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It Is Essential To Use Science & Technology To Increase Productivity: Prof Madhura Swaminathan

BW Businessworld's Neeta Misra catches up with the Chairperson of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Madhura Swaminathan on the foundations work and why young people need to get involved

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Madhura Swaminathan is Professor at the Economic Analysis Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Bangalore. She has a doctorate in Economics from the University of Oxford and works on issues pertaining to food security, agriculture and rural development. She was a member of the Government of India's High-Level Panel on Long-Term Food Security. She has been elected to serve on the Committee of Development Policy of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations for the period 2013-2015.

What are the Foundations work?
The core areas of the work of the Foundation are the following overlapping research themes: Coastal systems research, agricultural biodiversity, biotechnology, sustainable agricultural livelihoods including livestock and fisheries, and food and nutrition security. Issues of climate change and gender inequality are independent areas of research and cross-cutting areas in that they inform all of the other research themes. Research and development on these issues are taken up in specific agro-ecological contexts (dry regions, coastal regions, hilly regions, and so on) and specific socioeconomic contexts. Specifically, our field sites are located in tribal areas and in coastal fishing communities, and biodiversity hotspots. We have field sites in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Odisha.

How central is climate change to your work? Why is this key for the state of Tamil Nadu and what other states can learn from this? 
MSSRF's work on climate change focuses on two aspects, first, enhancing the adaptive capacity of rural communities to climate change, particularly focussing on an adaptation of coastal communities to sea level rise and, secondly, creating a cadre of grassroots level trained people, or what we have termed Community Hunger Fighters.  Coastal Systems Research has been a focus of our attention since 1989, on the premise that sea level rise due to climate change is a reality and one of the cumulative effects of sea level rise would be salinization of land and water resources leading to various environmental and socio-economic issues including loss of livelihood through reduced productivity of agriculture land, qualitative and quantitative changes in fisheries, migration to urban areas etc. From its inception, the Coastal Systems Research programme of MSSRF has followed three strategies: one, to develop and demonstrate a model Integrated Coastal Zone Management programme,  secondly, to restore and conserve the mangrove wetlands along coastal areas, and thirdly, to develop saline tolerant crop varieties using saline tolerant genes of the mangrove plants.

The model Integrated Coastal Zone Management programme was implemented in the Nagapattinam coast to demonstrate how natural resource management can be integrated with livelihoods taking account of climate and rainfall, the local resource base including capture and culture fisheries, land ownership and land use pattern, and people. One of the important outcomes of this project is the development of a science-based methodology for inter-sectoral planning for ICZM, which is now being used to plan and implement state-level ICZM programmes with suitable modification.

It is widely recognised that the foundation has successfully spearheaded Mangrove conservation across the country. How did this unfold? 
MSSRF concentrated on mangroves since mangroves enhance fishery resources of the coastal waters and also act as a physical barrier to rise in sea waters. The platform of mangroves is living and increases vertically every year due to trapping of sediments and accumulation of mangrove litter and this vertical annual increase is almost equal to the predicted increase in sea level due to climate change. The major achievement of MSSRF in mangrove management was that it developed and demonstrated a science-based, community-centred and process-oriented approach called Joint Mangrove Management to restore and sustain mangrove wetlands. MSSRF has piloted this model in all four states along the east coast in partnership with State Forest Departments and local fishing and farming families from 1996 to 2003. This model is now being replicated in almost all the coastal states. The cumulative result is that the mangrove forest cover of India has increased by about 70,000 ha over the last 30 years. Research indicates that one hectare of mangroves of about 12 years old can yield more than 500 kg of fishery resources per ha per year. Thus, the benefit of mangrove restoration goes to the fishers mainly in the form enhanced fishery resources.

Regarding saline tolerant crops, MSSRF has developed transgenic rice varieties that can tolerate up to 12 to 15 grams/litre of salinity using genes isolated from mangrove plants whereas most of the traditional saline tolerant varieties can tolerate much lower salinity.

At present MSSRF is focussing on three more strategies to increase the adaptive capacity of the community to sea level rise. The first is to popularize integrated mangrove fisheries farming system, wherein mangrove plantation and fish culture are integrated in such a way as to take care of both ecological and livelihood needs of the community. This model is developed by MSSRF and it is recognized globally as one of the Blue Solutions. Secondly, we are trying to revive integrated fish culture-saline tolerant paddy cultivation systems such as Pokkali in Kerala and Kagga in Karnataka. Thirdly, we are identifying new saline tolerant crops from a group of high saline tolerant plants called halophytes. Halophytes grow exclusively in high saline areas and many of them can be domesticated as crops to produce vegetables, edible oil, nutritious seeds, etc. MSSRF has begun a genetic garden of halophytes.

Initially, we focussed work along the Tamil Nadu coast because of its vulnerability to both natural hazards such as cyclone, storm surges and flooding and predicated impact of climate change. As already, indicated many of the models, such ICZM, Joint Mangrove Management and Integrated Mangrove Fishery Farming System, which are demonstrated along the Tamil Nadu coast, are being scaled up in other coastal states, particularly by the state agencies with suitable modifications. The practical models to increase the adaptive capacity of coastal communities to sea level rise are now spreading to other States. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has provided support under its Adaptation Fund to demonstrate some of these models in Andhra Pradesh with the participation of the Central and State governments. We are also taking up work in the agricultural heritage site of Kuttanad on the coast of Kerala where below-sea-level farming has been practised for generations.

How integral is science and technology to the work of the foundation? 

MSSRF is recognised by the Government of India as a scientific research organisation and science and technology are at the core of our work. Science at the Foundation ranges from biotechnology (MSSRF was the first to develop a salt-tolerant paddy variety) to research on biodiversity conservation (such as work on wild foods in Wyanad) to participatory farm trials for selection of seeds and farming practices for higher productivity and better nutrition.

The vision of MSSRF is linking science, technology and society for sustainable and equitable development with a "pro-poor, pro-nature and pro-women orientation. "Scientific research is an integral part of most programmes at MSSRF. We follow a participatory research approach, that is, one where women, farmers, people of tribal communities, and so on, are part of the research programme. They participate in identifying problem issues and possible solutions and then in planning, implementation and monitoring of the programme. In certain areas, we took an anticipatory research approach, and one of the outstanding contributions of MSSRF is the research taken up over 25 years ago on managing climate change and sea level rise (that is, anticipating climate change). Many of the programmes generate primary field level and these data are used to develop and demonstrate models.

Our teams usually comprise biological and social scientists as both are essential especially when you work at the field level. I would also like to add here that the philosophy at the Foundation is to be open to all new developments in science.

What in your view are the key developmental challenges in the areas that the Foundation work in and how do you hope to address these? 

The key challenge for agriculture and rural households, in general, is of productivity, profitability and ecology. In other words, it is essential to use science and technology to raise productivity and incomes while ensuring ecological sustainability. This is the real challenge given the poverty of a large section of agricultural households. And this challenge is now compounded by the effects of climate change. We feel this keenly since we work with vulnerable farm populations in arid, hilly, coastal and biodiversity hotspot locations.  

To take an example, increasing the productivity and production of pulses is an important goal for the country as we are currently importing significant quantities for domestic consumption. MSSRF has worked with farmer producer organisations to improve farming practices and raise the productivity of pulses and millets. Another area of agronomic intervention is in identifying suitable crop and non-crop mixes that result in higher incomes and higher nutrition availability. In these tasks, biological and social scientists work together on the multiple components of an intervention.

Unsustainable exploitation of fishery resources is another major issue affecting the livelihood of coastal fishers. Through our Fish for All Centre, we are addressing this issue through promoting sustainable fishing practices, deploying artificial reefs to increase fish productivity and training fisherwomen and men on value addition and processing. One of our technology applications, now in its tenth year, is the Fisher Friendly Mobile App, which gives real-time data on wavelength, wind speed, depth of fish shoals, among other variables.

Another relevant example is the work on conservation science being undertaken at the Community Agrobiodiversity Centre of MSSRF, located at Wyanad, a biodiversity hotspot in the Western Ghats biosphere reserve. Wyanad is also a region with a concentration of Scheduled Tribes. MSSRF tries to address the problem of conservation in the context of providing better livelihoods to the tribal peoples. MSSRF has pioneered ex-situ, in situ and on-farm conservation of plant species in conjunction with local tribal custodian farmers.

Long-term sustainable development requires local-level planning. Our experience also shows that empowering members of Panchayati Raj institutions with appropriate scientific knowledge and technology enhances their capacity for planning and implementation.

For MSSRF, the challenge is to attract socially committed and intellectually curious young people to work on problems of rural India.


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