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A fruitful decade

Print edition : Aug 19, 2000 T+T-

The 10-year-old M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation has made remarkable progress in taking the results of research to the poor with a view to promoting employment-led, sustainable economic growth.

ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR

THE Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, which has carved a niche for itself as a model institution in the field of farm and farm-related research, celebrated its 10th anniversary on August 7. It was also the 75th birthday of Dr.M.S. Swami nathan, who shaped the institution and whose ideas and programmes have stemmed from 45 years of research experience.

The foundation was registered in July 1988 as a non-profit trust. As its chairman, Dr. Swaminathan funded it with money that came with the World Food Prize awarded to him in 1987. Its aims were to harness science and technology for environmentally sustai nable and socially equitable development. In 1990, the foundation started work in a rented biulding in Chennai with focus on exploring the various dimensions of the interaction among the environment, growth and development. In 1993, the research centre m oved to its own impressive facility, which breathes ecology everywhere - its garden depicts the five ecological zones described in the ancient Tamil literary work Tholkappiam; computers work on solar energy; most of the water needs are met by rain harvesting; and the centre has made minimal use of wood.

Since the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Commission), the "development versus growth" debate has become strident. But the relationship between the two - the environment on the one hand and proper and me aningful growth and development on the other - has to pass the sustainability test. This obviously gives several dimensions to the issue and it is this task that the foundation has set for itself.

Such an agenda has three dimensions: development of technologicy that is environment-friendly, ecological considerations relating to sustainable development, and the all-important socio-political or institutional issues involved. The foundation is on the right track, with the focus on integrating technology with the principles of ecology, economic development and equity.

In this regard, it has identified the gaps in the ongoing research programmes in the country, and evolved an agenda to fill these. To promote employment-led economic growth, which is also environmentally and socially sustainable, the results of frontier research had to be brought to the poorest of the poor. The foundation has made these two objectives the basis for its research programmes.

From the beginning the foundation has worked on five broad areas - coastal systems, biodiversity, ecotechnology, reaching the unreached, and informatics - keeping the three dimensions as its central plank. To pursue its agenda, it has established impress ive technological facilities - laboratories, mist chambers, greenhouses, a genetic garden, a community gene bank, an endangered species enclave and an excellent library with CD-ROM facilities.

All its programmes are geared towards achieving sustainability. "Our goal has to be the enhancement of the productivity, profitability and stability of our major farming systems based on ecological ground rules," says the first annual report of the found ation. It adds, "Thus, our concept of sustainability has to be a dynamic one, leading to a continuous improvement in biological productivity on an ecologically and socially sustainable basis." It is significant that Dr. Swaminathan views sustainability i n a very broad sense, and not just in terms of ecology and environment. His aim, he says, is to generate jobs based on the use of natural resources without endangering the long-term viability of such employment processes.

The foundation considers the third dimension - socio-political and institutional issues - very important on its research agenda. This is apparent from the two programmes - Reaching the Unreached and Informatics. This also comes out clearly from its secon d annual report, which states that one of its foremost aims is "to design institutional structures which will help to impart a pro-poor bias in technology development and dissemination and ensure that the economic benefits of new technologies reach the u nreached, particularly women, youth and the assetless."

The foundation's two projects - Bio-Village, covering 103 villages, and Information Village, covering six villages in Pondicherry, are testimony to its commitment to bringing the best in frontier technology to the poor and marrying it with traditional kn owledge. An impressive feature of all these programmes is that the foundation's scientists train the people of the villages and ensure that the programme continues even after they withdraw.

The Bio-Village Programme, set up with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) initially in 19 Pondicherry villages in 1991, promotes the livelihood security of the poor with locally available resources. Thus, for instance, Kathanaya ki in Sivaranthapuram took to mushroom cultivation in 1994, and last year she earned a net income of Rs. 3,562; Devi from Agaram started cultivating fodder grass in 1996, which fetched her Rs. 13,000 last year; Rani Rasu of Pillaiyarkuppam opted for dair ying in 1995 and her income last year was Rs.29,768; Pargunam from Pillaiyarkuppam went in for vermiculture in 1995 and earned Rs. 21,000 last year; and the women's aquaculture group (nine members) of Kizhur village made Rs. 11,000 last year.

To make the programme sustainable, a micro-credit system, managed mostly by women, has been established in all the villages. The MSSRF provides technical expertise to set up enterprises and skill training to manage them. It has set up a biocentre, essent ially run by village people and with facilities for training and for the dissemination of demand-driven and location-specific information.

The Information Villages are a revolution of sorts. They demonstrate how free flow of information can change rural lives. This programme has attracted global attention.

The foundation has set up, with funds from the International Development Research Centre, Canada, information kiosks in six Pondicherry villages, where computers, electronic educational material and agri-business information are made available. Farmers g et information about the weather; they get the right seeds and other inputs when they need; and have a better understanding of the market as the prices in different markets are available to them. Satellite images tell fishermen where to cast their net. P eople of the six villages sell their goods - cows, vessels, grain and vegetables - through the computer network. A CD set entertains and educates the children. People visit the centres for purposes as diverse as to locate a specialist doctor, get a tip o n crop cultivation or just find out a bus route. Impressed with the information villages, the Pondicherry government is in the process of extending the experiment at least to a hundred villages in the next few years.

Every year the MSSRF conducts an international dialogue on specific issues, and this has set a trend and helped the national government and international agencies to focus discussions and research on those areas. For instance, the International Dialogue on Plant Genetic Resources, held in 1989, led to the adoption of a legally binding Global Convention on Biological Diversity in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and the establishment of a Global Environment Facility, which is a major multilateral funding mechanis m to stimulate and support biodiversity convention efforts.

In 1994, the MSSRF held an interdisciplinary dialogue to prepare a draft Plant Variety Protection and Farmer's Rights Bill. This draft was a starting point for the Agriculture Ministry and the Centre to get an integrated bill prepared for consideration b y Parliament.

Among the MSSRF's other international contributions are the Global Mangrove Ecosystem Information Service, a strategy for the conservation of agro-biodiversity, and the ongoing compilation of the best practices for equity in benefit sharing at the field level in different parts of the world.

The foundation's triple helix strategy of involving the poor, industry and policy-makers has resulted in various programmes,including the setting up of the Women's Biotechnology Park at Kelambakkam, close to Chennai.

Coordinating such a research effort under one roof is no mean task. First, the complex nature of such research necessitates the harnessing of expertise from different fields. The foundation has thus made its research inter-disciplinary. Its over 200-stro ng research team - permanent members and consultants - consists of experts from natural sciences such as botany, agricultural science, and social sciences such as economics, sociology and social anthropology. The foundation is also linked to various nati onal and international research institutions.

Secondly, money is a major problem, particularly now when research funds in general are drying up. To begin with, Dr. Swaminathan put in all his prize money, his students collected some money, and some industrialists made contributions. This was followed by grants from the Central and State governments. Several multilateral agencies, such as the UNDP, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Asian Development Bank, t he International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Swedish International Development Agencies and the International Tropical Timber Organisation, have also made donations. The mere upkeep of the infrastructure at the Foundation requires over Rs. 1 l akh every month. This means a corpus of at least Rs. 1 crore. Substantial progress was made on this front last year when the Ford Foundation gave a generous grant towards the Foundation's corpus.

All this accomplishment in 10 years is no mean achievement. But the ever-modest Dr. Swaminathan distributes the credit equitably among his colleagues and the farmers, and says: "All that was needed for this effort was the inspiration, perspiration and lu ck of the numerous farm scientists and farmers whom I have worked with."