“I saw a brown worm on my sugarcane crop today. It has been eating leaves.”
“Image sent. Will this pest harm my crops? I am worried.”
“This looks like a fall armyworm. It has damaged many farms in Karnataka and seems to be making its way to Sangli now. No need to worry, I am sending videos of the worm and how to protect your crops, shortly.”
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The year was 2012, and WhatsApp was slowly gaining popularity in India. Launched three years prior, it was instrumental in bringing long lost school friends, distant relatives and long-distance friendships closer.
Ankush Chormule, a PhD student from Ashta, Sangli, was also a part of several such groups. He would actively participate in the banter in these groups, catching up with old friends.
However, he soon realised that the same app that was used for casual talks could be utilised to resolve issues about a topic he was very passionate about—farming.
He got together with his friend, Amol Patil, and started a new group with approximately 40 farmers based in Sangli.
Today, seven years later, this small initiative has snowballed into one that has impacted over 5 lakh farmers, not just from Maharashtra, but six more states!
This is their story.
A Saga that began in Sangli:
My memories of Sangli are filled with images of sugarcane fields, large farms and canopies of thick trees providing a respite on the highways.
Of course, it has been about five years since I last visited the city, which is my mother’s maternal home, but I don’t find it surprising that it is called the Turmeric City of Maharashtra or is known for its sugar factories and production.
Even as the city is developing rapidly, it is still characterised by vast farms of the two cash crops. And with advancing technology, the production is getting a leg up.
For Dr Ankush and Amol, innovation in farming was not about new inventions explicitly designed for this field. Instead, it was to use the current techology to help farmers boost their income.
In a conversation with The Better India Ankush says, “WhatsApp was this new concept at the time that was spreading like wildfire. I know many farmers from my village in Ashta who always had questions about pests, insecticides, organic farming and several such topics. They would speak with the educated farmers about this, express their doubts.
But no one really thought of an online platform to address all these issues. That’s the gap that I noticed.”
The group was formed in 2012, and it wasn’t long before the phone was buzzing continuously, with the farmers expressing their concerns, sharing pictures of worms and insects infesting their plants and those who had solutions, providing answers to the questions.
Suddenly, they could get several expert opinions instead of just one!
Eventually, the farmers started adding their friends to the groups and soon enough, there were approximately 100 members.
“Within months, it became impossible for two people to manage the group; it had become that densely populated. So, we started identifying more people like us who were well connected with farmers, with agriculture and who could ably administer a WhatsApp group. Groups were divided according to districts, and each has two admins. Apart from admins, most members are farmers,” says Ankush.
It was time for the group to have a collective identity now, so, in 2014, the duo decided on the name “Hoy Amhi Shetkari” (HAS), hoping to imbibe positivity in the farmers who are now part of a group labelled, “Yes, we are farmers.”
From a local group to a network that impacts lakhs!
In these challenging times, when groundwater is depleting, rains are scanty, and market rates of foodgrains are falling, the hope is that unity will be the farmers’ strength.
Together, the farmers solve each other’s problems and know that they are not the only ones suffering through the droughts an infertile land.
One such example is that of Ajit Pawar, a farmer based in Wai, Satara.
Pawar grows turmeric and sugarcane on his farm, and a fraction of his land is dedicated to onions, garlic and grains that are only for his household use.
The 36-year-old had read about farms in Sangli that were growing twice the amount of sugarcane that he grew on his land, even when the area was more or less the same.
Intrigued, he joined HAS.
“This 3-acre land has been in my family for generations, and we have always followed a traditional method of farming. My grandfather taught my father and me what he had learned, and no one was open to the idea of trying new methods on the farm. It was too risky. However, when I heard that farms in Sangli are growing 100 tonnes of sugarcane in the same area that I own, I wondered why my output was an average of 45-50 tonnes. So, I joined the group to know their techniques,” Pawar tells me.
He adds that one easy method that the group asked him to implement is to space out the sugarcane saplings and sow them one foot deeper into the soil than he usually did. And the first harvest itself fetched him 80 tonnes of sugarcane!
Nearly twice his usual yield.
“What I appreciate about the group is that the response time by admins is between 5-15 minutes. That means they are dedicated to helping us out and do that on an urgent basis. I don’t have to wait for days to hear back from them,” he adds.
Pawar is one among the thousands who swear by HAS, but the group also helps those farmers who cannot operate smartphones.
Take 60-year-old Vijay Patil for example.
Unfamiliar with the internet, he contacts Amol on his phone, instead and makes use of that medium for a consultation.
“He too was used to traditional farming and saw no other alternative to it. But that also meant that he never optimised his income even when he wanted to. Now that he has my number, he calls me every eight days, without fail and gives me updates on his farm in Satara. I guide him sitting here in Sangli. It doesn’t matter how proficient one is with technology; we aim to help farmers,” Amol shares with TBI.
In 2012, when Ankush and Amol had started, HAS’ presence was limited to WhatsApp. Today, however, its offshoots have spread across social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube.
They also have a news portal website called Hoy Me Shetkari, which is a one-stop-shop portal for all news and updates concerning agriculture.
Explaining how their Facebook groups work, the PhD tells TBI, “It is much easier to share live videos, articles and updates on Facebook than on WhatsApp. So we shifted base there. On this platform, we divided into groups based on the crops so that farmers from across India could connect based on what they grow. Our sugarcane group, for example, has 2.3 lakh members from Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat. Every question posted on the group is reviewed by an admin to check if it is related to farming or not. And once posted, the admin makes sure he addresses it. If you ask me how many farmers are a part of HAS, I will put the number somewhere between 5-6 lakh.”
Another beneficiary of the groups is a farmer called Suresh Kabade who grew 100 tonnes of 20-foot tall sugarcane in one acre of land! TBI had covered his story in 2017.
These are just three of the thousands of examples that Amol and Dr Ankush can share. And the group is not only limited to giving advice; it was also instrumental in detecting the presence of fall armyworm pests in Maharashtra before it became an epidemic.
It is thanks to these small but practical suggestions, and crucial research that HAS has earned the trust of farming families from across India. And rightfully so. If something as simple as a video helps a farmer, it means that his income goes up and his faith in the occupation is restored.
Few occupations are as crucial as agriculture, and it is fascinating to see how a simple WhatsApp group or Facebook page are positively impacting it.
You can reach out to Amol on email@example.com or follow their Facebook page.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)