Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Green shoots in India-Myanmar ties

M. S. Swaminathan
In her wide ranging interview to The Hindu, published on November 13, 2012, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has rightly stressed, “I would like to see a closer relationship between our two peoples, because I have always felt we had a special relationship”. In the past, this special relationship existed not only at the political and cultural levels, but also in the areas of agriculture and food security. When I was a school boy in the 1930s, my mother used to say that we were eating Burmese rice. The serious rice shortage experienced during World War II was partly due to the Japanese occupation of Myanmar and the consequent end of rice exports from that country. The severe loss of life during the Bengal famine of 1942-43 could have been avoided, had the food supply line from Myanmar remained open.

Today, the wide gap between demand and supply in the case of pulses is being bridged to a great extent through import from Myanmar. It has therefore been wise on the part of the Ministry of External Affairs and our Ambassador to Myanmar, V.S. Seshadri, to have chosen agricultural research and development as a priority area in the new phase of India-Myanmar collaboration.

Identifying needs
In 2011, I was invited by the government of India to lead a team to Myanmar for identifying areas where there could be symbiotic partnership between our two countries. In the 1980s, when I was the Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the Philippines, I started strengthening the rice research capacity of Myanmar. As a part of this process, I helped to establish a Rice Research Institute at Yezin. Also, with the help of the Army and local officials, I organised a movement for the collection and conservation of the rich rice genetic resources of Myanmar, particularly in areas affected by ethnic strife. This collection proved to be a veritable mine of valuable genes, which helped to accelerate progress in rice improvement in Myanmar.

Another area to which I paid attention was post-harvest technology, since the rice mills which were then in operation were extremely inefficient.

During our visit to Myanmar in July 2011, we concentrated on identifying the felt needs of the agricultural scientists of Myanmar in research, education and extension. The Yezin Agriculture University has a reasonably good infrastructure for applied research in agriculture. Several new laboratories are coming up in the fields of biotechnology and animal sciences.

Myanmar is a predominantly rural and agrarian country. Agriculture contributes 32 per cent of GDP and 18 per cent of the export earnings. Nearly two-thirds of the population depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Women play a particularly important role in the production of rice and horticultural crops. Rice and pulses constitute the dominant food crops.

The highlight of our visit was an opportunity to study the Model Integrated Farm set up at Nay Pyi Taw under the direct guidance of President Thein Sein of Myanmar. The Model Farm is used as a demonstration-cum-training centre with particular emphasis on farm mechanisation and integrated crop-livestock farming system. Most of the farm implements have been gifted by China.

Based on detailed discussions at both the political and scientific levels, it was decided to assist Myanmar in the following two areas.
— Setting up an Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education at Yezin, both for capacity-building and for solving problems which require multi-disciplinary strategic research.
— Setting up a Rice BioPark to demonstrate the opportunities available for preparing value-added products from every part of the rice plant like straw, bran, husk, roots and grain.

President Thein Sein was particularly fascinated by the concept of the BioPark and requested that one such park may be developed at the Model Integrated Farm which he has set up with much love and care. The BioPark was to serve as a window into the new era of rice farming based agricultural transformation in Myanmar.

Riches in paddy
When I was at IRRI in the 1980s, I had set up a Demonstration-cum-Training Farm titled “Paddy and Prosperity” with financial support from the Asian Development Bank. The normal saying in Asia is “Paddy and poverty go together”. The aim of the BioPark is to reverse this perception and make paddy an instrument of multiple sources of income. The components of the Rice BioPark include a demonstration of the potential for using the rice straw for a wide variety of purposes like mushroom production, paper manufacture, and ethanol extraction. To give an idea of the importance of biomass utilisation, we produce in India over 250 million tonnes of rice biomass. However, in States like Punjab and Haryana, rice straw is burnt in order to prepare the field on time for wheat sowing. As reported in the media, one of the causes for the early onset of smog in Delhi is the practice of burning the rice straw in the field, leading to considerable air pollution and loss of valuable cellulosic material.

The Myanmar Rice BioPark will help to create an awareness of the importance of value addition to every part of the rice plant. For example, after a visit to the Paddy and Prosperity Farm in IRRI, the then Philippines President, Corazon Aquino, placed an order for the entire quantity of rice straw paper needed for printing all her Christmas greeting cards in 1986.

As in India, the emphasis in the agricultural strategy for Myanmar should be on increasing the productivity, profitability and sustainability of small-scale rice farming systems.

The BioPark will demonstrate methods of rice milling which can help to avoid the widespread loss now occurring in that country in the conversion of paddy into rice. The Advanced Agricultural Research and Education Centre will be set up with the help of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, while the Rice BioPark will be set up by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation with the help of an eminent expert, Dr. Pillaiyar.

I hope the visit of Aung San Suu Kyi will lead to the renewal and revitalisation of the historic relationship between our two countries in agriculture, which is the backbone of the livelihood security system of both our countries.

(M.S. Swaminathan is Member, Rajya Sabha.)