SRI has shifted from the phase of knowledge encounters and debates with modern science, as witnessed during 2004, to a more nuanced play of dialogues and alliances. Sociologists and students of knowledge debates thus need to shift their gaze from the larger narratives and perhaps overworked political games of knowledge production to the messy and playful encounters of everyday practice where farmers, scientists and civil society are engaging in an uneven but dynamic knowledge marketplace.

I would like to provide three of a possible thousand events and incidents from India just to illustrate the kinds of conversations that are happening in SRI and tease out implications for our understanding of knowledge. These events are seemingly unrelated and have occurred in different parts of the country – Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Tripura – in the last few years.


The first relates to a civil society organization, the Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN) in Hyderabad, trying to organize a talk by Norman Uphoff a few days before the first ever national symposium on SRI. The organization had earlier constituted a technical support group whose mandate was to examine technical issues from the perspective of civil society with the active involvement of scientists. For the talk, one of the organizers had to invite researchers from the national research system. But when queried about the scientific credentials of the speaker, he did not know what to say. Though such disciplinary categories were not central to the way in which it worked, yet to involve scientists WASSAN needed to claim a scientific basis. Consequently, Norman was referred to as an internationally renowned scientist working on soils and roots, of course without adding the term ‘social’ before ‘scientist’.


The talk on post-modern agriculture by Norman Uphoff was criticized by some social scientists in the audience for whom anything post-modern, whether in culture or agriculture, was necessarily suspect. The larger thrust of Norman’s talk, essentially an invitation to the scientists to see a newer future, though interesting, struggled to engage the audience as his category of analysis did not conform to the normal scientific frame, and a language of knowledge that could be understood across boundaries – natural and social, culture and agriculture – was still in the making.

A couple of years later at the Xavier Institute of Management, speaking about the challenge from the social science point of view, Norman Uphoff called for ‘an engaged social science’. He asked if it was not time to look more closely at the question of how to make what is desirable and possible more probable? Though this proposition drew on his earlier experience in participatory irrigation management in Sri Lanka, it was equally applicable in the context of understanding SRI and how scientists, social and natural, need to engage with it.

The second story is from an address that never happened. This was at the second learning alliance meeting in Orissa. The learning alliance was primarily set up to build a platform where engaged social science could help build trust among farmers, civil society practitioners and government agencies. This was a case of applying insights of the SRI innovation system and recognizing its features with a view to avoiding the mistakes of states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu where SRI by the state and SRI by civil society organizations were seen as two different and parallel streams not talking to each other. The idea was to float an alliance where before engaging with SRI as part of the programme of the central government or ICAR, the government officials could listen to extant experiences in the state and explore how learning alliances of researchers, civil society organizations, and government agencies might actually work together.


One person who enthusiastically supported the idea was an economics professor who had recently retired as the State Information Commissioner. Professor Radhamohan, a leading advocate of sustainable agriculture in Orissa, had actively initiated efforts to get small, marginal and tribal farmers to adopt SRI with support from the SRI network across the country. In southern Orissa, he appealed for SRI to be seen as a people’s movement and popularized the slogan ‘Jai SRI’, pointing to the organic character of SRI, Jai also being a short form of Jaivik. The slogan has since become rather popular in Orissa, with farmers even greeting each other with Jai SRI.

SRI as a people’s movement also connects culture and agriculture; the workshops and training programmes organized often celebrate songs that foreground the ill-effects of chemical farming. For instance, in remote Koraput in Orissa where access to modern farming is low, instead of mainstreaming agriculture by pushing fertilizer consumption closer to the national average, it would make more sense to follow practices that would do just the opposite, namely what Norman calls post-modern agriculture with no dependence on fossil fuels.


The Director of Agriculture in the state was open to ideas that created a new platform for knowledge dialogue, an institutional innovation that has since been seen as desirable by other states. The first learning alliance had participation from Tripura where a government officer brought about a revolution of sorts and a farmer and an engineer from Andhra who was keen to get farmers to take up SRI and invent new weeder designs. Orissa was fortunately receptive to knowledge from outside and seemed willing to learn, something that states like AP have stopped doing, leading to innovation stagnation in SRI there.

A year after the first learning alliance was initiated, a study was undertaken by XIMB to take stock of how far the loose alliance or network of learning alliance partners had progressed, and if there were newer actors on the scene. Sure enough there were several willing to join this alliance. The visit of Norman Uphoff to Orissa was used to reconvene the learning alliance. One of the most moving moments of the meeting in Orissa was when Professor Radhamohan, who was seriously ill and could not attend, sent a passionate message to be read out at the meeting. The message was a call to recognize the contribution of the new father of agricultural revolution, suggesting that his name be proposed for the Nobel Prize, what Borlaug had received in 1970. Unlike Borlaug who continues to insist on the old agenda, as witnessed in his call for taking the same old strategies to Africa, Norman Uphoff seems to be advancing a different way to look at agriculture.

The comparison between the two Normans is not about two individuals but two forms of knowledge. Norman Uphoff is unlikely to get the Nobel; he would perhaps be happier to get recognition from the Association Tefy Saina (ATS), the Malagasy NGO that Fr Henri De Laulanie, the father of SRI, set up. As the representative of a people’s movement on SRI, Radhamohan felt that a public recognition of Uphoff’s contribution to knowledge and farmers across the world was necessary. Would the Indian National Knowledge Commission look at these possibilities? What would it mean to take such knowledge seriously?


The third story is more positive; it is about an award that was actually declared. Dr. Baharul Islam Mazumder, a senior agronomist with the Government of Tripura was awarded the Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray medal by the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of Tripura for his outstanding contribution to the field of agriculture. The citation further added: Dr. Mazumder began his own trials of SRI methods in 2000 and in 2002-03 started doing on-farm trials/demonstrations with 44 farmers. By 2005-06 this number had expanded to 880 farmers on 352 hectares. Their good results and confidence in the methods helped ensure state government support for a popularization campaign under Baharul’s leadership. The next year, 73,390 farmers used SRI methods on 14,678 hectares, and in the 2007-08 season, over 160,000 farmers used SRI techniques on 32,500 hectares. The Tripura government goal for 2008-09 of 250,000 farmers using SRI methods on 50,000 hectares (21% of total rice area) is on track. In 2007-08, the average SRI yield in Tripura was 4.3 tons/hectare compared with the state’s average paddy yield of 2.5 tons/hectare.

The prize was significant because behind the current story of farmer’s distress is an ossified research system of agriculture that has had little to cheer about in recent years and due to its insular ways has lost the ability, and thereby credibility, to respond to external challenges posed by society. If society were to ‘speak back to science’ in agriculture in India, as so many farmers have realized, it might end up concluding that science is deaf. In this context the recognition of a scientist’s effort, not by the department of agriculture but of science and technology, is significant. In recognizing the work of Baharul Mazumder, the Government of Tripura seems to invite us to make connections between science, history and society.

Baharul’s keenness and unusual commitment to innovation is evident in the manner in which he first accessed knowledge on SRI in 2000 from a friend in Calcutta, who showed him Norman’s paper as he was recuperating from a heart ailment. It was the spirit of Baharul and the later understanding and support from the Government of Tripura that persuaded the organizers of the national symposium of SRI to host the second SRI conference in Agartala. The conference also released a book capturing the innovative genius of the people of Tripura titled, SRI: Small State Big Results.


Tripura seems to be showing the way forward in innovation in SRI even as other states are stuck with looking at innovation as something that is purely technical, refusing to acknowledge the need to integrate every idea with institutional and organizational learning. There is also the recognition that sciences’s new contract with society should substitute paternalism towards people (farmers) and instead make them active participants.

The three conversations on knowledge listed above are possibly representative of several such complex interactions happening today. These conversations are trying to push the boundaries and frontiers of knowledge and advance a new social contract with science, suggesting that civil society could and should play an important role in visioning a nation’s future. This will require newer kinds of professionals – dissenting scientists who are willing to break the shackles of scientific administration and its undemocratic contract with society in India. The poster boys of techno-science might push for a view of knowledge that is restrictive and unidimensional, which sees India catching up with European and other knowledge. But they too need to start taking Indian knowledge seriously. Agriculture, as the story of SRI suggests, needs to be seen not as a drag on the economy’s growth trajectory, but as a source where there are avenues for creativity and innovation.


Where does one find or look for new knowledge? Each of the stories and conversations suggest that everyday practice seems to throw up several possibilities where there are continuous dialogues at the interface, actors negotiating meaning and pushing the boundaries that statist science has created and market-based science is too busy to take notice of. This role of people’s participation in shaping Indian science is not new. Acharya P.C.Ray was part of Gandhi’s experiments on science as part of the All India Village Industries Association (AIVIA). Gandhi’s own experiments, not just with himself but in shaping institutions such as the All India Spinners Association (AISA) and AIVIA attempted to create a new contract of science with society that unfortunately found few takers after independence, though it seemed to have inspired a few scientists such as C.V. Seshadri. The stories on SRI suggest that there are alternative scientific imaginations in India. These may not find expression in India’s national knowledge commission but nevertheless needs to be taken seriously.


Sixteen years back, before globalization had become ubiquitous, Seminar published what is perhaps one of the most impressive documents on science policy. No grand statements on scientific temper but simple narratives of what it means to practice science in India written by scientists who were willing to be reflexive about their practice and how they saw the science society relation. Many of the scientists who featured in that issue – Amulya Reddy, C.V. Seshadri and P.K. Sethi are no more. One could add the late K.R. Datye to the list though he was not featured in the Seminar issue. One wonders what has happened to such bold and visionary scientists.

The story of SRI seems to suggest that were such an experiment to be conducted again in looking for a set of scientists who are confident of their own practice, and yet ready and willing to learn from other disciplines and from other knowledge systems, we might have to think afresh. We may need to also incroporate social scientists such as Norman Uphoff and Radhamohan as much as creative dissenters like Thiyagarajan and Baharul Mazumder. There are likely to be many others if we are to continue our conversations on science and democracy, else the Davos slogan and the ‘India everywhere’ campaign of India being the world’s fastest growing democracy will sound hollow, reminding us of the disastrous ‘India shining’ campaign. The conversations on knowledge and democracy are possibly seeds of an alternate path for India’s century.