Poor people need technology the most

Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan on why technology is the mighty tool India can't ignore in its fight against poverty. He sows the seeds of a 'Biohappiness Movement' for India here.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2008.141 Published online 19 March 2008

M. S. Swaminathan

© Subhra Priyadarshini

Technology is only a tool. Its use in poverty alleviation depends on how we make it interact with public policy. One increasingly feels in the emerging world that technology development and dissemination has to be rooted in the principles of ecology, economics, social and gender equity, energy conservation and employment generation.

In my view, poverty will persist if human resource is undervalued and material resources overvalued. The country’s human resource development is greatly influenced by the home, educational and social environment.

While I am talking of poverty alleviation, I can’t escape something very inherently entwined with it. India, unfortunately, has extensive maternal and child malnutrition and a high frequency of low birth weight children. The first thing to do to come out of the rut would be to improve the nutritional status of pregnant women and new born babies so that they can lead a healthy and productive life.

As of now, India has many schemes such as the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP) to ensure that every child and adult has access to food. The strengths and weaknesses of these programmes are well known and what is important is to make them succeed in achieving their objectives.

NREGP is, however, a programme which provides opportunities only to unskilled work at minimum wages. This will not help to lift people out of poverty although it will certainly help to ensure the needy his or her daily bread. For coming out of the poverty trap a paradigm shift from unskilled to skilled work is important. This alone can help to add economic value to the time and labour of the poor.

The technology divide

The rich-poor divide had its origin in the technology divide which began with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. If technology has been in the past an important factor in creating economic disparities between and within nations, the challenge now is to enlist technology as an ally in the quest for social, gender and economic equity. How can this be done?

I could speak from personal experience here. At the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, we have been developing the concept of biovillages since 1992. The biovillage is a mechanism for integrating ecological and livelihood security in a mutually reinforcing manner. It is community-centered and the major aim is to promote the economics of human dignity which leads to food, income and work security for every one in the village.

The rich-poor divide has its origin in the technology divide

One component of the biovillage programme is the conservation and enhancement of natural resources like soil, water and biodiversity. The other component is the generation of new and additional opportunities for non-farm employment through improved post-harvest technology including processing, storage and marketing. The biovillage helps to promote human centered development and to ensure that no one in the village is ultra poor. Another instrument for people’s empowerment with new skills and technology is the establishment of village knowledge centres which will provide dynamic and demand driven information at the right time and place.

The village knowledge centre movement (known as Gyaan Chaupal) has now become a national programme involving the public, private groups and academia. A national alliance of nearly 400 partners is now bound together with the commitment to take digital technology to the rural poor. This will help launch a knowledge revolution in villages.

While the green revolution helped to improve the productivity and production of wheat, rice, maize and other crops, a knowledge revolution is now helping to improve human productivity in all its dimensions.

The Biohappiness Movement

We have often seen that areas rich in bioresources tend to be poor. How can we end the enigma of the coexistence of prosperity of nature and poverty of people? This can happen only by converting bioresources into wealth and jobs. There is scope for launching a Biohappiness Movement based on the conservation, and sustainable and equitable use of bioresources. Innovative biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of methodologies such as creating an economic stake in conservation, by making commercialization a trigger for conservation have to be developed.

Biovalley is to biotechnology what silicon valley is to information technology

An example is the biovalleys linking biodiversity, biotechnology and business. The biovalley performs the same role in biotechnology as the silicon valley does to information technology. The first biovalley is being established in the Koraput region of Orissa inhabited mostly by tribal families rich in traditional knowledge relating to health and food security.

In addition to information technology and biotechnology, there is great scope for a more intensive use of space and nuclear technologies. The application of remote sensing and GIS techniques is slowly spreading. We can bring about synergy between the internet and the cell phone so that dynamic information on wave heights and location of fish shoals can be conveyed to fishermen struggling to get a reasonable fish catch as they spend difficult and anxious hours in the sea.

Another example of modern technology is anticipatory action to meet the challenge of climate change. For example, in coastal estuary areas, the restoration of mangrove forest has helped to provide a bioshield against damage by coastal storms and tsunamis. Mangroves have also provided valuable genes for sea water tolerance. Such salt tolerant and drought tolerant varieties of rice and pulses can provide a reasonable crop along the shoreline even when there is some degree of inundation by sea water.

In the context of potential adverse changes in climate, the basic principle that good ecology is good business should be kept in view. Uncommon opportunities are available now for leapfrogging to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals but success will depend on synergy among political will, professional skill and people’s participation.