IAS officer T. Vijay Kumar interating with people on organic farming
Hyderabad: Injustice, poverty and inequality always troubled this young pharma company executive all those decades ago. His friends advised that the IAS was the place to be for him. He got through the civils, and it simply turned his life around.
At the end of his tenure in the civil services Mr T. Vijay Kumar can look back with satisfaction with which he has achieved: He got kidnapped by Naxalites, he was among the first to draft students into government work, he selected ‘champion women’ to spread the message of self-help groups and organic farming.
"It was when I was training in Mussoorie that I realised how deep and structural rural poverty is. I had taken sociology for my civil services exam and I read about the tribal situation, about the Scheduled Caste people. That is when I realised that there is so much injustice and deprivation."
At the academy, he heard about well-known IAS officer S.R. Sankaran, one of the babus who spent time in tribal areas.
Years later, after being posted at Paderu and Jagtial, he was transferred to Rampachodavaram when he was kidnapped along with seven other officials by Naxals. In the group of kidnapped officials was Sankaran. "Being in the service meant working for the poor and there was no other thought especially in the tribal areas," says Mr Kumar. The laws were in their favour but they were not being implemented.
Mr Kumar sees each of his many transfers while in service as a turning point. He spent five years as managing director of the Girijan Cooperative Corporation. As project director of the Integrated Tribal Development Agency, he would try to rectify wrongs as an administrator. "The situation was deeper and it was a combination of the political powers that be, bureaucracy, moneylenders, and many other issues," he recalls. It was a conscious effort to stand on the side of the poor and the repercussion was being transferred.
Then he struck upon the idea of organise the unorganised. In 1991, Mr Kumar recruited young professionals from TISS, IRMA and the IITs from the campuses and sent them to live with the tribals. "I had more than 35 youngsters and it was a fellowship programme. They had to spend four years with them and help build their organisation. They had to organise them to assert their rights, to be able to take their entitlements."
"We realised that once the marginalised were organised and aware of their rights, they were able to overcome the local exploitative government employee and moneylender. They could assert themselves and this gave them the energy to do bigger things," Mr Kumar recalls.
The officials learnt by trial and error, and their only example was Dr V. Kurien of Amul, the milk cooperative at Anand, Gujarat.
The next stop was Vizianagaram, where he got involved in the literacy campaign.
"We had youth working as mobilisers and volunteers. Why not bring the youth and women together? This is something which I tried in Vizianagaram, with the help of the Nehru Yuva Kendra and some NGOs. That is when the women’s self help groups were just coming up."
They picked up lessons from the UN Development Programme, and the Society for the Elimination of the Rural Poor (SERP) was formed by then. That is when they decided that social mobilisation and empowerment could be used as a means of poverty eradication.
"We ran a pilot in Mahbubnagar, Kurnool and Anantapur districts in 20 mandals and one lakh women were organised. They did a lot of things."
SERP used another method to encourage women, and bring more members into the fold: The selection of ‘champions’ among the poor who would act as force multipliers. "One champion can help 100 people," he said.
The earlier theory was that the poor needed do-gooders from the outside to help them but SERP showed that they were capable of bringing change, and the champions among them stood out like beacons.
Mr Kumar says that once the poor are organised, they should decide the agenda as to what they want to do with their lives. Identifying the champions is the key and then developing the leadership in the groups. "This helps people come out of a kind of situation, where there is definite economic improvement and their thought process and personality changes. It is a journey of transformation. It is a miracle unfolding in so many homes."
He was left undisturbed for a decade at SERP, till 2010. Then it was the National Rural Livelihoods Mission at Delhi. "So, the last 20 years has been in social mobilisation," Mr Kumar says.
After his retirement, Mr Vijay Kumar became adviser to the AP government on agriculture and cooperation and co-vice chairman of the Rythu Sadhikara Samstha.
In 2005, a community managed sustainable agriculture (CMSA) was taken up through the women farmers in SHGs. This was a a precursor to the present climate change-resilient zero budget natural farming initiative especially in Andhra Pradesh.
"I started doing zero natural farming even while I was working on women empowerment. In 2005, we were involved in this for I firmly believe that if people have to be bought out of poverty you have to make agriculture profitable. The idea is how can we get the women a better market price for their produce. We trained them in aggregating their produce, selling in the market, but waiting for the prices to increase.
In 2002, they experimented with red gram in Mahbubnagar for two years, growing the crop without pesticide and fertiliser. This earned them a very good price. "Till that time I also believed in the Green Revolution. More fertiliser, more pesticide, better seeds. Then in Khammam district a village called Pulukulla, thanks to some NGOs which worked there for 10 years, declared themselves pesticide-free villages."
He met with Dr N.K. Sanghi of the Catalysts for Social Action (CSA) and Wassan Foundation to pick up the methods. This led to the Mahbubnagar experiment.
Asking women to join the effort had its own spin-offs. "This was happening under the rural development department because the agriculture department were not in favour of this," he said. "The best NGOs were partnering with us and more importantly the mahila samakhyas had taken charge."
When he returned in 2015, he was posted to the agriculture department and picked up from where he had left off five years earlier. Among the most important visits was to Anantapur which was suffering a drought.
"Some farmers had not incurred any loss and I realised that this technology was proving resilient even during drought."
Then there was a village in Guntur which had stopped using pesticides for their chilli, which was getting exported.
Learning from these experiences, he groomed 900 champions to talk about chemical-free farming.
"We are fighting a losing battle and I tell my team that we are in a race against time and what we are doing is mission impossible. "Mr Subhash Palekar is the one who popularised zero budget natural farming in India, but the principles he articulates are universal principles," Mr Kumar says.
The plan is to spread zero budget farming in 100 villages in AP, cover six lakh acres and make six million farmers organic farmers in a decade. "This will be twice the number of farmers in the world," he says. The programme in AP has received global attention because it is a farmer to farmer programme, managed by women SHGS and is low-cost.