Penn Senior Vaishak Kumar to Launch Agriculture Extension Project in India

(This is the first in a series of features introducing the 2016 President's Engagement Prize winners.)

With the majority of India’s labor force dependent on agriculture for a living, crop damaging disease, floods, droughts and pests imperil tens of millions of people. Vaishak Kumar, 22 a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, grew up in an Indian farming community in the state of Karnataka. He saw the plight of farmers firsthand watching his grandfather and uncles work the land.

After he graduates next month, Kumar will return to Mysore, his hometown, to establish the NESARA agriculture extension project. Roughly translated, “Nesara” means “sun” in Kannada, one of the languages of southern India. Working in partnership with a local NGO, NESARA will utilize cost-efficient technology to educate farmers about cutting-edge agronomic research.

NESARA targets the vast majority of farmers in India who are semi-literate with small land holdings that generate little income.  

The situation has become dire.

“The farmers don’t get bank loans because they don’t have collateral, so they end up borrowing from local loan sharks for each season’s farming activities,” Kumar explains. “They are doing farming in an insufficient manner, so they have low yields and don’t get enough income. They can’t pay back loans that they get from loan sharks and end up in a vicious debt cycle."

NESARA will transfer to farmers the latest knowledge from crop scientists at universities and labs in cities miles away from rural farmlands.

Kumar says NESARA will set up a low cost mobile lab in Mysore to teach farmers basic agronomy, the science that looks at agriculture from an integrated, holistic perspective to understand the properties of soil and how it interacts with growing crops,  “the distance you have to plant seeds so they don’t compete for nutrients and water and die, using fertilizers in ways that don’t adversely affect the environment, advising them against using harmful pesticides and insecticides and using seeds that grow the best in their micro climate.”

The project will take place in villages with crops of vegetables, fruits and staples such as rice.

Kumar, a political science major in the College of Arts & Sciences, gained knowledge about global economies during a stint as an intern at IRIS - Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques in Paris and at Penn as a research assistant in the Think Tanks & Civil Societies Program. The most invaluable insights he gained came during talks with his project mentor, Devesh Kapur. Last fall, Kumar took a course that Kapur taught called “PSCI 224 The Political Economy of Development."

“The conversations took a broader global context, especially about Indian farmers challenged by low income and income that is very volatile,” says Kapur, Madan Lal Sobti Professor for the Study of Contemporary India and director of Penn’s Center for the Advanced Study of India.

The professor and student brainstormed about how to use modern technologies to address these challenges. Kumar believed that there were fast and efficient ways to get agricultural knowledge to farmers, hence a plan to use wireless phone technology.

“Because cell phones in India are cheap, even poor families have them, “ Kumar says. “We will be sending them timely alerts about the weather and certain stages of the agricultural cycle and provide them with information that goes with the reminders.”

Kumar plans to equip certain members of farming communities involved in the project with smart phones to allow them to send scientists photos of their crops from different angles. 

An image of a rotten leaf could be sent to a crop scientist to determine what’s wrong with it and how to treat it. The scientist could provide answers through a text message or telephone conversation. Instead of waiting for the entire crop to die, the farmer could take action based on the diagnosis. 

“We’re going to improve the way they do agriculture so they get a better yield and we’re going to help them best market the product to get the best price and hopefully better income and be able to escape from the cycle of debt,” Kumar says.

NESARA will also provide debt counseling for famers to enable them to make wise financial choices when they acquire fresh capital.

The President’s Engagement Prizes, the largest of their kind in higher education, provide undergraduate winners with as much as $100,000 each to support project implementation and $50,000 for living expenses. Launched by Penn President Amy Gutmann, the awards are supported by Trustee Judith Bollinger and William G. Bollinger, Trustee Lee Spelman Doty and George E. Doty Jr. and Emeritus Trustee James S. Riepe and Gail Petty Riepe.

Kumar is excited to launch his PEP project this summer. The announcement that he was one of three student winners came as a big surprise.

“I just finished class in Williams Hall and I got a call and they said it was the president’s office, “ he recalls. “I thought it wasn’t announcing it, that it was a clarification or something and they said are you free to talk? And they connected me to Dr. Gutmann and she announced the news.  I barely had words. I just kept saying ‘Thank you, thank you.’ Soon after I called my parents.”

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