Farmers' new hotline in India sizzles with requests

Thirty years after the Green Revolution helped large farmers make India self-sufficient in food, a new project aims to help small farmers get better yields and better prices.

India is now famous (or perhaps, infamous) for its burgeoning telemarketing and calling-center businesses. In Bangalore, Hyderabad, or Bombay, one can find buildings full of Indian employees wearing headphones, taking GE customer-service calls, and watching CNN and Baywatch to brush up on their American accents.

But the beneficiaries of this transglobal info exchange have been mostly folks in Wisconsin or California. Now, there's a state-of-the art high-volume calling center for South Asians - Indian farmers, no less.

In a country where more than 80 percent of the population makes a living from agriculture, the Kisaan Call Center is a godsend. The one-month young project is government-funded but privately run - and by all accounts a huge success. On an average day, it gets 2,500 calls.

The volume surprised some, coming from a segment of the population long thought to be too traditional or backward to embrace change.

"We expected the demand to be high, but we're getting so many calls now, I think we're going to have to start a second shift," says O.P. Suri, executive director of DSS Infotech Solutions, the company that runs the call center.

And while his service will not replace the thousands of government agricultural extension people around the country, Mr. Suri says, "Now, anyone can pick up a phone and have access to an expert who can speak in their own dialect, and give them the respect they deserve."

If farmers are getting more respect these days, it may have something to do with the fact that they make up the single largest voting bloc in the country, and that national elections are in April.

Suri says that the government had been planning to open a farmer call center for some time. But when Suri won the contract, he was told he had only eight days to set up the software, hire a staff of agricultural specialists, and train them in "soft-call" techniques. Then, on Jan. 21, live national television recorded the call center's first customer, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee himself.

Sanjeev Phogat, a master's degree agricultural expert with expertise in meteorology, took the call. Everyone in the call center was watching him. "His first question was about the weather," laughs Mr. Phogat. "That was easy, that's my specialty."

On one afternoon Phogat's phone is ringing off the hook, and he is fielding a variety of questions:

Where is the best place to get improved varieties of wheat seeds?

Which sort of medicinal crops bring the best profits?

What kind of irrigation techniques are best for an area that has low-water levels and poor rainfall?

Call center employees are trained to handle farmers with respect. For farmers accustomed to the overburdened, not-in-my-job-description clerks of a typical government ministry, it's a surprise to hear the usual programmed greeting of a Kisaan Call Center employee.

"Long live the farmer! Welcome, my name is Navneet, how may I assist you today?" says Navneet Yadav, a fashion- conscious graduate of an agricultural college in Meerut, north of Delhi.

It's an attitude that leaves many Indian farmers breathless, and calling back with ever more difficult questions.

"The common people usually have nothing to do with the Indian government," says Mr. Yadav. "Anyway, their needs are in such a large quantity, and they don't get solutions in proper quantity. What they need is a mediator who can put them in touch with the proper experts, someone who understands them very well."

Kisaan Call Center employees are paid a modest but respectable salary, from $110 to $150 a month, about the same wages of the average office clerk. But for many of these employees, the wages are not as important as the opportunity to take part in what Kisaan employees like to call "the Second Green Revolution." It's an ambitious goal, given that the first Green Revolution - which distributed higher-yielding seeds and better equipment in the 1970s - allowed India to become self- sufficient in food. "In the first Green Revolution ... it was mainly the larger farmers who benefited," says Suri. "But now we are ... aiming at the smaller farmers who were not able to take advantage of the better technology. If we can help those people improve their yields or get a better price, then we can really make a difference."

The call center tracks the questions farmers are asking, with the goal of alerting authorities if there appears to be a broader regional problem. Also, Suri plans to use the media to let farmers know about ways to solve problems.

Phogat, the meteorologist, says he finds himself turning into an expert on everything. The hot topic these days is how to grow and market a local herb called safed musli. "It is basically a desi version of Viagra," says Phogat, grinning shyly. Desi is a Hindi word that means local. "The farmers these days have smaller and smaller plots, so they are always interested in knowing what is the best crop for making more money."

Again Phogat's phone rings. For the hundredth time today, he says, "Long live the farmer."

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