The Warana experiment

Print edition : January 05, 2002

An innovative project in the Warana region of Maharashtra enables sugarcane farmers to interface with a cooperative sugar factory through computers.

KESHAV SHAMRAO JADHAV, a sugarcane farmer in Maharashtra's Bahirewadi village, was initially sceptical about the box-like machine kept in a small room in his village. He was told that it would provide within hours any information that he seeks on sugarcane cultivation. "For generations we adopted one method of cultivating and selling our crop and we wondered how this computer would improve things," says Jadhav. "Now I wonder how we did without it."

At the computer booth in Bahirewadi.-ANUPAMA KATAKAM

Bahirewadi is one of the 54 villages in the Warana region of southern Maharashtra that are part of an ambitious Rs.2.5-crore Information Technology (IT) project initiated by the Warana Cooperative Sugar Factory together with the Central and State governments in 1998. Under the "Warana wired village project", the villages in this sugarcane-growing region have computers that are linked to a central network that provides farmers access to essential pieces of information such as the ideal time for planting and harvesting sugarcane, the current market rates of their produce, and payments made by the factories. The Central and State governments together funded 90 per cent of the project, and their participation ended there. Their assurances to computerise land records and provide agriculture-related information including crop rates have not materialised fully. However the State government plans to launch an e-governance programme in Warana in January 2002 with the digitisation of land records. The programme, it says, will be extended to other districts in the State.

The computer network has put an end to a major reason for anxiety at harvest time. Any delay in harvesting reduces its sugar content and, consequently, weight. Farmers are paid according to the crop's weight. The computer network provides each farmer with a share code. By punching the code into the system, the farmer gets details such as when the crop was planted and when it is due for harvesting. This gives the farmer sufficient time to organise workers to cut and transport the sugarcane. About 22,000 farmers are benefited by this system.

The network also gives details of their transactions with the local sugar and milk cooperatives and helps them compare sugarcane prices in different parts of the country. The computer kiosk has made several tasks easy and less tedious for the sugarcane farmers. For instance, after sugarcane was weighed at the factory it took four days for them to know how much money they would get. "Now, within two hours of the crop reaching the factory, we know how much we will be paid," says Keru Daji Patil, a farmer in Jakhale village. The computers at the sugar factory's weighbridge feed the crop's weight into the farmer's file through his share code. A receipt is issued to the farmer or the transporter. The farmer can check his payment status at the computer booth.

The booths are located at the milk collection centres in the villages. The sugar factory pays Rs.150 every month for the use of the 12 foot x12 foot room that houses the computer. The service is free for farmers. Jadhav says that whenever he sends sugarcane to the factory he goes to the computer booth at least once in two days to check the prices and the details of his transactions with the cooperative. Patil says that although he lives about 2 km from the village, he goes to the booth at least twice a week. "I prefer it to going to the factory," he says. Both Jhadhav and Patil trust the system. "We know they cannot cheat us. If there is any tampering, we are only cheating ourselves as we are technically the owners of the cooperative," they say. The computer operators at Bahirewadi, Jakhale and Kodoli villages say that on an average 30 to 40 people visit the booth every day.

High-speed VSATs (very small aperture terminals) connected to the National Informatics Centre (NIC) in Pune and an electronic telephone exchange form the basic technology frame of the wired village project. The VSATs provide Internet access and the electronic telephone exchange provides dial-up facilities to the central hub located at the office of the Warana sugar cooperative. For the network the NIC has developed a software package based on an accounting programme. The programme supports the local language. This is essential for the project, says Ramachandra Mahuli, who is in charge of the project in Warana. Among the problems the project faces are the "slow" telephone lines and long periods of power cuts. Nonetheless, Mahuli says, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

The office of the Warana Cooperative Sugar Factory.-ANUPAMA KATAKAM

VINAY KORE, a Member of the Legislative Assembly and chairman of the Warana Cooperative Sugar Factory, says the wired village project is responsible for the efficient cultivation and harvesting of sugarcane in the area and, more important, for instilling a sense of empowerment in the farmers. Kore told Frontline that the project was conceived in 1996 when an acquaintance of his in North America suggested that Kore install a network in Warananagar using computers that the acquaintance would donate. At that time the Prime Minister's task force on information technology was being formed. "The timing seemed right. We contacted them, they sent a representative who showed a great deal of interest. Not only did the Government of India allow us to bring in the machines but it funded a large part of the pilot project," says Kore. Unfortunately, he says, the Central and State governments have not been able to sustain their involvement in the project. "More than the money, we need the infrastructure - better phone lines and electricity." The project costs Rs.60 lakhs annually. "For the kind of service the project is providing, this is an inconsiderable amount for us," says Kore. "But for us to go beyond the pilot stage, we need the governments to keep their promise."

When the project was launched, the Maharashtra government assured the cooperative that it would install on the Warana server all information relating to agricultural marketing. Such information would help the farmers to know about the arrivals and prices of agricultural produce, regulated by the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC) in Maharashtra. The government also promised to provide access to information in the local language on agricultural schemes and new cropping techniques, improved implements, crop varieties, integrated pest management techniques and so on.

Admitting the government's failure to keep its promises, State Information Technology Secretary Sunil Soni says that the government is determined to make use of Warana's set-up. Starting with land records, he says, many administrative matters and procedures will be computerised within a year. Applications and requests can be made and grievances expressed through computers. "Even if you cannot give connectivity, you could still give information to a village," he told Frontline. According to him, the process of establishing e-governance will not take off if one waits for all infrastructural problems to be addressed. But, he says, there are several other issues to contend with. For instance, to install computers in all villages of Maharashtra the government would need 45,000 operators. This means managing additional staff. "This is why we need more projects like Warana," Sony says. If the government has offers from such cooperatives, e-governance will become feasible.

In order to implement its plan to digitise land records, the Maharashtra government has approached the NIC. Amitabh Dev, Technical Director of the NIC, says the Centre is ready to digitise land records. According to him, many computer-based projects can be implemented if an easy-to-use software is developed. The development of such software was one of the reasons for Warana's success. The NIC customised an inventory/accounting software to suit the wired village project. But he points out that the specific characteristics of sugarcane cultivation (the weight of the crop, the period of growth, and so on) also made computerisation of relevant data easy.

Professor Ken Kenniston of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is in India as a Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, says the project has been successful in many ways because sugarcane cultivation lends itself to computerisation. After a visit to Warananagar he says that it is commendable that a simple accounting software has been used to help thousands of people in this rural/agricultural belt. Nevertheless, he points out that it requires a good deal of money to keep this kind of projects going. In this case, the cooperative has the resources to sustain it. While Warana is a good model, Kenniston says, it must not be overlooked that this region has the advantage of being one of the richest areas in southern Maharashtra. "It has enough water, good soil and a high literacy level. Could this work so well in less favourable circumstances - which is what it may be like in other parts of the country?" Warana's literacy level is about 70 per cent, says Mahuli. "That made the project much easier to promote."

THE Warana Cooperative Sugar Factory is perhaps one of the most successful cooperatives in the region. According to its managing director V.S. Chavan, the factory has a crushing capacity of about 9,000 tonnes a day. Its annual turnover is Rs.200 crores and it employs 8,000 people. It runs a women's cooperative, which is involved in making and packaging food products. It has an impressive annual turnover of Rs.45 crores. The cooperative also runs Warana bazaars in 70 villages.

A dairy cooperative collects 2,80,000 litres of milk a day. In addition, the Warana Cooperative Sugar Factory runs a food processing plant and poultry farm. The Warana group's total annual turnover is approximately Rs.650 crores. All its "business centres" are linked through a computer network. There are plans to put all the transactions on the network as most of the people in the area are involved in the cooperative. The entire area looks prosperous.

The Warana experiment seems to have succeeded as an attempt to bridge "the digital divide". But not everyone agrees with such a conclusion. Anil Shaligram, an activist who works with sugarcane cutters in the Kolhapur region, says that unless there is people's participation in the use of information technology on a mass scale, the project cannot be called a success. The sugar industry is important to the socio-political life of Maharashtra. If IT has to empower people, it should cover every category of worker connected with the industry - right down to the sugarcane cutter, who is a landless labourer and who is often homeless.

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