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(The following article is from the Millennium issue of NEW INDIA DIGEST - Nov. 1999 to February 2000)



Mobilising Technology for Social and Gender Equity


Prof. M. S. Swaminathan

      The poor are poor because they have no assets no land, no livestock, no fishpond, no home gardens and no production skills. They consequently tend of survive on daily wages doing unskilled work.

    Although science is only about 500 years old in Europe dating back to Copernicus, the Industrial Revolution helped to accelerate progress in converting science into economically viable technology. While science helps to advance the frontiers of knowledge, as has happened in India from the Vedic period, it is only technology, which helps to advance the frontiers of productivity and production and thereby of economic wealth.

    Technology-poor countries witness a situation to which Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru drew attention over 50 years ago, when he said: "We are a poor people inhabiting a rich country". The principal assets the poor have are time and labour. Hence, poverty eradication programmes should concentrate on building the assets of the poor by adding economic value to the time and labour of the women and men living in poverty. Such value addition to time and labour will be possible only through the technological and sill empowerment of the poor, in particular in agriculture.

    As we say goodbye to the twentieth century we can look back with price and satisfaction on the revolution which our farm men and women have brought about in our agricultural history. In 1969, I wrote about the role of our farmers in initiating the Wheat Revolution:

    "Brimming with enthusiasm, hard-working, skilled and determined, the Punjab farmer has been the backbone of the revolution. Revolutions are usually associated with the young, but in this revolution, age has been no obstacle to participation. Farmers, young and old, educated and uneducated, have easily taken to the new agronomy. It has been heart-warming to see young college graduates, retired officials, ex-armymen, illiterate peasants and small farmers queuing up to get the new seeds. At least in the Punjab, the divorce between intellect and labour, which has been the bane of our agriculture is vanishing".

    Thanks to the introduction of mutually reinforcing packages of technology, services and public policies, we have avoided famines of the kind we frequently witnessed during the colonial period. The Bengal famine of 1942-43, which provided the backdrop of our independence, was the last big famine of this century.

    While we can, and should, rejoice over the past achievements of our farmers, scientists, extension workers and policy makers, there is no room for complacency. Several new problems now loom on the horizon.

   First, increasing population leads to increased demand for food and reduced per capita availability of arable land and irrigation water.

   Second, improved purchasing power and increased urbanisation leads to higher per capita food grain requirements due to an increased consumption of animal products.

   Third, marine fish production is tending to become stagnant.

   Four, there is increasing damage to the ecological foundations of agriculture, such as land, water, forests, biodiversity and the atmosphere and there are distinct possibilities for adverse changes in climate and sea level.

   Finally, while dramatic new technological developments are taking place, particularly in the field of biotechnology, their environmental and social implications are yet to be fully understood.

    Since land is a shrinking resource for agriculture, there is no option except to produce more food and other agricultural commodities from less per capita land. In other words, the need for more food has to be met through higher yields per units of land, water, energy and time. It would therefore be useful to examine how science can be mobilised for raising further the ceiling to biological productivity without associated ecological harm. It will be appropriate to refer to the emerging scientific progress on the farms as an "ever-green revolution", to emphasise that the productivity advance is sustainable over time since it is rooted in the principles of ecology, economics, social and gender equity and employment generation.

    To give an idea of the dimensions of challenges faced by all involved in developing scientific strategies and public policies for sustainable food security, a few statistics may be cited.

    In global terms, India today has:

  • 16 percent of human population
  • 15 percent of farm animal population
  • 2 percent of the geographical area
  • 1 percent rainfall
  • 0.5 percent of forests
  • 0.5 percent of grazing land

    How are we going to meet the challenge of diminishing per capita availability of natural resources and the expanding need for balanced diets?

    Fortunately, as we approach the new century, we are experiencing three major revolutions in science and technology, which will influence agricultural technology in a fundamental manner.

   The gene revolution which provides a molecular understanding of the genetic basis of living organisms, as well as the ability to use this understanding to develop new processes and products for agriculture, the environment, and for human and animal health.

   The information and communication revolution which allows very rapid growth in the systematic assimilation and dissemination of relevant and timely information, as well as a dramatically improved ability to access the universe of knowledge and communicate through low-cost electronic networks, and

   The ecotechnology revolution which promotes the blending of the best in traditional knowledge and technology with frontier technologies such as biotechnology, space and information technologies, renewable energy and new materials.

    In principle, these three types of advances when coupled with improvements in management science and governance greatly increase the power of a scientific approach to genetic improvement, agronomics, the integrated management of natural resources and ecosystems, and the management of local and regional development policies.

The Gene Revolution

    The past ten years have seen dramatic advances in our understanding of how biological organisms function at the molecular level, as well as in our abilities to analyze, understand and manipulate DNA molecules, the biological material from which the genes in all organisms are made. The entire process has been accelerated by the human Genome Project, which has poured substantial resources into the development of new technologies for working with human genes.

    The same technologies are directly applicable to all other organisms, including plants. Thus, a new scientific discipline of genomics has arisen. This discipline has contributed to powerful new approaches that can be used in agriculture as well as in medicine and has helped to promote the biotechnology industry.

    Several large corporations in Europe and the United States have made major investments in adapting these technologies to produce new plant varieties of agricultural importance for large-scale commercial agriculture. The same technologies have equally important potential applications for addressing food security in the developing world.


The Information Technology Revolution

    New communication and computing technologies will have profound implications in everyday research activities.

  Access to the Internet will soon be universal, and it can provide unrestricted low-cost access to information, as well as highly interactive distance learning. The Internet will not only facilitate interactions among researchers, but also greatly improve their ability to communicate effectively with the potential users of their research knowledge.

   Computing makes it possible to process large-capacity databases (libraries, remote sensing and GIS data, and gene banks) and to construct simulation models with possible applications in ecosystem modeling, preparation of contingency plans to suit different weather probabilities and market variables.

   The software industry is contiguously providing new tools that increase research productivity and create new opportunities for understanding complex systems of growing conditions.

   Remote sensing and other space satellite outputs are providing detailed geographic information useful for land and natural resource management.

The Ecotechnology Revolution

    Knowledge is a continuum. There is much to learn from the past in terms of the ecological and social sustainability of technologies. At the same time, new developments have opened up new opportunities for developing technologies, which can lead to high productivity without adverse impact on the natural resources base. Blending traditional and frontier technologies leads to the birth of ecotechnologies with combined strength in economics, ecology, equity, employment and energy.

    For example, in the area of water harvesting and sustainable use, there are many lessons to be learnt from the past. In the desert area of Rajasthan, India, drinking water is available even in areas with 100 mm annual rainfall, largely because women are continuing to harvest water in simple structures called kunds. In contrast, drinking water is scarce during summer months in some parts of the North East India with an annual rainfall of 15000 mm.

    Thus, there is need to conserve traditional wisdom and practices, which are often tending to become extinct. The decision of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) to explore the intellectual property needs, rights and expectations of holders of traditional knowledge, innovations and culture is hence an important step in widening the concept of intellectual property.

    Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, technology has been a major source of economic inequity among nations and among communities within nations. Today, however, we have an opportunity for making technology an ally in the movement of social, gender and economic equity. Modern information technology provides this opportunity. Knowledge and skill empowerment can now be achieved at a fast pace.

    However, the technological and skill empowerment of the poor cannot be achieved through programmes designed on the basis of a patronage and top-down approach. The information provided should be demand-and need-driven and women belonging to the socially and economically underprivileged sections of the society should preferably manage knowledge centres. Our aim in the early part of the coming century should be the initiation and spread of a Knowledge Revolution for ending economic and gender inequity.

(The following article is from the Millennium issue of NEW INDIA DIGEST - Nov. 1999 to February 2000)


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