Resolving Wicked Environmental Problems: Applying Plural Rationality Theory and "Clumsy Solutions" to Pest Management in Punukula Village, Andhra Pradesh

  • Author: Lucie Knor
  • Posted: March 2014

Lucie Knor is a student of Integrated Environmental Studies at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany. She wrote this paper for a class on "Resolving Wicked Environmental Problems". The essay summarizes the story of non-pesticide management and relates it to Plural Rationality Theory. Lucie will be an intern with the EcoTipping Points Project beginning in summer 2014.


The village of Punukula in Andhra Pradesh, India is an extraordinary place. Andhra Pradesh is an agricultural state with a considerable share of India’s population (“Statewise population of India”, n.d.). Punukula, a small village of approximately 900 inhabitants, is located in the North of Andhra Pradesh and its inhabitants chiefly depend on small-scale cotton farming. Although the use of pesticides is very common in the region, Punukula declared itself pesticide-free in 2004 (Marten & Williams, 2006).

Cotton became an increasingly popular crop in Andhra Pradesh in the early 1980s due to its high market value. Since it is also a very sensitive plant, the extensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides was promoted. The farmers of Punukula, like most in the region, became dependent on pesticide dealers to be able to sustain their yields at an ever increasing price. The farmers of Punukula could escape a vicious circle of environmental and health degradation, powerlessness, and economic dependence through the “No-Pesticide-Management”, NPM, strategy in which “diverse players join hands to work in generating new knowledge and practice…” (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009, p.550). The first section of this essay describes the problems in detail and argues that intensification of agriculture is a ‘Wicked Problem’, one that is characterized by clashing values and high uncertainty. Section two describes the actors in Punukula before NPM with regard to Mary Douglas’ Plural Rationality Theory. The introduction of NPM and the various stakeholders that are responsible for its development, and its function as a ‘Clumsy Solution’ are the topics of Section three and four. The last two sections cover the expansion of NPM to a larger area, as well as current developments and challenges.

Section 1: The Problem and Its Wickedness

1. Punukula’s Dependence

Cotton farming in Punukula started off as a very promising venture in the beginning of the 1980s. Agricultural dealers supplied by large companies offered seeds as well as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and guaranteed to purchase the farmers’ crops through contracts. In the first years, the yields were satisfying, as cotton pests had not yet settled down in the areas to which the plant was newly introduced (Marten, 2005). In the following years, however, the pesticides killed off non-resistant parasites as well as harmless insects and predators such as birds, leaving only the species resistant to pesticides to reproduce uncontrollably.

To protect their harvests, the farmers were prone to resort to the dealers to purchase more diverse, and larger quantities of pesticides. A vicious circle of degradation and desperation had started. The increasing amount of chemicals that had to be bought every year, now often on credit, caused the cultivation costs to rise to a point where the yields were no longer enough to sustain the farmers’ families. Health problems such as headaches, depression, and nausea that can be attributed to the unprotected contact with toxic pesticides began to show (ibid.). The farmers incurred debts at the dealers that kept them in subjection and pressured them not to quit cotton farming without paying all their debts. Furthermore, the depletion of the soil due to the cotton monocultures, and the negative effects of pesticides on nitrogen fixation led to increasing expenditures for chemical fertilizer, purchased from the very same agricultural dealers. To be able to account for the increased spending, some farmers gave away their children to other farmers as indentured laborers, others had to mortgage their land to work on it as landless workers and hand over the crops to their creditors.

Eventually the suicide rate in Andhra Pradesh rose to be the highest in India, displaying “a classic paradox of an agriculturally developed district …) showing the worst manifestation of the distress of farmers…)” (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009, p.564). Revealingly, the most common instrument of suicide was the ingestion of a pesticide cocktail. Any attempt to omit pesticides failed, since natural pest control had been destroyed by the permanent use of pesticides. While the farmers suffered from these developments in almost all aspects of their lives, the ones to enrich themselves were the agricultural dealers, and the chemical industry.

It seems to be a recurring motive throughout the past century that the industrialized intensification of agriculture that is deemed necessary by many to ensure sustenance of a growing world population, is often connected with both environmental, and social problems. The environmental strain can impair productivity on the long run and create ecological damage, whereas the prevailing social problem is the destruction of livelihoods of small-scale- and subsistence farmers. This is definitely a problem, and I will hereinafter debate whether it is also a so-called “Wicked Problem”.

2. Classifying a Wicked Problem

A Wicked Problem is an issue that is characterized by considerable controversy as to what the problem and possible remedies consist of, as well as high uncertainty considering outcomes of different interventions (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Stakeholders and observers with different values and priorities are likely to identify inconsistent reasons for those problems and, correspondingly, conceive contradictory solutions. It is not entirely possible to overcome these differences, which decision makers are often ignore or overlook. Wicked Problems cannot be solved because they are understood so diversely.

They cannot be solved with scientific insight since the conceptual differences arise not from ignorance or scientific uncertainty only, but from differences in underlying values and assumptions about nature, humanity and time that cannot be proved or falsified by science. Advocates of Mary Douglas’ Cultural Theory or Plural Rationality Theory characterize four different sets of assumptions and values, also called rationalities, which are implicit in policy debates (Verweij, 2011). I am going to describe these values in greater detail in the next section and relate them to the case of Punukula and NPM. But first, it is important to see if cotton farming in Andhra Pradesh before 1996, when NPM was first introduced, and intensification of farming in general can be expressed as a Wicked Problem.

In the case of increasing use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by peasants, a diversity of opinions is certainly present in public discourse and policy making. Food crises in many regions with high population growth, as well as extensive resource use in industrialized countries raise the question if the human population of the present and the future can be nurtured with our planet’s limited space- and food resources. The threat of a global shortage of land and food was widespread in the middle of the twentieth century that saw an unprecedented growth in human population (Ramankutty, Foley & Olejniczak , 2002). Famines could eventually be curbed with the tools provided by the Green Revolution, a modernization process that re-equipped agriculture globally starting from the 1940s (Evenson & Gollin, 2003). With the employment of breakthroughs in technology as well as initiatives to facilitate technology transfer, agricultural production was increased worldwide to meet the needs of the growing population. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and modernized methods for irrigation and management were core components of this transition that may have saved no less than several million people from starvation (Miersch, 2009).

The shift to cotton farming with enhanced use of chemical facilities in Punukula and all of Andhra Pradesh can be regarded as a direct consequence of the Green Revolution that is known to have been implemented massively in India (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009, p. 543). The problems arising from these new agricultural practices worldwide most notably concern small-scale farmers that are either displaced by industrialized large farms, or, like in Punukula, have to compete with the very same farms and often become dependent on the suppliers of modernized agricultural equipment in their struggle to maximize production. These farmers’ misery is a problem of considerable scale. There are more than two billion farmers in the world who own less than two hectares of land but  produce the majority of all food, and cover around 60% of the arable land (“Bäuerliche und industrielle Landwirtschaft“, 2013).

If the intensification and industrialization of agriculture that is widely regarded as the only possibility to supply enough food for everyone requires remarkable loss of life quality for around 30% of the part of the world’s population that is already poor, together with massive disturbance of ecosystems with unknown implications for the future, one can certainly speak of a Wicked Problem: Depending on one’s values and moral compass, with the currently predominant understanding of agriculture, there has to be a certain tradeoff between the productivity of farming on one hand, and the well-being of poor farmers and ecosystems in and around their fields on the other.

Some hypothetical people could argue that the earth has already reached, if not trespassed, the maximum human population it can sustain, and that all attempts to intensify agriculture and withdraw evermore resources to be able to keep growing will be in vain, and if at all only slightly prolong a global system that is doomed to collapse when it passes over the limits its proponents do not realize. These people would put an emphasis on sufficiency and not expansion. They would want to slow down population growth, adopt small-scale agricultural practices that are more traditional and ecological, and thus place value on human and environmental well-being, all the while claiming that these methods also are sufficient to nurture humankind. Agriculture, according to these voices, should be organized locally in a democratic way that empowers farmers and works hand in hand with nature.

Others would say that the industrialization and intensification of agriculture are steps of progress towards a world that uses the maximum of resources available to meet the needs of growing population and economy. They could argue that increasing efficiency and technological progress leads to economic growth that is beneficial to societies and enables them to grow even further. They consider the human ability for innovation a core quality that, fostered by the competitive economic system, will lead to technologies that can overcome the perils of their respective times and is not ultimately restricted by natural limits.

These two perceptions cannot be proven to be wrong or right through simple scientific experiments or reasoning, and this is the most obvious trait showing this is a Wicked Problem. Depending on assumptions that are often only implicit, people as well as other stakeholders emphasize different aspects of this conflict and see different problems. On that account, they are likely to propose different solutions that are hard or impossible to reconcile. Although these perceptions and solutions contradict each other, none of them can genuinely be labeled irrational. They merely have different rationalities as foundations, in this case the former being what is often called egalitarianism, and the latter, individualism. Along with hierarchy and fatalism they constitute the essential value patterns we all resort to in our perception of the natural and the social sphere, according to Verweij (2011).

Hereafter, I will describe the four patterns in detail and relate them to Punukula, one of the many arenas in which the Wicked Problem of agricultural use, supply and exploitation has been argued out between various stakeholders over several decades.

Section 2: Ways of Organizing in Punukula Before the Introduction of NPM

1. Introducing Plural Rationality Theory

According to supporters of Mary Douglas’ Plural Rationality Theory, humans have developed four main foundations of values that work to justify the way social relations are perceived and organized (Thompson et al., 1990). In a simplified diagram, those four ideal-typical ways of organizing can be classified according to their incorporation of both stratification and collectivity. Compliant with the value that is assigned to each of these social dimensions, four combinations emerge: strong collectivity and weak stratification, i.e. egalitarianism, strong collectivity and strong stratification, namely hierarchy, both weak collectivity and stratification, called individualism, and, eventually, fatalism, which is characterized by strong stratification and weak collectivity (Douglas, 1970). Perceptions of human nature, social relations and time often go hand in hand in each of these ways of organizing. There usually is no pure form of each of the four approaches. We all seem to be influenced by all of them to different extents.

Proponents of egalitarianism view humans as essentially good and altruistic, but corrupted by a system that creates inequality and a focus on power and status (Thompson et al., 1990). Decisions are considered to best be made collectively and through consensus. This is reflected in preferences for social, technological and economic structures that are local, decentralized and small-scale, and decided upon in a direct democratic, collective way. Egalitarianism is the epitome of “bottom-up” organization, there is a deep distrust towards authority and any decision enforced upon others; stratification is opposed. Correspondingly, nature is seen as suppressed and exploited by man, an extremely fragile entity that is easily disturbed by unmindful human activity. With regards to the perception of time, egalitarianism often comes with a strong sense of a compression of time. Since the current system of inequality is seen as extremely harmful to human well-being as well as the integrity of nature, the present moment is always seen as the decisive moment that will determine if there will be future (further) downfall or true change at last. And great importance is placed on most decisions, since the world is considered a closely interconnected complex of structures of domination and inequality (Verweij, 2011). 

The individualist way of organizing clashes with the egalitarian one in several ways, and has an entirely different foundation. Humans are considered selfish by nature, and unchangeably so (Thompson et al., 1990). They are constantly trying to maximize personal freedom to be able to make the most beneficial choices for themselves, and the social web should, according to individualists, provide the possibility for people and institutions to follow this objective. In contrast to the egalitarian way of thinking that wants to maximize the public sphere, the private sphere is to be extended in individualism (ibid.). The only regulation of self-interested interactions that benefit society in the end is supposed to be abundant information and legal reassurance of all interactions’ validity. Competitive market structures are considered to be most successful to guarantee personal freedom and ensure best results for a world in which everyone can come ‘from rags to riches’ through his or her own performance. Nature is seen as a very robust pool of resources for humankind whose limitations can be overcome with the power of innovation and technology supplied by the market. Both future and past are meaningless for more or less short-term success, the usual purpose of human action.

The hierarchical system is said to place high value on both stratification, and collectivity (ibid.). The view of human nature is yet different from the former two: People are said to be ‘bad’ by nature but capable to evolve positively through clear and relatively rigid social structures and rules that assign them their positions and regulate behavior. Decisions should only be made by those qualified to make them based on objective truth, and then imposed on the rest of the population. Knowledge accumulated by experts in their field is highly acknowledged and rarely questioned. Nature and time also appear as stratified in hierarchical thinking. There are strict limits and time frames in which human actions have to occur to prevent loss of control through unregulated forces (ibid.).

Fatalism is the last of the four ways of perceiving and justifying social relations. It emerges intensely where people feel they have no possibility to control their own fate. Both nature and fellow humans are seen as unpredictable and generally hostile and deceitful, so there are no inhibitions to exploit and trick them whenever it seems convenient. There are no mechanisms that prevent cheating and harming one another, so a fatalist would ruthlessly do everything possible to improve his or her fortune ever so slightly in a cruel world beyond control (ibid.). According to Verweij (2011), fatalism is likely to spread whenever several other ways of organizing are prevented and suppressed.

This observation leads to the assumption that, if they are applied whilst ignoring or suppressing the others, all of these schemata except fatalism seem to work to undermine the very qualities they themselves emphasize the most.

Policies that are formed from only one of these approaches often lead to disastrous results. As we will see later in this section, this was indeed a reason for widespread fatalism, and suicide, in the most extreme cases, in pre-NPM-Punukula. This remark is important to find remedies for Wicked Problems such as the one described in Section one. If the four ways of organizing need each other in a way to be able to meet their own expectations, a remedy for a Wicked Problem in which values of different stakeholders clash can only be coped with if all of those canons of value can be covered and incorporated into what Verweij (2011) calls a “Clumsy Solution”. In the case of Punukula, this Clumsy Solution appears to have been NPM.

2. The Old Structures in Punukula According to Plural Rationality Theory

The economical structure in Punukula before 1996 was greatly dominated by the “all-in-one dealers” (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009, p.544) that are moneylenders, dealers of all sorts of seeds and chemical agricultural supplements, and also the main outlet for the farmers’ crops through contracts. Furthermore, they give technical advice such as recommendations to increase insecticide doses that are favorable for their own interests. Their main objective is to sell as many chemicals as possible as they are paid on commission (ibid., p. 549). Since no alternatives were available in Punukula at the time and farmers could not reduce their insecticide use in the absence of natural control, the traders could keep things firmly in their hand to the farmers’ disadvantage. The dealers were monopolists that could single-handedly determine all conditions (ibid.).

It was possible for the dealers to do so because their entirely unregulated commercial activities gave rise to a market structure that became the dominant mechanism controlling agriculture in Punukula. A structure like this would generally be advocated by people favoring the individualist way of organizing. Strikingly, what I mentioned earlier as the more important value of individualists, namely the possibility to make free choices for one’s own benefit based on available information, was completely inexistent for the farmers of Punukula in their relationship to the dealers. Choice was strongly limited for them, and the information available was manipulated. This supports the notion that, if left alone, individualism as one of the four fundamental ways of organizing in Plural Rationality Theory cannot sustain its own values.

Stiglitz (2002) claims that many economists make the mistake to believe that simple privatization always gives rise to the institutional infrastructure that is needed to sustain fair competition in a market economy. Many past transitions of states to capitalism have proven that this is not veritable on the large scale. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia was introduced to the free market through what Intriligator et al. (2006) called a ‘shock therapy’ of complete privatization that led to increasing inequalities, and the evolution of oligarchs that had no interest in establishing the appropriate institutions.

On the small scale, I believe the same argument can be made. The free market provides equal choices and information to everyone, as long as everyone can be considered equal in opportunity. After the first round of the game of interactions, the premises change and there is no equality of opportunity anymore. Control is with those who managed to accumulate more wealth, thus power. And these inequalities increase more with time if no regulations are implemented. Since “the first round of the game” does not exist in the real world, where people are born into different conditions, the individualist way of organizing is - on the long run - bound to undermine free choice and equal opportunity. This is what appears to have happened in Punukula in the beginning of the 1990s.

All attempts before the NPM-strategy to improve the situations for farmers and the environment routinely failed in Andhra Pradesh. The failure of strategies of “Integrated Pesticide Management” (IPM) in the region can also partly be attributed to their ignorance of different ways of organizing, i.e. their lack of Clumsiness. IPM-programs were founded worldwide with support of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009, p. 547) after the perils of increasing pesticide resistance became known. They encourage reduction of pesticide use as a part of a broader agricultural strategy. In Andhra Pradesh, IPM has essentially been promoted as a government strategy and by the large agricultural university (Joshi, 2006). The behavior of both the university and governmental institutions can be described as following the hierarchical way of organizing relatively strictly, which leads to certain shortcomings. Although IPM was supposed to be a financial relief and an improvement of life quality, it became clear in the 1990s that this failed for Andhra Pradesh’s small-scale farmers. They did not embrace the programs and did not succeed in bringing down cultivation costs (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009). Suicides continued to happen. IPM regimes that were conveyed through agricultural extension seem to be inappropriate for the farmers’ reality. They are developed by experts that “look down upon farmers, rather than understanding their needs” (Joshi, 2006, p. 24). This failure of the top-down implementation of policies is typical for strict hierarchical thinking. It is easier to recommend dosages than to implement more eclectic policies, which is something “government efforts don’t seem to work too well” for (ibid.). Insights on flaws of the strategies that are developed, and the way they are implemented take very long to change things in those hierarchical institutions, which appear sluggish and inflexible. The director of the agricultural department of Andhra Pradesh for instance stated that they “are bound by the [agricultural] university’s recommendations” (ibid., p. 26), whereas the university’s research profile is “tied up across the board in its own history” (ibid, p. 27). Hierarchical reliance on experts and structural conservatism fail to improve problems by themselves. Belief in objective truths that scientists can find and in complex technologies developed from these truths that only have to be implemented through transfer of knowledge is a simplified and narrow picture of nature and society.

In the case of Punukula, the pesticide companies and the agricultural university of Andhra Pradesh are perceived as the biggest obstacles that have to be overcome for the successful implementation of NPM, the clumsy solution that finally managed to improve the farmers’ lives considerably (Marten, 2005).

Section 3: The Introduction of Non-Pesticide-Management

A rather complex institutional structure is responsible for the implementation of NPM in Punukula village and other parts of Andhra Pradesh. The root of NPM efforts is the Red Hairy Caterpillar Project in 1986. It was started by the Centre for World Solidarity (CWS), an NGO (Non-Governmental-Organization) based in Hyderabad. The red caterpillar was a massive threat for red gram crops at that time, and the project undertaken by the agricultural department of CWS and a scientific advisory committee managed to overcome the crisis until 1991 without the use of any pesticides (Joshi, 2006). The success was a great incentive to try and expand the new techniques to other crops and spread the concept to different villages. To do so, the CWS started collaborating with different grassroots NGOs such as SECURE (Socio-economic and Cultural Upliftment in Rural Environment). Trials on non-pesticide management of cotton were completed in 1996, and SECURE, which had sent staff to Punukula for a watershed project, realized the large problems with pesticides and the potential solution of NPM.

The management methods in NPM generally require significantly less monetary input and slightly more working hours than management with chemical supplements. They were assembled and drafted by the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) that was created by the CWS in 2004, and agricultural entomologists in Hyderabad (Marten, 2005).

For cotton farms, the essential keyword for NPM is neem. The neem is a local tree that produces a variety of natural toxins against its enemies. Due to the large number of different toxins, there is no possibility for resistance of pests. Neem seeds are ground into powder that is then soaked and sprayed onto the fields, whereas neem leaves are used to protect stored crops, and neem cakes kill pests that live in the soil. The spray does not directly kill pests but repels them from the plants, and it prevents their eggs from hatching without harming predatory insects or birds that are located further up in the food chain. These methods are complemented by applying chili-garlic solution as well as cow dung on the plants that kill the pests. The sprays and dung are only used when they are really needed and, to find out if that is the case, the farmers constantly monitor the state of infection through pheromone tablets that attract pests. If their abundance is not alarming, infested leaves are removed manually, and trap crops are planted around the fields to entice insects away.

Deep summer plowing kills the pupae of many pests that pupate underground, and other simple methods like small bonfires in moonless nights kill adults before they can lay eggs. Birds that feed on pest insects are supported with perches. Finally, a naturally occurring virus that afflicts many pests can be propagated by collecting infected individuals, grinding them into a solution and spraying them onto the crop (Marten, 2005).

In 1998, Venu Madhav, a farmer’s son and employee of SECURE, started to talk to the farmers about NPM after hearing about it from a woman in a neighboring village. Once one influential village elder finally agreed to try NPM, within two years, all of Punukula’s cotton farmers started to use the methods due to the promising results (ibid.). Technical and financial support came from the CWS (Ramanjaneyulu et al., p.562, 2009). The immediate improvement was startling. The yields increased or stayed the same, and the cultivation costs finally decreased tremendously, leading to gains of 10,000 rupees per acre for farmers instead of the meager 1,000 to 2,000 rupees they were able to make with chemical supplements (Marten, 2005).

The first betterment led to long-term virtuous circles that profoundly improved quality of life, ecosystem integrity, and solidarity in Punukula, while yields stabilized and the area of cultivated land even increased, since farmers had more money at their disposition to lease additional areas.

Over time, as natural control of pests recovered, NPM methods had to be used less frequently to keep the pests away, which further decreased cultivation costs. The situation also improved for landless workers. Since NPM is relatively labor-intensive, the farmers used parts of their new income to pay workers, and as the demand for labor increased, wages rose for the landless (ibid.). With people regaining control over their own lives, solidarity and confidence increased, leading to new projects undertaken by the village community with support of the SECURE staff to help school dropouts, for a vermi-compost project for fertilization, and revival of traditional medicine (ibid.). Also, the farmers gained enough confidence to stand up to the pesticide dealers that tried to punish them for opting out of insecticide use by lowering the prices, and together the farmers found better prices elsewhere (ibid.).

Another very important aspect of the introduction of NPM to Punukula is the role of women. Local Self-Help-Groups were the main vehicle for its implementation, a fact that significantly changed the women’s position in the village. There were new possibilities for employment in neem seed collection, and they became the ones to be partners in management instead of the agricultural dealers previously. From the people that did most of the pesticide spraying work which affected their health considerably, women evolved to the pioneers of the new techniques (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009, p.562). The Self-Help-Groups, whose origins I will describe in Section five, were also the ones to prevent that some men go back to buying pesticides, thus playing a very important part in achieving the complete abolishment of pesticides in Punukula. As M. S. Chari, an advisor of the CSA, puts it: “When we started NPM work with farmers, men would sit in the front row and women would sit behind. Now, the women have the front row. They are NPM’s torchbearers, the new village leadership.” (Joshi, 2006, p.24).

The new methods that combine traditional and modern knowledge about agriculture and that the villagers have truly adopted as their own ended up achieving more than just lower costs for stable yields. T. Vijay Kumar of IKP, a government scheme that incorporated NPM in 2005 as we will see in the fifth section, says that it “is a system-based approach which puts women in a position of strength. NPM helps farmers assert themselves as creative individuals, who can think and decide for themselves. That is a greater objective than food security, because if the farmer is earning well, the nation will be fed” (ibid., p.28).

Section 4: The Clumsiness of NPM in Punukula and the Institutions Involved According to Plural Rationality Theory

As the reader might understand from descriptions of CWS and SECURE in the previous section, these new institutions can be classified as mostly egalitarian. The declared vision of the CWS, for example, is “the emergence of an equitable society of small communities, where all those deprived of basic human rights, especially women, dalits [untouchables], adivasis [indigenous people] and minorities, live with dignity” (“Vision of CWS”, n.d.). We can recognize many of the major egalitarian ideas in this statement already, such as the emphasis on equity, and the insistence that equitable structures should be small-scale and local. SECURE is of a similar disposition. Its employees are social workers “committed to the cause of the marginalized [and] vulnerable sections of the society. The organization is non-hierarchical, flat with transparency [and] free flow of information across all the participants in the organization“ (“Welcome to SECURE”, n.d.). Again, flat hierarchies indicate the typical bottom-up approach of egalitarianism, and the main objective is to fight inequalities that cause marginalization. In contrast to the hierarchical implementation of previous IPM strategies, the participatory principles of SECURE ensured true empowerment of the farmers. The non-pesticide management was completely adopted by the village panchayat, a body of self-government (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009), and the Self-Help-Groups, which ensured sustainability even if SECURE was to eventually quit its commitment.

The view of nature that is part of NPM is obviously egalitarian as well. Nature is seen as an ally that works to help the farmers and that is to be treated with respect and care not to disturb its beneficial balance. 

The egalitarian way of organizing, which was so evidently lacking in Punukula before NPM, was crucial in turning around the fate of the cotton farmers. However, according to Plural Rationality Theory, elements of the other ways are necessary to handle a Wicked Problem like the modern intensification of agriculture.

Presumably, NPM could only be implemented so quickly and successfully because the farmers were capable of competing with conventional products on the market. If it had not increased the revenues drastically, the farmers would certainly not have decided to implement the strategy for purely health- and environmental issues. The competitiveness of NPM can be seen as an individualist component.

Without some hierarchical forces, success would probably also have been less likely. Especially in the process of scaling up NPM that will be described in the next section, hierarchical structures were necessary. But also on the small scale, some hierarchy was helpful. The Self-Help-Groups used coercion to a certain extent, although through social control only, to make sure that farmers would refrain from returning to pesticide use. The adoption was also facilitated by the leading role of certain community members with considerable authority, such as the village elder Margam Mutthaiah who was among the first to resort to NPM (Marten, 2005).
The strong egalitarian organization along with some individualist innovation and competitiveness, and compliance with local hierarchies makes Punukula a plausible example for a small-scale Clumsy Solution.

Section 5: Expansion of a Clumsy Solution

The Centre for World Solidarity did not develop NPM for Punukula specifically. It was rather meant to replace IPM as the main strategy throughout Andhra Pradesh. Of course, expanding the project greatly required the participation of more institutions that took on different roles.

The CWS completed trials for NPM-methods for different crops in the 1990s, and then implemented them in a number of villages such as Punukula or Enabavi, Andhra Pradesh’s first organic farming village, with the help different grass-roots NGOs such as SECURE (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009). The success in these places was an encouragement to seek to distribute the new techniques to a much greater area. The foundations of that were laid in 2004 with several advances.

First of all, the CWS founded the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) that undertook the technical training of villagers from then on (Marten, 2005). The CSA played an important part in the further propagation of NPM. In cooperation with agricultural scientists, they assembled the strategies and phrased them (see Section 3), which facilitated their distribution. Then, the next big step was the joining of SERP, the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty. The SERP is part of the state’s Ministry of Rural Development, but considered an autonomous governmental organization of Andhra Pradesh. Their aim is to fight rural poverty through organizations of the poor, treating them as partners and not as subordinates (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009). To do so, they implement the Indira Kranthi Patham scheme, IKP, of creating strong self-managed institutions of the poor, so called Self-Help-Groups of mostly women, in rural Andhra Pradesh. The World Bank supports IKP financially. The widespread infrastructure and additional funds of the IKP scheme were very convenient for the proponents of NPM. After SERP was approached by both the CSA and a grass-roots NGO called WASSAN (Watershed Support Services and Activities Network), they started to provide funds for NPM, and to distribute the concept through their widespread women’s Self-Help-Groups. For each NPM village, one extension coordinator was appointed from a local grassroots NGO, and the SERP respectively, while technical training continued to be provided by the CSA (Marten, 2005). Whenever possible, the cooperation was made with village councils and women’s groups directly, whereas the participation of the grassroots NGOs was kept as little as possible for implementation to ensure continuity.

The pilot program SERP launched in 2005-2006 as a first implementation of NPM established a “clear institutional system and a community managed extension system in nine districts of [Andhra Pradesh]. Five villages were grouped into a cluster and were provided with a cluster activist. Each village has a practicing farmer selected as village activist who coordinates the village level capacity building programs in the form of Farmer Field Schools” (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009, p. 566). Since SERP started funding and supporting NPM, the program has thus spread throughout Andhra Pradesh through both the institutional structure provided by SERP, and word-of-mouth recommendations of convinced farmers. By 2008, more than 300,000 farmers used NPM on approximately 900,000 hectares in 3,000 villages of Andhra Pradesh (“Timeline 2008”, n.d.). Another very helpful twist was that Raghuveera Reddy, Andhra’s agricultural minister between 2004 and 2009 and a farmer himself, started to believe in the advantages of NPM, although his agricultural department and the agriculture university did not. Asked about this discrepancy, he said in an interview: “They have their own version, which is IPM. But if there is such a gap, it is my duty as a political leader to bridge it. I will make all experts meet, sort things out, and work together” (Joshi, 2006, p. 29).

In the course of the SERP program for “Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture” (CMSA), NPM Is complemented since 2004 by other endeavors to, among others, support marketing and post harvest management, and the creation of Community Seed Banks for production and sharing of high-quality seeds. Especially successful villages and farmers are identified as resource villages and resource persons to help with further promotion of the NPM program (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009, p. 569).

IKP also successfully convinced the State Bank of India to supply credits for NPM farmers in 2006, “providing surety for loans” (Joshi, 2006, p. 29).

Finally, in 2007, NPM received the Prime Minister’s attention and was chosen for the 11th Five-Year Plan of the National Agriculture Development Project (Ramajaneyulu et al., 2009, p. 560).

The overall success of expanding NPM was great, which indicates that the Clumsiness of the solution in Punukula could be expanded to a larger scale. For the ramified coordination of NPM, hierarchical structures had to be created without undermining the egalitarian self-management within the small villages. The Self-Help-Groups of the IKP were a most suitable instrument. They were already established and generally trusted, and although there is a region-wide structure, they work as bottom-up “self-managed institutions of the poor” (Ramanjaneyulu et al., 2009, p.565). For sufficient funds to be acquired and to gain support from important actors and institutions, an orderly plan for expansion and a scientific description and evaluation of the methods of NPM were necessary. This was possible due to the hierarchical organization that is typical for a government body like SERP, complemented by buzz marketing and personal contacts of farmers, local collective self-management groups and community projects, and the successful competitiveness of NPM. Also, the fatalism that prevailed before the new techniques might have been an important ingredient. The farmers were desperate enough to try NPM. They did not have anything to lose and were willing to try a new method that turned out to be a revolutionary Clumsy Solution.

Section 6: Current Developments and Challenges

In 2013, Ted Swagerty travelled through Andhra Pradesh to document current developments of NPM (Swagerty, 2014). Swagerty’s overall impression was a good one. Many villages he visited greatly improved their situation through the adoption of NPM, and he describes SERP as a “helpful organization” that did not mind granting him insights into their more recent attainments.
However, as one could expect, a Wicked Problem can never be solved entirely, and new challenges continue to rise. For one thing, larger-scale farmers only very rarely latch onto the NPM strategy since they can afford the high costs for pesticides without any problems. They do not want to take the risk and waste the three or four years it can take for NPM to achieve optimal results with natural pest control. NPM remains a strategy designed for the poor and marginalized, thus only having a partial impact on the entire agricultural production (ibid.).

In a report on Non-Pesticide Management, R. Gregory (2010) collects several other challenges in the expansion of the project. The balance between local governance and an overriding structure is difficult, and an “extension system which gives community a central stage” is needed (Marten, 2005). Also, it is generally practical to make the transition to and transfer of NPM less time and resource intensive. Those issues have to be handled continuously.

The supply of the essential neem seeds and leaves could become a problem once NPM reaches a significant scale, but the supply of neem also potentially gives rise to more employment for poor landless laborers and dalits that are usually the ones to collect them (Joshi, 2006, p. 30).

For sustainability of the project to be reached, it is necessary that villagers truly see NPM as their own. NGOs can only manage its employment on the short run, but empowerment and self-reliance of community structures like those in Punukula is necessary to ensure long-term success of NPM.


Non-Pesticide Management in Punukula and all of Andhra Pradesh has been described as a an admirable success story by many academics and organizations that were and still are concerned with it. A seemingly unbreakable vicious circle that caused helplessness, malady and environmental distress could be stopped and turned into a virtuous circle of sustainability by means of relatively simple methods that were implemented carefully and farsightedly by cooperative actors contributing their respective core qualities. NPM definitely is a story of great success.

The examination of Plural Rationality Theory and its application to the story of Punukula reveal some of the reasons for the positive outcomes of NPM. It was implemented by an institutional landscape that managed to combine useful traits of different ways of organizing and thereby, in a ‘clumsy’ way, managed to greatly improve the situation of many small-scale farmers and the environment without impairing agricultural productivity. The Clumsy Solution NPM is an auspicious example for how Wicked Problems can be treated.


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