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We’re learning from the shortcomings of the first Green Revolution: academic Shailaja Fennell

A farmer with cauliflowers harvested from a farm on the outskirts of Jammu.   | Photo Credit: PTI

An academic with research interests in food production, rural development and gender equality in development interventions, Shailaja Fennell has worked on several international projects to promote sustainability and build resilience. She supervises M.Phil students at the Centre of Development Studies – University of Cambridge, and Ph.D students at the Centre of Development Studies and the Department of Land Economy. Currently engaged in a research programme to study how to improve crop productivity and water use, and identify farming practices for sustainable rural development, Dr. Fennell talks about institutional change and using indigenous knowledge systems to build long-term resilience in our ecosystems. Excerpts:

In the context of heat waves and water shortage that the Indian subcontinent is facing, how does the research at Centre for Development Studies – University of Cambridge address this predicament to build resilience?

Climate change is a reality we need to collectively address across the planet. Based at the Department of Land Economy and Centre of Development Studies, my research has focussed on institutional change to bring about sustainability solutions. The emphasis is on building resilience through participation and empowerment. A core aspect of such an inclusion is bringing households and communities into the development process.

The research examines water-saving crops, alternative sources of energy and new opportunities in livelihood and education to remote rural communities. It is a more holistic notion of resilience and self-reliance.

Given the various speculative scenarios for the future, and the mirage of urban utopias driven by technology, how does your research address the complexity of neglected rural hinterlands?

Until now, a large part of the development agenda around the world has tended to focus on cities.

In contrast, the work being undertaken across faculties of biological, physical and social sciences shifts the focus towards recognising that sustainability is more important for rural communities, that are often far away from these urban growth centres.

These communities are considerably disadvantaged in their access to education and health and other basic services. They are also finding it increasingly difficult to ensure adequate livelihoods through farming activities. Hence, our focus is on cross-disciplinary research, that can bring new thinking to improve the food-water-energy ecosystem, in rural and peri-urban areas. This ensures that rural communities can access new services and skills. They co-create avenues to empower youth through new diversified forms of employment, besides farming.

Shailaja Fennell, academic and researcher.

Shailaja Fennell, academic and researcher.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The first Green Revolution focused largely on water intensive crops like rice and wheat. In the present context, what new learning does the research bring?

The work at the University of Cambridge addresses many links in the complex web of issues to which you are referring. Drawing together a formidable network of partners from research, industry, government and NGOs in the U.K. and India, the project aims to define requirements for a second, more sustainable, Green Revolution in India. A suite of co-created research areas, with training workshops and education activities have been formulated as part of this capacity building programme.

It includes fundamental research addressing crop productivity and water use in India. It will identify appropriate crops and farming practices for different climatic regions. In the context of climate change and depletion of groundwater sources, the idea is to rebuild resilience through conserving water resources and evolving new energy paradigms.

How would this paradigm shift empower rural hinterlands that have less rainfall?

This project provides an excellent opportunity to generate innovative solutions to move away from previous intensive agriculture strategies. These had focused exclusively on increasing yields of wheat-paddy (highly water-intensive) annual crop cycles.

In contrast, this project is working on learning from the shortcomings of the first Green Revolution, where the system of agricultural production led to pressure on our limited water resources, depletion of groundwater and nutrient balance. The questions we asked were “how can we conserve water resources and yet ensure sustainable agricultural processes?”

The project examines a shift to cultivation of a range of millets in semi-arid regions: pearl millet, foxtail millet, little millets as well as sorghum (the terms in Tamil are kambu, thinai, samai and cholam). This could result in a less water-intensive, and more heat-resistance system of agricultural cultivation.

What are the implications for urban areas of this shift from wheat-rice to millets?

These crops (range of millets) have several additional benefits. They are better for human nutrition as they have a lower glycemic index than rice and wheat. A new awareness on urban nutrition could substantially enable control of diabetes, obesity and several other ailments, which are on the rise in urban areas.

Chandramma Bidakanne from Medak, Andhra Pradesh, shows the large collection of millets of the Deccan Development Society that works with farmers to promote millet cultivation.

Chandramma Bidakanne from Medak, Andhra Pradesh, shows the large collection of millets of the Deccan Development Society that works with farmers to promote millet cultivation.   | Photo Credit: P.V. Sivakumar

The conventional food-water-energy ecosystem is based on outdated notions that water and energy are unlimited resources. How can this perception and practice change?

It is crucial that we break out of our silos and increasingly engage in multi-disciplinary research. Interdisciplinary research centres bring together cutting-edge approaches to understanding the food-water-energy ecosystem that is at the core of sustainable development.

If India’s quest to create Smart Cities is linked to its own indigenous concept of Smart Villages, rural economies, increasingly, will become more sustainable. They will become a continuum from village to local town, to city.

The concept of a Smart Village focuses on access to renewable energy as a catalyst for sustainable growth. This builds its resilience and it is not subject to the vagaries of power outages.

Simultaneously, rural hinterlands could diversify from wheat-rice production to more nutritive millet production. This would save valuable water resources as well. There are organisations in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India that have generated several local solutions to promote the consumption of millets. Such initiatives would economically support non-agricultural income generating activities. For instance, youth are now involved in setting up decentralised renewable energy through construction of mini and nano-grid systems. This could reduce the burden on state electricity boards in the long term. This is the paradigm shift that is possible.

How would this impact education and employment in rural hinterlands?

Life on the farm is no longer regarded as a preferred form of employment. The youth are looking to other sources of employment. This situation can be remedied by providing a diverse set of opportunities for education and employment: this would allow the current policies of the Indian government such as Smart Cities to go beyond a singular emphasis on technological features of provision of infrastructure — by focussing on skill development training and developing agro-processing, storage and warehousing provision of piped water supply, and the introduction of solid and liquid waste management.

It can enhance the ability to better operate mobile health units, to ensure village road connectivity, better access to LPG gas connections and electronic delivery of citizen centric services.

Emphasising the ‘indigenous smartness’ of a rural community is of fundamental significance for bringing about paradigm shifts in other spheres of development policy as well. Traditional knowledge can change our approach to housing. We begin with the notion of participation of residents in the design and implementation of a housing programme.

The complex web of inter-related issues, based on indigenous rural knowledge systems and facilitated by access to new technological solutions, can build long-term resilience in our ecosystems. We need new paradigms of rural education that provide opportunities for entrepreneurship and income-generation. These strategies need to address the problems of water scarcity and heat waves induced by climate change. They have to be locally appropriate too. Only then can they be truly sustainable.

The writer is an architect.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2020 11:46:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/were-learning-from-the-shortcomings-of-the-first-green-revolution-academic-shailaja-fennell/article32928244.ece

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