President in India - Chennai, Professor Swaminathan and the Swaminathan Foundation

On arrival in Chennai we were whisked straight to the home of Professor Swaminathan, where this 84 year old legend was awaiting us under the portico. Inside, his wife Meena, had prepared a meal for us. (The humility and simplicity of their welcome was disarming). The President and the Professor became swiftly engaged in deep discussions over the Green Revolution – that Professor Swaminathan helped father – and a much-needed new revolution to meet the challenges of food security and climate change.

We were later shown around the headquarters of the MRSSP Swaminathan Foundation. One of the most fascinating elements of their work is the gene bank houses collections of seeds of all varieties, some at risk of extinction, gathered from around India. The Foundation also has India’s largest collection of tubers and roots and vanishing crops – primarily medicinal plants .

The President delivered the keynote Millennium Lecture organised by the Hindu Resource Centre. He then went on to launch the Foundation’s climate risk managers programme, which provides communities with guidance on approaches to risk mitigation and managing climate change. These managers will be tasked with going out to the villages and supporting small farmers and poor rural people, so the solutions will have input from those most directly affected by climate change.

Professor Swaminathan emphasised the importance of strong links from lab to land and land to lab – so that scientific knowledge and traditional wisdom could be harnessed together. The President talked about food insecurity in rural areas, the importance of mapping potential rainfall patterns, tracking price volatility and identifying hotspots.

The day continued with video conference links to village knowledge centres operated by farmers groups, in IFAD-supported projects.

In the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami, the Naga Pattinan coastal district saw its agriculture and fishing industries wiped out. Village resource or knowledge centres played a major role in relief efforts, and now ICT tools are being used to improve lives and businesses.

Ramesh, a fisherman, told us that through new technologies they have adopted more hygienic methods of handling the catch and more sustainable fishing practices. Incomes have gone up too, with fish prices increasing from 30 rupees per kilo to 110 rupees. Ramesh now trains other fishermen.

What do you do with your extra income, the President asked.
“My kids are at a private school, I have bought computer and GPS equipment for my business and paid off some of his debts,” Ramesh replied.

In the next video link, from Orissa, people from five villages involved in the IFAD-funded Tribal Empowerment Project told how the villages now have seed banks and farmers are aware of the quality of seeds required for these banks.

Some 85 per cent of those in the area are living below the poverty line, 55 per cent are tribal people and 60 per cent are illiterate, so forming the Self Help Groups was a major challenge. Once done though, they were away!. Now community-managed gene banks are holding some 500-1000 varieties of seed for next season.

Professor Swaminathan noted that IFAD was the first to start Self Help Groups, in Tamil Nadu, and this had since catalysed a movement across India, a transformation in sharing knowledge.

He said he was very grateful that he had provided support to the establishment of IFAD “In 1974, we thought we could make poverty history by 1984. That has not happened,” he said.

The two men addressed a well-attended press conference, where the President spoke about the need to find grass roots level solutions to climate change to – help mitigate as well as adapt.

“Thirty years ago when I met Professor Swaminathan I did not know that one day I would be standing here to deliver a Millennium Lecture,” said the President. “But what we did in research three decades ago is relevant today as we face down the challenges of climate change,” he added. “Ending hunger and poverty are possible, we need to remember that.”

By Farhana Haque Rahman and Mattia Prayer Galetti