science world

The 103rd Indian Science Congress was a circus, a carnival, a curiosity generator

Amidst the mediocrity, there was one cause for optimism: the eagerness of the children who attended the event.

The annual rituals are over. The curtains have come down on the 103rd Indian Science Congress, which was held in Mysore from January 3-7. It’s time to introspect, to see what we gained, what we lost, what we did and what we didn’t.

Narendra Modi knew exactly what would trend on Twitter, scroll on TV and scream beneath the mastheads. At the inaugural session, he asked the audience of scientists to chant the 5E mantra: economy, environment, energy, empathy and equity.

As our PM knows, 5Es + Make in India + Digital India + Start-up India + Stand Up India + Swachh Bharat = India.Ver2. If we follow this, India will be a developed nation soon.

Nobel Laureate David J Gross from the US was probably the newsmaker of the Congress. He spoke from his heart and even took on Modi’s pet Make in India mission. “What will you make without discovering and inventing in India?” Gross said. “Every year, prime ministers come to the Indian Science Congress and promise that more money will be given to research and development. But nothing happens.”

A suggestion

He asked Indians to change the way they work and think. He wanted the rigid and bureaucratic system to be shunted out. He said that if basic science has to thrive, then India needs to revamp its thought process. “Invent. Discover and then Make in India,” Gross said.

Though the organisers managed to keep the Congress free from controversies, a paper that aimed to cast the god Shiva as the world’s first environmentalist grabbed some attention when it was listed on the programme. However, the author failed to turn up the conference, claiming that he had hurt his leg. Almost as if to compensate for his absence, an Indian Administrative Service officer at another session blew a holy conch for two minutes. He claimed that it could eliminate many disorders faced by mankind.

Though APJ Abdul Kalam died last year, the former president’s name was invoked frequently. The very mention of his name evoked spontaneous response from the audience. Modi made a reference to him, as did the politicians who spoke. One speaker, a child prodigy, used Kalam’s name over 200 times in her presentation.

It’s little wonder that India-born Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan called the Indian Science Congress a "circus".

The way ahead

As anyone in the field knows, science needs no slogans and speeches. Science needs sensible people who will walk the talk. It’s time to empower our science teachers in schools. After all, they are the custodians of our future Ramanujams, Abdul Kalams and CV Ramans.

Quotations and catchy phrases cannot take India forward. We need committed foot soldiers, who can shoulder our science and technology dreams. A science congress is not the answer for our future. It’s just a reminder as to where we stand amidst other nations today.

The only one takeaway for me from the 103rd Indian Science Congress was to see the number of schoolchildren who participated in the five-day show. As a speaker at the Children’s Science Congress, I could see the spark in their eyes and eagerness to know more. Our efforts must be to make them communicate better. If we missed the bus, let’s ensure they are well on time to reach their dream destinations.

The writer is a veteran aerospace and defence journalist and a motivational speaker. He is the advisor to the Dr A P J Abdul Kalam International Foundation, Rameswaram. His Twitter handle is @writetake.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.