Women at work

Meet the women scientists who make India’s chillies hotter, flowers cheaper and mangoes last longer

These scientists have been toiling to improve India’s horticulture output for decades.

Amid the dizzying array of fruits and vegetables found across India is a custard apple that can be easily scooped out like ice cream because it has a fraction of the seed the fruit is normally found with. Then there is a tomato variety resistant to three viruses that can stay fresh at room temperature for about 15 days, a mango variety with a wafer-thin seed, making more room for the pulp, as well as several mango hybrids that stay fresh longer at room temperature, and are firmer and sweeter.

These hybrids have been developed by agricultural scientists – several of them women – at the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research in Bengaluru over the past five decades. Besides fruits and vegetables, these scientists have also worked on growing staple food crops such as rice and wheat in drought conditions.

Established in 1967 in New Delhi, the institute moved to Bengaluru in 1968. It completes 50 years this year. Here’s a look at the women working in this institute who have contributed to research that has led to an increase in crop yields, helping our farmers increase their income.

Kamala Jayanthi: Friend of creepy-crawlies

A principal scientist in the division of entomology and nematology, Jayanthi’s work in integrated pest management and chemical ecology has contributed to developing a non-violent method to rid crops of a common pest.

“Oriental fruit flies are a major problem with mangoes,” said Jayanthi. “We are number one in mango production in the world but hardly export 10% of the fruit to other countries as they all have quarantine instructions.”

Jayanthi and her group of scientists found that fruit flies are attracted to a chemical compound present in mangoes called gamma-octalactone. Attracted by the smell, the flies lay their eggs on the fruits. These eggs later develop into maggots, which feed on the fruit pulp, damaging them. Jayanthi and her team used the compound to make a solution called Arka Dorsolure F, which they smeared on paper traps that lured the female fruit flies to lay eggs on them instead, thus leaving the mangoes alone. Arka Dorsolure will soon be sold commercially.

Jayanthi has also worked on a project that got silkworm moths to lay more eggs. After silk farmers reported that silkworm moths tended to retain eggs in the egg sac, Jayanthi and her team developed a solution called Arka Egstra, which is based on smells used by nature to attract silk worms. This formulation gets the silkworm moth to lay more eggs as compared to the number of eggs they do during regular silkworm rearing.

Madhavi Reddy: The pepper lady

Chilli peppers originated in South America but were brought to Europe by the explorer Christopher Columbus in the 15th century, and eventually reached India via Portuguese sailors in the 16th century. Today, it is difficult to imagine food in India without the use of chillies.

Madhavi Reddy, principal scientist in the division of vegetable crops, specialises in breeding hotter and better peppers. She and her team have developed several chilli varieties that are resistant to biotic stresses such as fungi, bacteria and viruses. They have also developed four high-yielding hybrids – Arka Meghana, Arka Harita, Arka Sweta and Arka Khyati – and two or three lines of the Karnataka Byadagi variety whose colour and pungency have led to its use by the pharmaceutical industry to make medicines, balms and even pepper sprays.

Most of the chilli in India is grown in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Punjab. India exports several tonnes of chilli every year.

“Among all spices, India earns maximum money – Rs 3,500 crore per annum – through the export of chillies,” said Reddy.

Reddy and her team of scientists are now looking at reducing the consumption of water by chilli plants. They are also working with molecular biologists to select genetic markers responsible for pungency, colour, male sterility and virus resistance in an attempt to develop new chilli varieties that are strong in these qualities.

Rekha A: Bananas about bananas

A principal scientist in the division of fruit crops, Rekha A has a doctorate in identifying banana traits by their corresponding genetic markers. She is developing a banana that will be resistant to a common fungus.

“Fusarium wilt caused by a fungus damages the sweet and delicate Elakki Bale [banana variety] of Karnataka,” said Rekha A. “It also harms the Rasthali variety. We have developed intermediate hybrids that will be useful for the development of resistant cultivated types.”

She added that since banana is a sterile, seedless fruit, it is a challenge to improve its varieties using conventional methods.

Banana plants use a lot of water, and Rekha A is involved in analysing the effect of water stress on banana growth to identify varieties that can grow well and bear fruits while using less water.

The scientist and her team have also developed a variety of chikoo or sapota. Named IIHRS-63, this is a dwarf variety with round fruits that can be planted close to other trees. It is useful for high-density plantations, and is also easy to harvest because of its low height.

Rekha A has also developed a lemon variety, Rasraj, which is tolerant to citrus bacterial canker disease.

Meera Pandey: Mushroom evangelist

Pandey, principal scientist in the institute’s mushroom research laboratory, says she has helped spread awareness about the varieties of mushrooms available in India.

“When I joined the institute 30 years ago, only button mushrooms were known,” she said. “I brought about awareness of the diversity of mushrooms. There are more than 2,000 edible varieties. Then there are others, which can be used for ornamental purposes.”

Pandey and her team have developed an agri-waste management system that can be adopted nationally to grow mushrooms. “A colossal amount of agriculture waste [98 million tonnes from cereal crops alone] that is burnt in India can be used to grow mushrooms,” she said. “This will reduce pollution and can contribute to rural [development], women empowerment and better nutrition as mushrooms are high in protein content.”

Meera Pandey (extreme right).
Meera Pandey (extreme right).

Pandey suggests that mushroom cultivation can be made part of the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme to provide work to women, who otherwise have to do strenuous labour such as digging canals and constructing roads.

She has conducted rural training programmes with various state departments to advocate the growing and eating of mushrooms as they are nutritionally rich. They contain minerals like iron, selenium and potassium, and have low glycemic index, which is beneficial to those with diabetes.

She and her team have also developed value-added products out of mushroom powder such as rasam, and chutney powder that can be added to any dish to make it more nutritious.

Tejaswini: Flower power

A principal scientist in the division of ornamental and medicinal crops, Tejaswini is known to have developed new varieties of high-yielding marigold flowers as well as new indigenous rose varieties for the highly competitive international export market.

Arka Bangara and Arka Agni are the varieties of marigold that Tejaswini has helped develop. “Marigolds are the friends of the poor farmer,” said the scientist. “It sells cheap at Rs 30 to Rs 50 per kg. Earlier, farmers had to go back to companies for hybrid seeds. Not anymore. They can be multiplied by farmers.”

She narrated how Shanthilal, farmer in Yadgir district of Karnataka, cultivated Arka Bangara 2 on one acre of land last year. His crop brought him Rs 3.5 lakh in four months.

Referring to roses, Tejaswini said that the flower is difficult to grow and breed. She added that it was tough for India to enter the export market for roses as indigenous roses were unable to stay fresh during long flights, and exporting other breeds invited the payment of royalties to European breeders.

In 2010, she and her team developed Arka Swadesh, a rose variety that is red in colour and has glossy leaves. Last year they released two more varieties of roses – Arka Ivory and Arka Pride – for the cut flower market. There are a few hurdles to overcome and agreements to be made before these roses can be sold as cut flowers in the international market.

Arka Sukanya and Arka Parimala are two rose varieties developed by Tejaswini and her team. These are rich in anti-oxidants and can be used to make rose petal tea and sherbets. They can also be used as food colour and flavourings. Sukanya is suitable for fragrance and use in the cosmetics and perfume industry.

Arka Pride. Credit: IIHR
Arka Pride. Credit: IIHR
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.