Sprouting Reads #2: TCA Ranganathan's Opinion on Farms and Cities

Hebrew 5:14 of the Indian Agritech Bible states thus: "Indian Agritech is for the mature mind, who by diligent reason, have trained themselves to distinguish context from tool

Greetings Readers!

Welcome to the 2nd edition of Sprouting Reads. I find myself over committed with projects and events over the past one week. Thanks to couple of agri startup accelerator events, my mind is whirling with ideas, observations and learnings, thanks to speed dating sessions with 20+ agritech startups in various stages of maturity.

I am going to continue the Sprouting Reads section temporarily until I get the right inner bandwidth to resume my newsletter programming.

I introduced this new segment in the last newsletter. If you are not familiar with what I am attempting to do, please scroll down to the bottom, before you read further.

So let’s get started!

TCA Ranganathan’s Oped: Problem is not with the farms, it’s in the cities around them

As someone who used to work in consulting before getting hands dirty in agritech, I like to think deeply on the meta-cognitive processes (read as mental models if this word isn’t familiar) that animate my thinking. One of the fundamental mental models that power my thinking about technology is to be wary of the Technologist’s Cognitive Bias™ (TCB) 

Ronald Shakespear, internationally acclaimed graphic designer from Argentina, once memorably wrote the layman’s version of the TCB:

“Some clients will ask me for a boat. What they actually need is to cross a river.

Crucial to understanding TCB is the ability to discern between two modes of thinking: Demand and Supply thinking.

When you operate from Demand Thinking (DT) Mode, you think deeply about the Context: What goes on in the life of your customers? What is important in their working and personal lives? What do they demand?

When you operate from Supply Thinking (ST) Mode, you think deeply about the Tool: What are you building? What are you making to make their lives easier, and those whose lives whom they care about easier? What are you going to supply?

Mind you, we often think we are operating in DT mode when we are actually operating in ST mode.

I see this problem in most of the startups and aspiring startups with whom I’ve been talking to in these agritech startup accelerator events. Almost every other person rattles off some Indian farmer suicide statistics (Translation: “Oh No! We have to save Indian farmers!”) and starts naively proposing apps, marketplaces, warehouse+storage solutions without deeply thinking about demand - what farmers really want - and supply: which startup players are already offering this at scale?

TCA Ranganathan, in this opinion piece, makes this crucial distinction at the scale of countries. He makes an extremely interesting point: Most of our interventions to improve productivity and transform Indian Agriculture have been failing because we’ve been copying both problems (say, improving productivity) and solutions from countries like USA and China who have a different economic context than ours.

Countries like China and US have largely followed the Arthurian Playbook, which demanded that agriculture transformation went along with urbanisation, with both feeding off each other in a positive feedback loop.

Consider the latest numbers and the false equivalence becomes obvious.

US Urban Density: 2534.4 inhabitants per square mile

China Urban Density: 1137 inhabitants per square kilometer

India Urban Density: 382 inhabitants per square kilometer [As per Census 2011 data]

The moral of the story is obvious: You can’t repeat Arthurian playbook for India in 2014 (starting from the time when Narendra Modi Government came to power and agricultural policy changed stripes from food security and increasing agricultural output to farmers’ incomes), just because it worked well for industrialising America in the fifties and sixties and China in the late eighties.

The “industrialisation + urbanisation” train has already left the station several aeons ago. We are in the fourth stage of industrial revolution that has mutated into a perma-weird state by the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.

While Indian agriculture economists like Ramesh Chand have highlighted the limitations of Arthur Lewis playbook for economic development, if you look at the cumulative interventions we’ve undertaken so far, it seems to largely follow the arthurian playbook in the phantasmagoric hope that free markets would play out favourably in the interests of small holder farmers.

Although TCA Ranganathan makes, in my understanding, an accurate diagnosis of the peculiar predicament that Indian agriculture find itself today in, he pins a lot of irrational hope on urbanisation to move beyond the predicament.

The implications of TCA Ranganathan’s diagnosis are deeply unsettling, if you really think about it.

If you consider the fact that farmer distress is higher around cities that have witnessed high levels of urbanisation, then what it reveals is something weird: Indian Farmers are more often suffering from success, rather than failure. The rise and fall of Baramati is a classic case in point.

Even when you think about this in first principles, it becomes obvious. When a particular income model for farmers starts to work well, overcrowding occurs among farmers and the produce of the prices start to take nose dive.

At a philosophical level, it seems okay to suffer from failure.But, what do you do when you are doomed to suffer from success?

Today, Indian farmers have been suffering despite breaking records in production targets. If the increase in production is going to beget challenges in storage, create glut and bring prices down, you are setting off a perverse game of incentives and essentially telling the farmer: I know it’s tragic. But, I am sorry, you have to suffer from the failure of success!

Amidst deep anxiety in the wake of never ending farmer protests, there is a massive restless energy that is building up to change the fundamental ground conditions when it comes to improving the livelihoods of farmers in India. However, all these urges to come up with alternative livelihood solutions, (Think in ST mode) will fail, if we don’t fundamentally grasp the context which makes farmers suffer due to success, instead of failure.

How do you avert agrarian tragedy due to success, rather than failure? We will explore further.

About Sprouting Reads

If you've ever grown food in your kitchen garden like me, sooner than later, you would realise the importance of letting seeds germinate. As much as I would like to include sprouting as an essential process for the raw foods that my body likes to experiment with, I am keen to see how this mindful practice could be adapted for the food that my mind consumes. 

You see, comprehension is as much biological as digestion is.

And so, once in a while, I want to look at few articles closely and chew over it. I may or may not have a longform narrative take on it, but I want to meditate slowly on them so that those among you who are deeply thinking about agriculture could ruminate on them as slowly as wise cows do. Who knows? Perhaps, you may end up seeing them differently.