Grassroots development, gas – and a guru
Panelists, L to R: Anupan Khanna, Prof U Shankar, Prof MS Swaminathan, Shantanu Mitra, Prof Sudhir Chellarajan
In Chennai recently to attend a conference organised by the Madras School of Economics and the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics, I was honoured to be asked to participate in a panel discussion (Challenges in Mainstreaming Climate Change Adaptation: Research, Training and Policy Possibilities) chaired by Professor MS Swaminathan, the agriculturalist largely credited with the Green Revolution which transformed agricultural yields and food security in India. Although there’s considerable debate about the legacy of the Green Revolution, there’s little about the status of Prof Swaminathan, a truly legendary figure named by Time magazine as one of the 20 most influential Asians of the 20th century. (Find a summary of the conference here)
Many people nowadays talk of the need for a “second Green Revolution” to cope with the threat of climate change to agriculture. Swaminathan remains closely connected to live policy issues at the age of 85, most recently, as is clear from this interview, in the debate within India about genetically modified (GM) crops – a difficult and complex issue which could have an important bearing on the resilience of Indian agriculture to future climate change.
So I listened particularly carefully to his comments during the discussion, in which he talked of food security and water security as the most critical challenges due to climate change. Among the many points he made: that local action will be crucial for successful adaptation to climate change; and that greater “climate literacy” would be needed to enable this to happen.
Villagers showing a “resource map” they had created for their village – the green patches represent land newly irrigated under the project
Illustrating this point, the conference had heard earlier from a farmer from Andhra Pradesh who had been trained as a local “climate risk manager” under an initiative of the professor’s own MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. The job of these individuals is essentially to monitor important climatic data and disseminate it in real time to farmers; farmers accessing this information have seen their yields increase.
Just last week, Prof Swaminathan’s words came to mind when I found myself in Dindori, a remote rural district in central India, with rates of poverty and malnutrition among the highest in the country. Visiting largely tribal villages and talking to field-level staff, I saw how the DFID-funded Madhya Pradesh Rural Livelihoods Programme, working through institutions of local government, is building the resilience of poor communities through, among other things, helping them improve water availability, boost agricultural productivity, and diversify their sources of income. See this PDF for more information on DFID rural programmes in India.
A biogas plant now providing clean fuel for cooking, and potentially lighting, to a household without electricity
Many households have also been helped to install biogas plants which use manure – readily available locally – to generate clean cooking gas which is piped into their homes. District Coordinator, Dr Sailesh Shakalya, and other programme staff took me to visit the household whose biogas plant you can see in the photo. Inside, whilst making chai for us on her new, clean and efficient biogas stove, the lady of the house explained how the new device was saving time previously spent gathering firewood, and had also reduced the indoor air pollution which, as noted in my last blog is responsible for so much ill-health across rural India.
The programme struck me as an excellent example of climate change adaptation in practice, illustrating the large overlap between good development practice – especially in areas already suffering from climatic stresses such as drought – and resilience to climate change.
All this has been achieved, however, without explicitly addressing the “climate literacy” that Prof Swaminathan talked about. It left me wondering how much more effective the programme might be if it did so. Work is just getting underway on a similar programme in another state, West Bengal, which I hope will enable us to answer this question. Another illustration, if one was needed, of how climate change forces us to re-examine “traditional” development practice and learn new lessons.