Meeting learners’ needs requires a focus not only on improving individual earning capacity but also on collective empowerment and overcoming social injustice.

In recent years, India has introduced a suite of new agricultural skill development programs for more than 170 job roles in the agricultural sector. Trainers and policy makers hope that these trainings will complement existing agricultural extension programs to enhance the income and yields of farmers, increase scientific literacy, diversify livelihoods, and improve rural sustainability.

In the state of Himachal Pradesh, in the Western Himalayas, agricultural training providers have prioritized imparting skills that offer opportunities for greater rates of return for producers than the staple crops of wheat and rice. These include beekeeping, protected cultivation, medicinal herbs, mushroom cultivation, and animal husbandry.

Yet, when it comes to recruiting trainees for these programs, training providers face a dual challenge. On the one hand, those intensely involved in agricultural production often lack time to attend training programs of more than a few days’ duration. On the other hand, rural youth often do not aspire to agricultural livelihoods and hence would prefer to acquire skills that will allow them to transition to urban livelihoods and lifestyles.

In a recent paper published in the Journal of South Asian Development, I explored the reasons why people choose to enrol in agricultural training programs. I hope the findings may provide insight into how to orient training programs towards the needs and aspirations of trainees and their communities, and to make programs more inclusive and socially just. To that end, three findings were particularly important.

First, while it is commonly assumed that in order to attract trainees – particularly youth – to agricultural training, farming must be made into a more ‘aspirational’ venture, my findings suggest that personal aspirations are only one of many factors that lead to people to enrol in agri-skills trainings. Often more prominent are a series of factors outside of their control – such as sources of urban livelihood drying up, or family commitments.

Second, while vocational education providers often assume the chief aim of their programs is to help people attain jobs, wages, and enhanced cash income, interviews with trainees suggest there are also a host of other, less economistic factors are important motivators. These include desires to uplift family and community and to improve one’s social status by building an image as an agricultural innovator. India’s new agri-skills programs are largely oriented around individual aspirations to upscale commercial agricultural ventures. Yet, in Himalayan contexts, there are long histories of collectivised agricultural labour – and it is thus not surprising that aspirations for new agricultural skills tend to also be oriented towards collective needs. A more learner-centred approach would work with these community-oriented desires: instead of sudden scale shifts for individuals, perhaps more incremental shifts that may reach large numbers of people.

Third, while we may wish to romanticize these non-economic motivations, we also need to consider how these motivations reflect power structures. Women were more likely than men to express that they had enrolled in training in order to meet the needs of other family members and this reflected patriarchal constraints and compulsions. Across much of the Himalayas, while women are more actively involved in agricultural production than on the plains of India, this involvement generally does not reflect agency. After marriage, women are expected to subordinate their labour to meeting household needs of child-raising and subsistence agriculture – and their involvement in agricultural training is often part of efforts to meet those expectations. Recognising this, training can consciously attempt to build women’s capacity for agency – for example, by supporting the development of identities centred on agricultural innovation and entrepreneurship.

It may seem paradoxical to suggest that training should simultaneously work with collective aspirations and encourage entrepreneurial identities, since entrepreneurship is often associated with neoliberal individualist subjectivities. Yet, my findings suggest that entrepreneurship need not always be seen through an individualist lens: it is often collectively nested in groups of affinity and common interest and provides opportunities to develop identities in groups beyond the confines of the patriarchal family.

Ultimately, the challenge for training providers is to nurture skill development and entrepreneurship within collective structures that support objectives of empowerment and emancipation.

Images: Trent Brown