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Cultivating a green idea

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY
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INTERVIEW India needs to worry about its water quality to keep agriculture going, says development thinker and former Canadian ambassador to India, David Malone

PROBING DEVELOPMENTDavid MalonePhoto: V. Sudershan
PROBING DEVELOPMENTDavid MalonePhoto: V. Sudershan

Adiplomat and development thinker, David Malone is self-confessed India watcher. The former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations came as his country’s ambassador to India (mid 2006 — mid 2008) and returned to New Delhi several times since, as the president of IDRC, the Canadian Government’s research wing, which spends the largest chunk of its funds on India.

Malone’s interest in India and the region also led him to write “Does the Elephant Dance?” (2011) and edit “Nepal in Transition: From People’s War or Fragile Peace” (2012). Well-received books, they “tried to understand” India’s foreign policy “unpopular in the West” and the unfolding political scenario in its immediate neighbourhood.

This March, Malone is quitting IDRC (International Development Research Centre) to join as Rector of the Tokyo-based United Nations University. On a recent visit to New Delhi, Malone, currently editing a book on debate and thinking in development, took out time to talk to The Hindu on India’s development model and why it can’t afford to ignore its agricultural sector anymore.

Excerpts:

You have been watching India closely. How do you see its development model?

Often in India, development is either about infrastructure or technology but development has other dimensions too. Although India is a big country, it has finite space. Making the most of its geography is extremely important and that is particularly true in agriculture. India is a major producer and a major exporter but it is also a major importer. And its population is growing quite fast. Infrastructure is important, it can help agriculture too. But India needs to think beyond it, it needs to continue to worry about agricultural productivity, about managing its water; about economising water, about its water quality. Any country involved in agriculture with a large rural population needs to. The agricultural productivity in India is not increasing as fast as it could, or should. Part of that relates to water quality and supply.

In Canada, even though only a very small part of our population work on agriculture, most of our main universities work very hard on agricultural research, because just as India is a major bread basket, so is my country. If in the years you can also export, you are contributing to alleviating a global problem. India is going to be doing this for centuries.

How has IDRC tried to support research to augment agriculture in India?

IDRC has invested more than 100 million dollars for research in India since 1970 that has contributed to advances in health, economic reform, natural resource management, IT and governance besides agriculture. The Centre is always interested in crops that are neglected for some reason, considered low quality crops even though they have high nutrition. Millet is one. We have focussed a lot on its research support in India. We are also always interested in seeing how land considered uncultivable could be made cultivable. Nothing is more precious than land and Indians know it. But in India, the most acute single issue beyond individual crop in my mind is water conversation, water management, water quality because that has been allowed to deteriorate enormously and it doesn’t come back quickly. In India, I think, people would rather not talk about it because it is a serious problem. Another problem here relates to farmers with small land holdings, how to get the income they deserve from their production. The Indian consumer pays quite a bit for agricultural produce but the farmers often don’t receive very much for their labour, for their investment, which is a risk capital.

What about research on health?

India can assure health to its population, nobody doubts it. But how to do it cheaply for people in the rural areas is much more difficult than revolutionary breakthroughs for rich people. IDRC is working with others on how more robust systems can help deliver health. But we are also working on afflictions that are principally in the developing world or that are not receiving attention in the developing world. One example would be mental health. Actually, the mentally ill in India often benefit more than we do in the West because they often remain in their families, in their communities. But at the same time, no money is being spent on their plight. There is no doubt that mental health can be affected by pharmaceutical approaches and other approaches. Because we consider it as largely an orphan problem at the international level, we thought we would invest some research money through an institution called Grand Challenges Canada (funded by Government of Canada), inviting the best researchers of the developing world to compete for our support on this problem. Of course in India, there are many very leading medical research scientists. They can collaborate among themselves or work individually.

The reality of India is that it is a big country, things that work in one end of the country often will not work in another end. That is why widespread testing of ideas and techniques in a country as big as India is important.

You are editing a book that surveys the debate and thinking on development. Do you see any shift in thinking in the organisations like the World Bank?

I am glad that compared to what it was 15 years ago, the World Bank is a much more inquiring place now. We have seen a revolution in the Bank; there are many more points of view than I used to see when I went there.

I think the Bank has also been well led in recent years by people who have been much more interested in a variety of approaches, not just economist approaches.

Also, it is interesting to see people from other disciplines in the Bank. So the Bank itself is transforming. Too late but it’s still a very good thing. We are less certain now and that is helping.

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY

The Indian consumer pays quite a bit for agricultural produce but the farmers often don’t receive very much for

their labour, for their investment,

which is a risk capital

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