Co-Written by Dibyendu Chaudhuri and Parijat Ghosh
Deskilling is a process of elimination of skilled labour within an economy. Separation of intelligence from muscle helps ruling class dominating both (Braverman, 1974). Advent of modern agriculture, characterised by hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, etc., is considered responsible for deskilling in agriculture. In agriculture, deskilling is understood as a process in which farmers do not apply their intergenerational knowledge in farming and, instead, follow recommendations of research firms, seed and pesticide companies (Stone, Flachs, & Diepenbrock, 2014). Deskilled farmers eventually forget how the local environment works which leads to soil degradation, reduction in biodiversity and other ecological issues. Further, unpredictable nature of the technology makes farmers more vulnerable (Stone, 2007). This has made farmers dependent on the knowledge prescribed by seed or pesticide companies for cultivation.
Deskilling in agriculture led to ecological degradation, migration and even farmers’ suicide. For sustainably increasing farm production adaptive skilling is an important and necessary process. However, for adaptive skilling it is important to understand the nature and process of deskilling in a particular group of people. In this article, the authors described how Adivasi farmers’ deskilling in Central Indian Plateau (CIP) hasn’t necessarily followed the same route citing examples from three villages. This nuanced understanding is important for initiating the process of adaptive skilling. These three case studies are from three Adivasi villages of Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh where Adaptive Skilling through Action Research (ASAR) is being carried out, to describe the variation in the process of deskilling.
Story of Jana
Jana is a small village in the district of Gumla, Jharkhand. Almost 90% of the 140 Households in Jana belong to the Oraon tribe. They came and settled here almost 300-400 years ago from Rohtasgarh, in the present day Bihar as told by Temba Oraon, an elderly person from Jana.
The people of Jana have knowledge about the forest-farm ecosystem. Hirasnad Oraon, a young man from Jana, in his thirties, can very well articulate how forest contributes to the fertility of lands below. Temba Oraon talks about many varieties of indigenous paddy which were cultivated by people of Jana. Mahadev Oraon shows indigenous tomato seeds which they cultivate during winter with residual soil moisture.
In this village, deskilling started with advent of modern agriculture characterised by hybrid seed, pesticide and fertilizers. Temba narrates that this trend started when the officials from government agriculture department started visiting their village to tell them that in order to increase yield their agronomic practices needed to be changed as those were not ‘improved’ or ‘scientific’. Assuring higher yield, these officials convinced them to use High Yielding (HYV) or hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides and follow the cultivation practices prescribed by them.
Adivasi farmers started transplanting paddy replacing their age-old practice of broadcasting. Pesticide use became rampant and eventually the knowledge of crop protection without using chemical pesticides got lost. Rice became staple food replacing madua (finger millet) which is more nutritious. Even, rice varieties in Jana got reduced to only 3-4 HYV from more than 15 indigenous varieties. Though some farmers haven’t forgotten their traditional knowledge they do not use it as every other farmer is using the modern method. This is the typical example of deskilling in agriculture (Vandeman, 1995).
The major strategy that the researchers took for reskilling is to revive their indigenous seeds and traditional agronomic practices. They identified 13 varieties of indigenous paddy seeds and experimented with those seeds in different plots. Also, those have been sent to laboratories for testing their nutrients content. Villagers are also experimenting with different agronomic practices such as broadcasting or preparing manure and pesticides using locally available materials.
Story of Ghughri
Ghughri is a forest village situated in Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh. It has 253 households with more than 84% of its population belonging to the Scheduled Tribe, the major tribe being Gond.
Heeralal, a villager from Ghughri narrates that almost around 150 years ago their ancestors settled here. Their livelihood was dependent on hunting gathering and working for the forest department. Heeralal also said that they used to cultivate minor millets in parts of the forest for their own consumption.
Gangaram, an elderly villager, said that decades ago they received land rights in the form of patta and converted part of their undulating lands into paddy fields by levelling and bunding. At the same time they continued cultivating kodo (kodo millet) and kutki (little millet) on the lands with high slope. The paddy production declined with time as the forest contributing to the fertility of the paddy lands below started getting thinner. Last years’ data on soil organic carbon shows that the lands at one patch (local name Bagdhara) below the forest is as low as 0.2%.
The process of deskilling was initiated here almost 150 years ago when the Forest officers started treating the villagers as labourers and followers of their instruction. This process of alienating muscle from intelligence produced a village full of low skilled workers and a few forest officers with sophisticated knowledge of forestry, a phenomenon that arises as a result of deskilling (Pleijt & Weisdorf, 2016).
Though seed companies didn’t reach this village yet, the extension wing of the agriculture department arrived and started distributing bio-fertilisers, and organic-pesticides among the villagers and telling them how to use those. This deskilling in agriculture has a history different from Jana.
The researcher decided to revive the villagers’ knowledge about forest, its species- both flora and fauna. The villagers led by the elderly people started putting together a biodiversity register (Chaudhuri, Ghosh, Singh, & Bali, 2019) and in the process they are relearning about different species and their use in Adivasi life. They are planting floral species which are on the verge of disappearing from their forest.
Story of Chataniha
Chataniha is a village in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh. It has 382 households and around 90% of them belong to Gond tribe.
Ramkali Bai of Chataniha said that the people from Gond community settled here almost 80-100 years ago. They were the first to settle there. Further, some more Gond families, displaced during Rihand dam construction, were rehabilitated here in the 1950s. The terrain in this part of Deosar is highly undulating characterised by small hillocks with steep slope, more than 30% in most of the cases, and narrow streams in between. However, the Gonds converted the streams into paddy fields by constructing bunds and started cultivating rice for their own consumption. They also used to cultivate some millet, mostly kodo (kodo millet) and Kutki (little millet) on the hill slope.
Another villagers Shanti said that some upper caste (Brahmin) families came here in mid 60s. Gradually, those upper caste people encroached upon the converted paddy fields using their connections at different administrative levels. The Gonds were, by and large, left with the hill slopes. Extensive ploughing on high slopes loosened the topsoil leading to erosion; after 10-15 years of cultivation only rocks and pebbles remain making the lands unsuitable for agriculture. Villagers have to search for newer patches.
Seed companies started selling hybrid seeds here a couple of years ago. Villagers are following their recommendations with a hope that it might give better yield. However, more lands are becoming unproductive in the process.
The ASAR researchers focused on soil conservation here. After rounds of discussion, literature review and exposure visits they came up with a context specific model of farm-terracing suitable for Chataniha.
In Adivasi society the extent and characteristics of deskilling differed due to specific history and context. The nature of deskilling and the issues that the deskilled farmers are facing are different in the three study villages. This nuanced understanding is imperative for initiatives around reskilling. We recommend that any agencies, be it the Government agriculture department or Civil Society organisations, working for helping the Adivasi farmers should take this into consideration while designing their programme.
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Dibyendu Chaudhuri is currently working in Research & Advocacy unit of Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), a non-profit organisation in India. A Geologist by education, Dibyendu has spent more than 22 years in mobilising people from indigenous communities in central Indian plateau and helped them in strengthening their livelihoods. He specialises in Human Resource Development, Monitoring-Evaluation-Learning, Integrated Natural Resource Management and Micro-finance. He is also part of the editorial board of Journal of International Women’s Studies (ISSN: 1539-8706). (Contact- email@example.com)
Parijat Ghosh, an electrical engineer turned development practitioner, has more than 15 years of experience of working with marginalised people in Central Indian Plateau. Her work involved mobilising women in small groups to help them take up activities such as savings and credit, reeling and spinning of tasar yarn, agriculture, etc. She is currently based at New Delhi and working as Team Coordinator, Research and Advocacy in an Indian Non-Profit organisation called Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), She also has worked with the human resource development unit of PRADAN, where she provided leadership in designing and conducting the early training. Her interest areas include organisation development, sustainable intensification and gender. She is also part of the editorial board of Journal of International Women’s Studies (ISSN: 1539-8706).(Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
 The term Adivasi, tribes and Scheduled Tribe (ST) are used interchangeably to refer to the social groups who, originally, may not have been part of the caste system
 Adaptive Skilling Action Research (ASAR) is a joint action research by Azim Premji University (APU) and Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN). PRADAN is a non-profit organisation in India.
 Jana is situated 20 km away from the district headquarter of Gumla, Jhakhand.
 Ghughri is a forest village situated at a distance of 9 km from the block headquarter of Amarpur, in Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh.
 In 1864, the British Raj established the Imperial Forest Department in India and became the owners of Forests in India. In the forest, they established (or approved the existence of) small villages of labourers who can work for them for forestry related activities such as plantation, tree cutting, etc. These villages are called forest village.
 The patta is a formal agreement with the forest department through which the forest department gives the patta holder the rights to cultivate crops on the designated patta land. The Patta land can’t be transferred to others though the descendants will inherit the rights.
 Biofertiliser is powdered inoculum of nitrogen fixing bacteria and phosphate solubilising bacteria.
 Chataniha is situated 18 km away from the block headquarter of Deosar in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh.
 It was constructed around the year in 1954
 There is a vertical drop of 30 units with the horizontal interval of 100 units which means if one goes 100 meter down the hill slope she/ he will be vertically 30 meter down from the starting point