Shankariah (Shankar) Chamala: a distinguished career in Australian extension
Shankariah Chamala, who played a large role from the mid-1970s in building the academic discipline of Agricultural Extension in Australia, passed away on the 27th July 2019 in Sydney, aged 79 years. Through his teaching and research at The University of Queensland and his work in the field with the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and the Landcare Movement, he formalised key aspects of both the practice and the organisation of extension. He built a theoretical framework that helped practitioners both to understand better what they were trying to do and to develop insights into how they could practice more effectively.
Dr Chamala had a Bachelor degree in agricultural science from Osmania University and Master degree and a PhD in agricultural science from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute. He began his career in 1963 as an extension officer with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and subsequently worked with India’s Council of Scientific Industrial Research, National Council of Education and Research, Small Industry Extension Training Institute. He also had a period as audience research officer in radio and television. He was recruited to The University of Queensland in 1972 by Dr Joan Tully, (Senior Lecturer at the university from 1962-1972) who had established a rural sociology and extension group. Dr Tully offered Shankar a job after seeing one of his publications.
While the early origins of extension in Australia can be traced to the late 1860s, government commitment to extension grew strongly after World War 2, with the recognition that expanded research capacity required a complementary service to advise users of research findings, otherwise the benefits of research would be undermined by slow adoption (Hunt et al. 2012). From the 1970s Australian extension began to incorporate ‘bottom-up’ approaches towards more facilitative styles of extension. Universities, particularly Hawkesbury College (now part of the University of Western Sydney), The University of Sydney and The University of Queensland. Staff at these universities worked with government departments and practitioners, towards new thinking in extension to cater for emerging complex problems especially sustainability (Hunt et al. 2012). There was also collaboration with colleagues overseas at Wageningen (The Netherlands), Lancaster (UK) and USA universities. Dr Chamala was an active member of this renaissance in Australian agricultural extension teaching, research and practice.
Shankar was first noted in the early 1970s for his work with wool-growing pastoral families in western Queensland ‘doing it tough’ under particularly adverse drought and wool market conditions. In 1980, concerned that environmental innovations needed to be promoted differently from commercial innovations, he approached the Soil Conservation Branch of Queensland’s Department of Primary Industries (QDPI) with a proposal for joint investigation of the adoption of soil conservation measures in southern Queensland. With Ken Keith, he developed a project funded by the Commonwealth, which explored farmers’ adoption of commercial practices and soil conservation practices, attitudes to soil conservation, perceived economic losses and access to information about commercial and soil conservation practices (Chamala, Keith and Quinn 1982). In 1982 Shankar negotiated a follow-up to this study to coincide with a visit by Professor C Milton Coughenour, University of Kentucky, who had studied adoption of minimum tillage in the USA. The comprehensive joint research study of conservation cropping practices on the Darling Downs was developed with QDPI and others involved in conservation farming development and extension on the Darling Downs, with interviews conducted by agriculture and soil conservation extension officers (after training) to explore current cropping systems, proposed changes, perceived merits of erosion control and information sources. A separate survey of agriculture and soil conservation officers provided information on readiness of staff to promote new cropping measures. The preliminary analysis was reported in Chamala, Coughenour and Keith (1983). Later analysis contributed to the Coughenour and Chamala (2000) book Conservation Tillage and Cropping Innovation: Constructing the New Culture of Agriculture. The project led to training of agriculture and soil conservation field staff in the operation of conservation cropping machinery, and development of a conservation cropping extension package to be used by extension officers at meetings and in the evaluation of its effectiveness. Also in the early 1980s, Bruce Crouch and Shankar edited Extension Education and Rural Development (Crouch and Chamala 1981).
As the movement towards bottom-up and sustainability-focused extension took shape, Dr Chamala was equally recognized for his contributions to Landcare and community-based land management. Along with many others, Dr Joan Tully had preached and practised the importance of farmer discussion groups in order to work from what is important to the farmer. Doubtlessly this, together with his own background in community development, struck a chord with Shankar. He was involved with the first truly grassroots land management group in Queensland, and arguably Australia, which was in the process of forming in the Lockyer Valley in 1981 (set up through the initiative of a Lockyer farmer, Fred From). Dr Chamala travelled regularly to meetings as a mentor and inaugural group member in bedding down the establishment of what became the Lockyer Watershed Management Association.
In 1985 Shankar teamed up with Dr Rick Maurer, on sabbatical leave from the University of Kentucky, to study the effectiveness and future of soil conservation advisory committees set up by government agencies in four states. The findings were instructive to government agencies moving towards Landcare-type action groups rather than advisory committees, as was the case in Queensland where there was a planned move towards landholders taking action at community level. A study report (Chamala and Maurer 1986, Community involvement crucial for conservation in Australia) noted that committee members offered a body of community members with experience in land management issues who were keen to participate in achieving action goals and indicated a need for local power to evolve from advisory to co-determination.
This and other initiatives led to Dr Chamala and QDPI’s Soil Conservation Branch drawing up a project for training Queensland and interstate soil conservation district staff in working with groups. Professor Jerry Robinson of the University of Illinois was commissioned to lead pilot workshops and then critique the first draft modules prepared. Peter Mortiss from QDPI, with experience in extension training, worked with Shankar in developing 15 training modules, which were later aggregated into the book Working together for Land Care (S Chamala and P Mortiss, 1990). At the launch, Professor John Longworth of UQ referred to the ten years of collaboration between UQ and QDPI initiated by Dr Chamala: ‘In some ways the 1980s could be regarded as the decade of preparation for the Decade of Landcare’. A subsequent product published by the Chamala and Mortiss team was Group management skills for Land Care: a trainer’s guide (1991) providing adult learning principles and advice on how to prepare for and conduct training in each of the fifteen modules of Working together for Land Care.
With Landcare gaining momentum in the early 1990s, Dr Chamala sought to draw together theoretical perspectives on the participative model underlying community action and the policies and programs that help it happen. The outcome was the 1995 book Participative Approaches for Landcare: perspectives, policies and programs, eds. S Chamala and K Keith, with chapters by the editors and thirteen invited authors and a review section drawing together the threads emerging from invited papers.
In this set of publications, Dr Chamala framed community action within what he called the Participative Action Management model, PAM (see figure - The Participative Action Management model). The key concept here is that a Landcare group acts as a lens, converging information and resources from many sources, and generating new energy (physical and motivational). This is then (through group processes) distributed constructively, such as to self-directed sub-groups or specific projects. The process aims at empowering groups.
Dr Chamala applied the PAM model in other projects. PAM also formed a platform for training manuals in participatory management for research managers, funded by Land and Water Australia (S Chamala, J Coutts & C Pearson 2000).
These are recalled as ‘glorious days’ in extension studies. Across Australia, Landcare and other movements engaged in exciting experiments that integrated technology, ecology and institutions. In NSW Hawkesbury College (later incorporated into the University of Western Sydney) was providing intellectual leadership to the exploration of sustainable futures. The QDPI was experiencing a period of self-renewal, innovation and investment. At the University of Queensland, Shankar and his colleagues were giving leadership to academic training and research that supported QDPI and other agencies in Australia in these endeavours.
Dr Chamala was very active at The University of Queensland, where he supervised some 120 Masters and PhD students, published six books, and presented at many national and international conference as well as being a keynote speaker at many international conferences. He conducted training in extension, and advised on development projects in many countries. Over his career he worked in the UK, Netherlands, Italy, France, West Germany, Switzerland, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, the USA, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and New Zealand. He was also very active in community work in Brisbane, particularly with Rotary, where he became President of the St Lucia Club, and as a founding member of Brisbane’s ethnic radio station 4EB and of the Shree Laxmi Narayan Mandir Hindu temple. Following his retirement in June 2000, he became Honorary Reader, and opened a consulting company Sustainable Development International through which he provided many national and international organisations with his expertise.
Shankar and his wife Shakuntala returned to India in 2006 to concentrate on social work through his Shankar Rural Development Foundation (SRDF) which he had set up in 1999. SRDF adopted his village - Chilver (100km from Hyderabad) and purchased land adjacent to the village school to provide a playground. SRDF was active in providing scholarships to economically disadvantaged students to continue further studies, and supplying books and educational and sporting equipment to the school. SRDF later expanded activities to help a second village, Dunura, then schools in slum areas of Hyderabad. Shankar became active with the Swachh Swachh (Clean India) Mission in the Bhasti district in 2016, and developed several models to address the two major issues facing urban areas, rubbish mountains and pollution of lakes.
For his work in Australia and India, Shankariah was awarded the GOPIO (Global Organisation for People of Indian Origin) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. He also received an award by the Brisbane Lord Mayor for his community work around 2007.
John Longworth describes Shankar Chamala as ‘a social science polymath, with the gift of drawing ideas and concepts from many different branches of the social sciences - Psychology, Education, Economics, Management, and Sociology - and applying them in the field of agricultural extension. Niels Röling described him as ‘combining the self-awareness of emergent India with the daredevil approach to the future that makes Australia so attractive’. Colleagues have many entertaining anecdotes about his humorous sharing of his early cross-cultural challenges, including collecting a university vehicle for his first field trip and looking for a (non-existent) driver, then being reluctant to ask what the directions ‘turn right at the turkey’s nest’ meant (it’s a type of farm dam). During the Brisbane floods in January 1974, when living in St Lucia near the river, he watched the evening news and sympathised with people upriver who had to leave their homes, or be rescued, as floodwaters rose into houses. Later that evening he heard a knock on the door, opened it to ask ‘How can I help you’, and saw two men in a dinghy there to evacuate the family as waters rose up the stairs.
Shankar and his wife Shakuntala are also well remembered for their hospitality, warm family relationships, and kindness to students. Shakuntala, who settled in Australia with three young children, and had to learn English on arrival, was a strong enabler of his work.
Helen Ross, Ken Keith, John Longworth, Niels Röling, Pax Blamey, Rob Cramb, and Raju Chamala
S Chamala, CM Coughenour & KJ Keith 1983, Study of Conservation Cropping on the Darling Downs- a basis for extension programming, Department of Agriculture, The University of Queensland.
Chamala S, Coutts J & Pearson C 2000, Participation Methodologies in Innovation Management for Sustainable Agriculture: Resource Book, Land and Water Research and Development Corporation, Canberra ACT.
Chamala S, Keith K & Quinn P 1982, Adoption of Commercial and Soil Conservation Innovations in Queensland, Department of Agriculture, The University of Queensland.
Chamala S & Mortiss P 1990, Working together for Land Care: Group management skills and strategies, Australian Academic Printers, Bowen Hills, Queensland.
Coughenour CM & Chamala S eds. 2000, Conservation Tillage and Cropping Innovation: Constructing the New Culture of Agriculture, Iowa State University Press, USA.
Crouch B and Chamala S eds. 1981, Extension Education and Rural Development, Wiley.
Hunt W, Birch C, Coutts J & Vanclay F 2012, ‘The many turnings of agricultural extension in Australia’, The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, vol. 18, no. 1, pp.9-26.