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Dr M S Swaminathan speaks on the use of spatial technologies in agriculture

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Dr M.S. Swaminathan, known as the father of India’s Green Revolution, emphasizes on the wedlock of ecology with technology to exploit the untapped production agricultural reservoirs

How do we connect science and technology as allies in the movement for sustainable development and where does geospatial technology fit into all this?

Sustainable development is a broad term. It has three dimensions ― environmentally sustainable, socially sustainable and economically viable. All three are important. In agricultural development, I coined a term ‘evergreen revolution’ long ago. Green revolution is to improve productivity improvement or yield improvement, not just area expansion. Evergreen revolution is increasing productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm because green revolution was criticized for excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides and other environmental issues. So, sustainable agriculture is the second goal in the UN SDG list. We will have to develop a methodology by which you can achieve sustainability in all its three dimensions for each programme area.

Technology has three major players ­— the scientist, the farmer and the policy makers, and impossible things can be achieved if all three come together. Geospatial technology is very important in all this. Today you can understand all the components of the Earth’s systems with spatial data. It is an important area and opens up new opportunities for sustainable use of natural resources; particularly land, water and bio-diversity. Geospatial data is very important to understand the land-use pattern and what changes are needed and how do you manage serious droughts and floods.

It’s been ages since India had the green revolution. Do you think that time has come for another green revolution?

We need another green revolution. I marry ecology with technology to call it a ‘evergreen revolution’. We need it badly. Particularly in eastern India which has untapped production reservoir. Punjab, Haryana, western UP had a large untapped reservoir in 1960s which we exploited by green revolution by providing necessary input. Similarly, if you go to eastern UP, Bihar, Assam, Orissa, West Bengal then you see lots of opportunities and we need to tap them.

You hold the UNESCO Chair in eco-technology. How according to you will geospatial data, especially EO data and information, be useful for achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?

It would be very basic. I would say without such data, our needs cannot be fulfilled. Human needs have grown — we need development, roads, jobs, communication and so on. We need to harness geospatial data and technologies for a sustainable growth and development. As long as the human mind is working, we will have lots of technologies that are safe, sustainable and relevant. I will not worship a technology. I will use it where it is most needed and where we can get maximum contribution. These new technologies are exceedingly important.

How can India use some of the new and innovative technologies in the area of agriculture and environment management?

Technology is always advancing. In 1966, with the help of the late Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, I conducted the first remote sensing study in India about coconut root wilt in Kerela. But we did not have the capacity at that time and I had to take help of NASA to get equipment. Since then we have developed enormous capacities in the area of remote sensing and today we are one of the finest. We have used it for a number of purposes including land management and agriculture.

As long as the human mind is working, we will have lots of safe, sustainable and relevant technologies. I will not worship a technology. I will use it where it is most needed and where we can get maximum contribution

How can we use technology to lessen the damages caused by natural calamities?

We can reduce the damage by anticipatory and participatory moves. We can anticipate calamities and can make the community participate. For example, we [at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation] have trained one woman and one man in every panchayat as Climate Mitigation Managers in areas that are vulnerable to natural calamities. We have trained them how to manage a drought, flood, etc. accordingly. We need to develop a group of people who can do all this work. Bio-diversity conservation is largely done by local communities, i.e., farmers. Then we have community hunger fighters who have been trained to combat hunger particularly Iron deficiencies, Vitamin A deficiency. Nutrition literacy will be followed by mobilizing them for different purposes.

Government of India has recently called for increased collaboration with ISRO in the area of agriculture. It has also taken some commendable initiatives in ushering the use of spatial technologies in agriculture. Could you elaborate on some of these measures?

We cannot put technology in one pigeon hole ­— that this is ‘the’ technology and so on. If we take for example soil health care, the Prime Minister has been advocating that soil health card be given to the people that require lots of technological knowledge. Similarly, in watershed harvesting, water management and even for MNREGA if we take the help of geospatial technologies then the labour could be utilized in a better way. So I would say that in relation to our daily needs and emergent threats to sustainable developments like climate change we should use all available technologies.

Can you give us any example where technology can be used to get better results from MNREGA?

Unfortunately what has happened in MNREGA is the law itself says that labor be employed for unskilled work. That is a mistake. I wrote to the parliamentary committee that it is time to include skilled work as well. If you want to have water harvesting and watershed, then you have to have the knowledge and back up of technology like remote sensing. Mahatma Gandhi had said that you must marry brain and brawn. You should marry technology and labor. Only brawn alone won’t help.

We are just providing them employment for food security. We should not waste such a large human resource, but should provide them some skill and use them. Again water management, watershed, soil conservation all can be done more scientifically if you have trained labor.