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'We are pioneers in participatory research'

Print edition : Aug 19, 2000 T+T-
Interview with Dr. M.S. Swaminathan.

Seven years ago, sitting in the same room - although the building had not yet been completed - he had spoken to Frontline about his still-unfolding dream. In his soft yet clear and firm voice he had explained his work in many a field and detailed his res earch agenda, with absolute clarity of thought. Dr. M.S. Swaminathan had embarked upon an "adventure" to "foster a new symbiotic social contract between science and society" (Frontline, June 4, 1993).

Much of what the renowned agriculture scientist, who set up the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation and nurtured it with hard work and all his prize money, has since come true. For Dr. Swaminathan, however, it is but a milestone, before he continues wit h his life's work, which has, without being caught in a time warp, kept pace with the times, adapting to changes over the years.

Dr. Swaminathan's research agenda is based on three principles - a research centre without walls, sustainable development and reaching the unreached. The Foundation has demonstrated that it is indeed possible to marry the best in traditional science with frontier technology in order to help the poor and the semi-literate, who certainly have the skills and knowledge that are worth replicating.

A pioneering institution in participatory research - "including the excluded" in the development process - the Foundation consciously decided against having an experimental farm of its own. It considers farmers co-scientists and their fields, experiment stations. The key to the Foundation's success, as Dr. Swaminathan says, is that it addresses its work at two levels - the policy-makers and the grassroots people.

In his very productive research career of 45 years, Dr. Swaminathan has published, besides several books, over 250 scientific papers in international journals. He won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1971. In 1987 he became the first recipient of the World Food Prize, widely regarded as equivalent to the Nobel Prize. He received the Albert Einstein World Science Award in 1986. A grateful country adorned Dr. Swaminathan, the force behind the Green Revolution - which ensured India's f ood security - with top civil honours - the Padma Shri in 1967, the Padma Bhushan in 1972 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1989. The Foundation, under the able guidance of Dr. Swaminathan, is the only institution in Asia to receive the prestigious Blue Planet Prize for "solving global environmental problems through scientific research and application".

Regarded extensively as "a world scientist of rare distinction", a "legendary farm scientist" and "world leader of agricultural sciences", Dr. Swaminathan, as United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar said while conferring on him the World Food Prize, will go down in history as a leader of Indian science, and indeed world science.

On the Foundation's 10th anniversary and his 75th birthday, Dr. Swaminathan spoke to Asha Krishnakumar about his "adventure", his fulfilled dreams, and his passion. Excerpts from the interview:

It is 10 years since you set up this Foundation. How does its balance-sheet read now?

In late 1989, when we were just setting up this centre, I mentioned that the purpose of establishing this institution in Chennai was to delve into an adventure, of fostering a new symbiotic social contract between science and society. Emphasis was to be given to the socially, environmentally and economically handicapped sections. Looking back at the last 10 years, I think it has been a worthwhile adventure.

What is the key to the Foundation's success?

The primary reason is that we did not structure this centre as just one more institution. There are many such institutions in the country, and if another centre like this was to be set up it had to fill a gap, that is, to bring the best in frontier resea rch to the poorest of the poor. This is what we call "reaching the unreached" or "including the excluded". That has been an important goal right from the beginning.

Secondly, we aimed at integrating the principles of environmental and social sustainability in all our research programmes. Environmental sustainability, we felt, is important because land, water, flora, fauna, biodiversity, and so on are the very founda tions of sustainable agriculture. We interpreted social sustainability in gender terms as even at that time there was a growing feminisation of poverty, agriculture and so on. That is why the charter was developed in such a way that it had a pro-nature, pro-poor and pro-woman orientation, with technology development and dissemination at its root.

Thirdly, we were clear, and also we made it known to the people of the villages we worked with, right from the beginning that we are a small non-governmental organisation and did not have money to give out. We told them that we represented Sarasvati (the goddess of knowledge) and not Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth). So, that made our equation with the villagers very clear. They would get technical help and our knowledge but not money. Having established that equation, it became easy to work with them. T hey looked upon us as a knowledge and skill bank, and not as a money bank.

How does the work in your centre integrate with or supplement development work done elsewhere in the country?

We also realised that we need to fill the gaps in the on-going research rather than duplicate work. We carefully worked out the areas that needed to be covered so as to fill the gaps.

The first such area, which in some sense is also the purpose of setting up this centre in Chennai, is to work on the long coastal stretch of Tamil Nadu, the bio-diversity-rich group of islands such as Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep, and the nearly 5 5 per cent of the population living within 70-80 km of the shoreline. We found that this area was neglected because the fisheries, tourism, industries and forest departments were working separately and at loggerheads with one another. Aquaculture was goi ng on in a big way, mangroves were being removed... there was over-fishing and overmining of coral reefs.

A lot of environmental damage was being done. But by and large, it did not attract the attention of agricultural scientists. Thus, we decided to look at the coastal systems research, an adaptation from the farming systems research in agriculture which lo oks at land, water, crop and animal husbandry, fisheries, agriculture, forestry and so on. The coastal systems research adopted the FSR methodology, which looked at a 10 km area - 5 km of sea surface and 5 km of land surface - for integrated planning.

Our first work in coastal systems research started near Nagapattinam in Mayiladuthurai, where we looked at the land and the water system. Then we extended the work to the Pitchavaram mangroves, and so on.

The second area we chose was biodiversity because coastal biodiversity was seriously threatened. All biodiversity was under threat, but the coastal areas, particularly mangroves, seagrasses and coral reefs, were under great distress. For example, the Gul f of Mannar once upon a time used to be very rich in dugong, a fascinating mermaid. But now there is no dugong there. Dugongs grow in seagrass beds. But as seagrass is being finished, dugong's habitat has been destroyed, making their very survival diffic ult. Most species die because of the extinction of their habitats. So, we took up coastal biodiversity, particularly mangroves.

Here again, we felt there had to be an important change from the normal method of working. We decided to work at the two ends of the spectrum. Working at the grassroots level is very important. First there was a need to mobilise people to find out why th ey do certain things, and so on. On the other side, we felt that whatever we may do, unless we influence the policy-makers we do not have a scale in your efforts. You can, at best, make a small change somewhere.

So, one of the reasons why we have been successful is that we have always worked at two levels - with the policy-makers and the grassroots people. The biodiversity programme at the grassroots, for instance, has had considerable success in all the areas w e have worked - Kolli Hills, Pitchavaram, Muthupet, Wayanad in Kerala, and parts of Orissa, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The reason is, we work with the people. And, on the other hand, we help to develop farmers' rights, the Plant Variety Protection Bil l, the Biodiversity Bill and so on. Policy-makers' workshops are held regularly at the centre. And, now, thanks to The Hindu Media Resource Centre, it has become possible to interact with the media also in terms of creating public awareness and public ed ucation.

Biodiversity is the feedstock for the biotechnology industry. We wanted to work at all the three levels - conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits. In fact, when we say biodiversity management, it means all the three aspects. Thus, while we worked on conservation we felt that to work on sustainable use we had to harness the tools of modern biotechnology. That is why we established the Biotechnology Laboratory with three aims: identification of genes for salt water tolerance in man groves and transfer them to annual crops; developing methods of bioindications for schoolchildren to measure the health of the ecosystem, what we call biomonitoring; and micro-propagation of endangered species, which are called Red Data Book species, men tioned in the book published by the Biological and Zoological Survey of India. The surveys only warn us, what is important is to save them. And that is what we do in the greenhouses at the centre.

While designing the building, I thought it must have a message. The harvesting of sun and rain was the first message; we do both at the centre. The garden was designed to have all the ecological systems of Tamil Nadu mentioned in Tholkappiam. And, now, t he garden of the new building has the replica of a sacred grove. I thought the building itself must breathe ecology, which people can feel even as they enter the centre. That is why it was designed this way, highlighting harmony with nature.

From our work, particularly in the 103 bio-villages (knowledge centres) and six information villages in Pondicherry, we gained substantial insights and this led to our third area of work - ecotechnology or blending frontier and traditional technologies.

We found that illiterate and semi-literate women and men had a tremendous capacity for skill acquisition, leadership, training others, and so on. So, we launched on August 6 the MSSRF bio-village core in Pondicherry. Ultimately, there will be over 1,000 of them all over India. To begin with, 50 are to be inducted now. These people are in charge of our knowledge and information technology centres in Pondicherry. The bio-village core is being set up to tell people that just the fact that they do not have a university degree does not mean that they do not have knowledge, skill or wisdom. Our aim is to give these people, particularly women, some self-esteem and self-respect by providing opportunities to bring out their skill and intelligence. These women a nd men in the biodiversity core would now help set up other bio-villages. For example, in the cyclone-ravaged villages of Orissa, our "bio-villagers" are working as the prime movers of change.

So, the bio-village programme was intended to demonstrate that we can marry the best in traditional science with frontier technology. And the four areas of frontier technology we chose were biotechnology, information technology, space technology (remote sensing, geo-information system, geo-positioning system, weather monitoring system, and so on), and the renewable energy technology (solar, biomass and biogas). We call this technology blending ecotechnology in action and that is what we adopt in our bio -village programmes. The J.R.D. Tata Trust gave us money to set up an ecotechnology centre.

The late M.V. Arunachalam, who was my mentor and supporter and who played a major role in my coming over to Chennai, told me that he would give me land for experiments. But I thanked him and said no. Finally, the present Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu gave us this land to set up the centre. I refused Arunachalam because if we took the land and created an experiment station of our own, we would have a tendency to work only there. I thought that the experiment station should be in farmers' fields. So, we ar e pioneers in what is called 'participatory research' between scientists and farming families.

That, I think, has played a great role in the minds of our young people because when they go through difficulties and realise where the shoe pinches, they come out with excellent rapport with the villagers. For instance, if the farmers or farm women do n ot accept your advice, you understand the problems on the field by finding out why it is so, what the reason is - economic, psychological or social.

So, whatever technology is developed in the farmers' fields has very high economic and social credibility. Then other people accept it without difficulty as it has come from a farmer. So, that is another innovation we made. Although we are a scientific i nstitution, we do not have an experimental farm of our own. We consider farmers' fields our experiment station. And we consider farmers our co-scientists. We are partners in science.

The fourth area, reaching the unreached, is run by my wife Meena. This is largely a women-and-children programme. It concentrates on engendering the syllabus, programmes on child care, early childhood and empowering women. This is a very interesting prog ramme, and it has had a tremendous impact in Tamil Nadu. The tools used are interesting - television spots, radio, theatre, folk arts and so on. They have done a lot of work on the gender dimensions of biodiversity.

We are now working on developing a Food Insecurity Atlas of India, to be released on October 16, the World Food Day. This year's focal theme is a 'Hunger-free Millennium'.

Our last area of work is conducting seminars, symposia, dialogue, training, capacity building, networking and informatics or developing knowledge systems.

What laurels has your Foundation won that validate the general feeling that it is one of the premier institutions of farm research in the country?

Our knowledge system programme has been an extraordinary success. For the first time people have realised that these technologies can be mobilised to help the poor and the semi-literate. That is why The New York Times and The International Hera ld Tribune have written about our programme on knowledge systems that concentrate on mobilising information and communication technology for poverty eradication. Here we have assumed a world leadership.

Also, this is the first institution in Asia to get the Blue Planet Prize, one of the most prestigious in the world. No other individual or institution in Asia has got this coveted prize. This is an indication, as I said earlier, that the adventure has be en worthwhile.