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Thrust on ecotechnology

Print edition : Aug 29, 1998 T+T-

The J.R.D Tata Ecotechnology Centre, set up as a department of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, is doing significant work directed at alleviating poverty and conserving natural resources.

"ECOTECHNOLOGY," says Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, Chairman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), "is the pathway for the next millennium." The MSSRF, which has been working for two decades to integrate traditional eco-friendly practices with methods of modern science and technology, passed a milestone recently with the opening of the J.R.D. Tata Ecotechnology Centre building on its campus at Taramani, Chennai. The Centre, set up in 1996 with an endowment grant from the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, the J.R.D. Tata Trust, the R.D. Tata Trust and the Tata Education Trust, works to propagate ecotechnologies in rural India with a view to alleviating poverty and conserving and enhancing natural resources.

According to Dr. Swaminathan, livelihood systems need to be created for 1.5 crore people every year and the only sustainable way of doing this is by increasing productivity without depleting the "environmental capital stock", such as water, forest and land. He describes ecotechnology as technology that is environment-friendly, economically viable and socially equitable. By its very nature it is decentralised and creates innumerable employment opportunities. President K.R. Narayanan, who inaugurated the Ecotechnology Centre building on July 29, described it as the "technology of hope".

SINCE April 1996, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) set up an ecotechnology chair at the Foundation, the MSSRF's efforts on the ecotechnology front, supported by the Tata trusts, has been aimed to provide sustainable solutions to two major contemporary challenges: rural poverty and the increasing damage to environmental capital stock.

Since the only asset the landless agricultural workers possess is their labour, the Ecotechnology Centre tries to increase the value of their work per unit of time. For instance, one of the Ecotechnology Centre's projects has helped cut labourers' work-hours by a third without affecting productivity.

Over the last two years, the Ecotechnology Centre has been working on 12 projects in villages in Tamil Nadu. The projects are based on participatory research to develop grassroots-level institutions and employ simple adaptations of sophisticated laboratory technologies. These, according to Dr. Swaminathan, are model projects that need to be replicated across the country.

The Technology Research Centre (TRC), one of the national institutions supported by the Union Government's Council for Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology (CAPART), helps the Ecotechnology Centre with training and capacity-building in rural areas. The Ecotechnology Centre helps identify the technology, adapt it to suit local needs, demonstrate it, train participants, market the product and, finally, manage the system. It then withdraws from the project, leaving it to be run by the participants or local non-governmental organisations. Its basic premise is to help the poor help themselves.

THE Director of the Ecotechnology Centre, Dr. K. Balasubramanian, says that the range of the Centre's work extends from the making of "murukku (a crispy South Indian snack) to research in molecular biology." Most of the projects are in the nascent stage. He classifies the projects into three:

The first type consists of projects that use proven technologies. Here, the participants make the entire monetary investment while the Ecotechnology Centre demonstrates the technology and trains them.

The second type of projects includes those in which the technology is laboratory-proven but not field-tested. In this case, both the Ecotechnology Centre and the participants invest the money. Any profit that is made goes to the participants but they are required to contribute a portion of it to a common fund from which they can draw when in need; the Ecotechnology Centre will bear any loss that is incurred.

The third group is composed of projects that use nascent technologies. The Ecotechnology Centre is the sole investor in such projects.

Projects in which the participants are the sole investors include the "neem-village" and seed-village" projects. The neem-village project, taken up in Pudupatti village in Dharmapuri district, links wasteland development with biopesticide production. The Apt Research Group estimates that neem seeds worth Rs. 2,000 crores are lost every year in the country even as their demand grows rapidly for biopesticide production and pharmaceutical application and in the soap industry. Over the last three years, the Ecotechnology Centre planted 20,000 neem seedlings on 100 hectares of wasteland in Pudupatti. Based on a survival rate of 75 per cent, it is estimated that by 2002 the village will produce 400 tonnes of seed annually, which will fetch Rs.25 lakhs at current prices.

The seed-village project, in Kannivadi village in Dindigul district, links agricultural families with private and public sector seed companies with the objective of providing farmers the advantages of scale in seed production and marketing. Over 1,000 landless peasants, including women, are trained in various aspects of seed production using hybridisation and vegetative propagation techniques. Over 80 hectares are under hybrid seed production, and productivity has been 30-80 per cent higher than the maximum estimated by seed companies. Only farmyard manure and neem sprays are used, not chemical fertilizers or pesticides. For three hours' work the seed producers now get Rs.35, the wage they used to get for eight hours' work. A cooperative has been formed and the Ecotechnology Centre may soon withdraw from the project, leaving the participants to run it.

Among the projects in which the Ecotechnology Centre and the participants have invested money are a "pulse-village" project and an ornamental fish breeding project.

The pulse-village project, in Sivagamipuram village in Pudukottai district and Kavadipatti village in Ramanathapuram district, was started using models to raise productivity and water management techniques. The focus was on water harvesting processes in farm ponds and minor irrigation channels. Over 100 farmers in the two districts, whose land remained fallow, benefited after water was provided during the flowering and podding periods. A combination of traditional and new seed varieties is used in the project, which is run in collaboration with two local NGOs.

The ornamental fish breeding project in the coastal village of Keelamanakudi in Chidambaram district was started last year to supplement the incomes of poor, landless women. The unused hume pipes from the aborted Veeranam water project were used to set up backyard fish breeding enterprises. The project is a big success, and fish is being exported to Singapore. Overseas demand has far exceeded supply. The production cost is less than 8 per cent of the price that the fish fetch; last year each woman earned an income of over Rs.4,000.

In the third category of projects, in which the Ecotechnology Centre makes the monetary investment, come a low-cost greenhouse project and an eco-aquaculture and integrated intensive farming project. Under the low-cost greenhouse project, launched last year in Kattupakkam village in Kancheepuram district, four types of greenhouses were set up using easily available materials, such as nylon and high-density polyethylene sheets. Four vegetable crops were raised using organic farming methods. Over 25 farmers and landless labourers are involved in the project. The yield has far exceeded the estimates.

The eco-aquaculture and integrated intensive farming projects have been undertaken at a research-cum-demonstration plot at Keelamanakudi village. The eco-aquaculture project attempts to develop a production model for a shrimp variety (Macrobrachium rosenbergii), using harvested rainwater. A productivity of 575 kg per hectare was achieved without a water exchange system or use of equipment such as aerators. The economic viability of the project is being studied.

UNDER the integrated intensive farming project, the Ecotechnology Centre has been trying 12 different related activities. Last year, the project integrated the cultivation of paddy, mushroom, redgram, blackgram, fish and horticultural crops such as lady's finger, snake-gourd, banana and greens using organic methods of cultivation. For instance, paddy and banana waste was used in mushroom production and the waste from mushroom used as fish and animal feed. Livestock such as goats, rabbits and ducks are also raised in the farm. With the use of only green manure (Sesbania rostrata), paddy yields 50 per cent higher than the maximum yield elsewhere in the village were achieved. Other crops showed similar results. The economic viability of this project is now being studied.

One of the major projects launched by the Ecotechnology Centre is to conserve and use minor millets which are fast vanishing. Ragi (Eleusine coracana), thinai (Setaria italica), samai (Panicum miliare), varagu (Paspalum scrobiculatum), barnyard millet (Echinochloa colona) and panivaragu (Panchicum miliaceum) are the common staples among the tribal communities and the rural people in Tamil Nadu. The micronutrient content of these is better than that of rice or wheat. For instance, finger millet has 189 times more calcium content and 175 times more iron content than rice, and samai has 30 times more iron and three times more calcium than rice.

The focus points of the project are conserving biodiversity through the cultivation of minor millets and increasing their consumption by integrating them with regular foodstuff. It aims at creating an economic stake in conservation.

This project is being carried on in the Kolli hills in Namakkal district, a traditional millet-producing area which is shifting to the tapioca crop in a big way. This change in the crop pattern has affected biodiversity and led to considerable soil erosion. As part of the project, the cultivation of minor millets is being propagated in this area. The project also documents, using DNA analysis, the characteristics of various traditional varieties of minor millets collected from the Kolli hills and other areas.

IN addition to running these projects, the Ecotechnology Centre has made useful research contributions. For instance, it has found that drumstick seeds absorb fluoride from drinking water, identified Trichoderma and Cassiaauriculata (flowers) as having the potential to increase the levels of phosphorous in manure, developed mushroom production using banana leaves, established that hybrid seed production can be done using organic inputs, demonstrated that tissue culture can be used in wasteland development, and shown that yields of 3.4 tonnes per hectare of the Ponni variety of paddy is possible through organic farming.

Much of the Ecotechnology Centre's effort has been made possible with the help provided by the Tata trusts, which contributed Rs.1.85 crores for research and training in 1996 and subsequently Rs.1.5 crores for the building. CAPART, apart from providing training and capacity-building facility through the TRC, also provided financial help for the building. The State Bank of India (SBI) contributed to the purchase of equipment while the Tamil Nadu Government donated 2.04 acres of land.

The new building itself represents an attempt to integrate the principles of ecotechnology. Rainwater harvesting facilities and water management systems have been incorporated in the design while its 10 kW power requirement is met by tapping solar energy. A herbal garden and shelter belts have been set up, and there is to be a sacred grove at the heart of the complex.

The building's state-of-the-art facilities are designed to offer 75,000 trainee-days every year for 500 interns. Conferences and workshops on relevant ecotechnology issues are also planned. According to Dr. Swaminathan, there is a proposal to offer an international course on forest management in collaboration with the International Timber Organisation. A "precision farming" demonstration and training programme, involving the Israeli Government, is to be launched in Chidambaram district. The idea is to train farmers to use everything "precisely". For instance, water conservation is achieved to an optimum level using membrane irrigation. In collaboration with other institutions, including the University of Jerusalem, the Ecotechnology Centre will set up a research and development (R&D) farm in Arava, near Jerusalem. With help from the SBI, which has contributed Rs.18.5 lakhs, the Ecotechnology Centre is to start a distance education programme in ecotechnology.

To make the fruits of the Ecotechnology Centre's research accessible to the people, the MSSRF has established a Media Resource Centre for Ecotechnology and Sustainable Develo-pment under the Asia-Pacific Eco-technology Network started in 1996, which now comes under the J.R.D. Tata Ecotechnology Centre. Kasturi & Sons, the publishers of The Hindu, Frontline and other publications, has donated Rs.1 crore for the Media Resource Centre.

Blending traditional wisdom and modern technology is an exciting adventure, says Dr. Swaminathan. Describing ecotechnology as the hope of the future, the pioneering agricultural scientist and institution-builder says that it would also help expand the country's agro-based exports as the eating preference in West-ern countries now is eco-foods. Ecotechnology, sums up Dr. Swaminathan, is a movement that needs to become a revolution.