labels: economy - general, jrd tata ecotechnology centre, writers & columnists, hrd, agriculture (infrastructure)
Ecology of hope news
Philip Chacko
07 March 2003

Chennai: The brightest smiles in India are to be found down south. S Vijayalakshmi validates the contention through a countenance that reflects the simple pleasure of finding a purpose in life. In her early 20s, Vijayalakshmi is a partner in an unlikely business, a master's student who overcame the handicap of being a school dropout, and a symbol of what India's rural poor can achieve when provided with the opportunity to blossom.

Vijayalakshmi is a member of an all-women self-help group in Srirangapannai, a village in Tamil Nadu's Dindukal district. These women are eco-entrepreneurs, so called because they run businesses based on the principles of environmental sustainability, economic viability and social equity. And they are the foot soldiers of the 'ecotechnology' crusade, the central idea of which is balancing the conservation of natural resources with the need to give people the chance to secure a decent livelihood.

The flag-bearer of the ecotechnology movement in India is the JRD Tata Ecotechnology Centre, which is part of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. Established in 1996, the Centre was born of renowned agricultural scientist Dr Swaminathan's conviction that an optimum blending of traditional wisdom and scientific endeavour that nurtures and protects the environment is the bedrock of truly sustainable development.

Dr Swaminathan, winner of the 'world food prize' back in 1987, set aside the money he received from the award for the Centre. A greater monetary contribution came from the Sir Dorabji Tata and Allied Trusts, which initially bestowed Rs 1.85 crore to the Centre. Formally inaugurated in July 1998, the institution has received more than Rs 4.5 crore from the Tata trusts thus far. This is the kind of backing that has enabled it to play a role in transforming people like Vijayalakshmi into beacons of hope.

Vijayalakshmi and her partners, organised under the banner of the Poomani self-help group, are involved in producing an environment- and human-friendly pesticide known as trichogramma, a wasp which feeds on the eggs of pests that attack cotton, sugarcane and other regional crops. ''We laughed when we first heard about using these wasps to kill the pests,'' says Vijayalakshmi, ''but then we were trained in trichogramma production and we were able to get the unit going.''

Educating local farmers about the benefits of using the pesticide has resulted in its use becoming increasingly popular. This methodology is now applied over more than 1,000 acres of land in Tamil Nadu, and conservative estimates put the cost savings for farmers at 30 to 40 per cent. That's ecotechnology at work, and the JRD Centre was the facilitator and catalyst in the process, getting Vijayalakshmi and her partners together, training them in creating an enterprise with the technology, and assisting them in securing credit for the venture from a local bank.

''Before I got involved with the self-help group, I was an introvert,'' admits Vijayalakshmi. ''I needed an escort even to go to nearby places. Now I travel as far as Madurai to attend classes for my master's degree. My parents have confidence in me and I have confidence in myself.''

Sustainability begins at home for the Centre. The Swaminathan Foundation campus, where it is housed, harvests rainwater and taps solar power. The lawn outside the Centre's main block is carpeted with Korean grass, which enables superior retention of groundwater. The campus also has a herbal garden, greenhouses, a horticultural museum, and a touch-and-smell garden for the visually handicapped.

The eco-friendly pesticide project is but one of a string of innovative initiatives the JRD Centre has fostered. In the Sevenakaranpatty village of Dindukal district, the Jansirani self-help group - the spelling may be flawed, but the spirit is genuine - has made a success of manufacturing high-quality paper and cardboard from the discarded stems and fibre of banana plantains.

The women in this venture, previously landless labourers, have been trained in production and financial management, and in marketing. The banana waste they work with was earlier the cause of organic pollution and a serious threat to the smooth flowing of their village's waterways. Today their unusual produce, which has found buyers in India and abroad, fetches them a profit of Rs 3 lakh a year.

A much larger project in terms of scope and participants is the 'neem-village' undertaking in Pudupatti, a place in Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu. Here the JRD Centre has developed wasteland by planting 20,000 neem seedlings over 250 acres. The 'seed-village' concept, implemented in the Kannivadi region in Dindukal, involved training more than 1,000 landless peasants in seed production that uses novel techniques. The 'pulse-village' project, conducted in the Sivagamipuram village in Pudukottai district and the Kavadipatti village in Ramanathapuram district, focuses on harvesting water in farm ponds and other irrigation channels.

The most interesting of these varied undertakings is the ornamental fish-breeding enterprise in the coastal village of Keelamanakudi in Chidambaram district. Working with the poor women of the village, the JRD Centre came up with the idea of utilising massive pipes - the remains of a government water scheme that had been jettisoned midway - to establish a breeding cache for exotic fish. With minimal production expenses and overflowing overseas demand, the venture has turned into an outright winner.

There are many other methods the JRD Centre employs to haul the poor out of the poverty trap: greenhouse projects that use inexpensive material and organic agriculture to improve yields; shrimp farming that depends on harvested rainwater; integrated farming techniques where paddy and banana waste are used in mushroom production and the waste from mushroom used as fish and animal feed.

More remarkable is the Centre's effort to revive the cultivation of what are termed minor millets. The repositories for the cultivation of these protein powerhouses in ages gone by were isolated tribal communities. But with modernity slowly and surely enveloping the food-production habits of tribal people, the cultivation of minor millets has taken a beating.

Millet varieties such as ragi (Eleusine Coracana), thinai (Setaria Italica), samai (Panicum Miliare) and varagu (Paspalum Scrobiculatum), with micro-nutrient content vastly superior to that of rice or wheat, were on the road to oblivion when the Centre took up their cause. Encouraging tribal people to resume growing the cereals and helping them advertise and market it - about 5,000 packets of the stuff are sold through a foodstuff chain in Chennai - has ensured that minor millets are on the road to staging a major recovery.

But the JRD Centre's holistic vision for rural development stretches way beyond farming. That means literacy programmes that use computers and touch-screen technology, interaction and advocacy with the government, educating the poor about the schemes the state administration has for them, and helping establish village knowledge centres, where the poor can source information on agriculture, health, animal husbandry, horticulture, government programmes and subsidies etc.

This all-encompassing approach is par for the sustainable development course that the Centre's parent body, the Swaminathan Foundation, has charted. ''Dr Swaminathan has always wanted the Foundation to be more than just another development institution,'' says Dr K Balasubramanian, the director of the JRD Centre. ''In regular universities research on sustainable development is confined to segmented departments. Dr Swaminathan set a different standard. He believes that the impact you create on society should be the defining factor.

''The Foundation is a university without walls. The village communities we work with are our partners in research, not just users of our knowledge. We learn from them and they from us. We don't impose ourselves on these people. We try and figure out, in close consultation with the villagers, what their needs are and what will work for them in their area.''

There's no fixed bouquet of projects and no set sequence of initiatives that the JRD Centre carries to every new place it gets involved with. So it could be micro-credit organisations in one village, self-help groups in another and literacy projects or sustainable farming in a third. ''We tend to favour micro enterprises because agriculture cannot, in these times, sustain people, it cannot absorb labour,'' explains Dr Balasubramanian. ''From micro enterprises you move on to capacity building and training. That requires computers, which means a need for literacy. Every solution brings a problem that has to be resolved before moving on.''

Says Anand Venkataseshan, a fresh-faced technical assistant who is attached to the Centre's projects in Pondicherry: ''Our intention was to provide these people with the means to make some additional income. A family of four needs about Rs 20,000 per year to live a basic kind of life. Traditional methods of farming get these people about Rs 15,500 a year. What we have suggested gets them an additional Rs 6,000. This is a great help for the rural poor in these areas.''

The facilitator role is built into the Centre's code. ''The self-help groups have to be connected to micro enterprises,'' says Dr Balasubramanian. ''We link these village groups to credit institutions and markets, and we take them through production development programmes. The linear approach does not work here. What we try to do is glean a complete profile of the village, its needs, and its potential to fulfil those needs.''

There are three essentials in the JRD Centre's approach:

  • Creating grassroots institutions that can respond to any problem.
  • Building capabilities, so that people can understand where solutions are available.
  • Helping start micro-credit associations and micro enterprises that deliver livelihood opportunities.

Health, education, livestock management, knowledge centres etc follow once these parameters are fulfilled. ''We are not a philanthropic organisation; we do not hand out money,'' says Dr Balasubramanian. ''What we do is get these people started. Earlier we used to seek out new villages; now we go on the basis of demand. People come and tell us we want to join in. Having a network is a great help.''

Getting a project rolling is the first step. Down the line there's a horizontal transfer of knowledge, which might mean a batch of villagers get trained and then passing on the learning to other villagers. Or newly literate villagers teaching tribal communities how to read and write. Planting roots such as these have led to, in Kannivadi, a website that provides information about the region's vegetable market and the products made by local eco-entrepreneurs.

There are six phases in the JRD Centre's matrix of sustainable development: mobilisation, organisation, technology transfer, systems management, capacity building and withdrawal. The last of these is critical. The Centre's objective is to make itself redundant, so to speak, over a period of time to the people who benefit from its expertise. This is a consistent theme with the Centre, and it's a huge bonus for the organisation and, more importantly, the villages it works with.

There's no withdrawal for the Centre when it comes to commitment. One of the Centre's most crucial assets is the dedication of Dr Balasubramanian and his team. This loyalty to the cause is an important reason why the Dorabji Tata Trust has continued to support the Centre, even enhance its backing. ''The Centre is doing great work,'' says Mukund Gorakshkar, the programme officer who interacts with the Centre on behalf of the Trust.

''What I find most remarkable is the Centre's ability to understand issues and bring their expertise to this whole equation of matching technology with the livelihoods of poor people,'' adds Gorakshkar. ''There are two issues here: your work in the field and your policy direction and its implications. The JRD Centre has been exemplary in these criteria, which is why our partnership with it has been so successful.''

The Trust assistance to the Centre follows clear-cut and rigorous guidelines. The Trust has commissioned two reviews of the Centre's work, and made some recommendations based on these. ''We have developed a close relationship with Dr Balasubramanian and his team,'' says Gorakshkar. ''There has been a lot of sharing, a lot of interaction at every tier.''

Gorakshkar points out that with ''government interventions'' declining across the board in spheres where the poor as most affected, organisations such as the JRD Centre and, by extension, the Tata Trusts have a greater load to carry. ''All that the poor need is a forum that helps them find their feet. The JRD Centre does precisely that.''

''The famine of work causes the famine of food,'' says Dr Swaminathan, the patriarch whose vision shaped the Centre. ''Today's world is in need of a message of hope. What we need is an ecology of hope: not a 'doom ecology', but a 'do ecology'. This is where the new movement for eco-enterprises and ecotechnology has become a very powerful instrument.''


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