A Mechanical Engineering degree from an Indian Institute of Technology is a passport to a wide horizon of opportunities for any student. But for R. Madhavan, who passed out of IIT-Madras in 1986 and took up farming as an industrial enterprise, it was a means to redefine the role of engineers. From being considered a fitting candidate for psychiatric counselling to an inspirational figure, he has come a long way. He spoke to Ajai Sreevatsan recently about his journey.
“In India, food is so expensive. Nobody can afford food. Poor families spend 70 per cent of their monthly earnings on food,” says R. Madhavan. “Technology has to be used to improve productivity. The cost per unit has to come down. Educated youth should take up agriculture as an enterprise and start value adding in villages through processing centres. Best of the brains should look at agriculture.”
But unfortunately in India, he says, agriculture is considered a lowly occupation and lack of technological intervention means we produce less than other countries in spite of our natural endowments.
“Agriculture is a science. Each plant is an industry. It is a life,” he added. Having left his well paying job with ONGC in 1993 and using all the money he had saved to buy six acres in Chengalpattu, he set out to prove exactly that – with the application of science, much of the drudgery and misery associated with farming can be overcome.
“At first, it was extremely difficult. There was no technology and nobody had practical information. All that the university departments could offer me were photo copies of books. How do you do farming with that?” asks Mr. Madhavan.
Eventually he learnt his ropes through trial and error and by devising a concept which he calls e-farming. He corresponded with an agronomist based in California – sending him pictures of crop growth, putting queries about pest control and then adapting solutions to Indian conditions.
The experience was an eye-opener he says. “I never realised so much of science is required in farming.” For example, 13 elements have to be properly balanced for a particular soil to be suitable for cultivation. I religiously sent samples to the district soil testing laboratory. But I soon realised that without even analysing, they were giving me a photo report copy assuming that soil samples from a particular district will have the same composition. That is like saying if you come from Tambaram, you have cancer.”
According to him, the disconnect between agricultural universities and farmers is vast. “Students are not being taught how to farm. They are being taught how to get a certificate. Farmer does not know why agriculture universities exist.”
Pointing out that 46 per cent of children in India suffer from malnutrition and we are worse off than Sub-Saharan Africa in child malnutrition he says the time to act is now and something urgent must be done to agriculture for the sake of future generations.