JRD Tata Ecotechnology Centre

There is a quiet crusade going on and it goes by the name of 'ecotechnology', the central idea of which is balancing the conservation of natural resources with the need to give poor people the chance to secure a decent livelihood

The flag bearer of the ecotechnology movement in India is the JRD Tata Ecotechnology Centre, which is part of the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. Established in 1996, the Centre was born of renowned agricultural scientist Mr Swaminathan's conviction that an optimum blending of traditional wisdom and scientific endeavour that nurtures and protects the environment is the bedrock of truly sustainable development.

Dr Swaminathan, winner of the 'world food prize' back in 1987, set aside the money he received from the award for the Centre. A greater monetary contribution came from the Sir Dorabji Tata and Allied Trusts, which initially bestowed Rs1.85 crore to the Centre. Formally inaugurated in July 1998, the institution has received more than Rs4.5 crore from the Tata trusts thus far. This is the kind of backing that has enabled it to play a role in transforming the lives of the rural poor in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere.

The JRD Centre's holistic vision for rural development stretches way beyond farming. That means literacy programmes that use computers and touch-screen technology, interaction and advocacy with the government, educating the poor about the schemes the state administration has for them, and helping establish village knowledge centres, where the poor can source information on agriculture, health, animal husbandry, horticulture, government programmes and subsidies, etc.

This all-encompassing approach is part of the sustainable development course that the Centre's parent body, the Swaminathan Foundation, has charted. "The village communities we work with are our partners in research, not just users of our knowledge. We learn from them and they from us," says K Balasubramanian, the director of the JRD Centre. "Time and labour are the only assets the poor have. Our endeavour is to provide them with skills that can be linked to these assets."

There's no fixed bouquet of projects and no set sequence of initiatives that the JRD Centre carries to every new place it gets involved with. So it could be micro-credit organisations in one village, self-help groups in another and literacy projects or sustainable farming in a third. But there are three essentials to the JRD Centre's approach: creating grassroots institutions that can respond to any problem; building capabilities, so that people can understand where solutions are available; and helping start micro-credit associations and micro enterprises that deliver livelihood opportunities.

There are six phases in the JRD Centre's matrix of sustainable development: mobilisation, organisation, technology transfer, systems management, capacity building and withdrawal. The last of these is critical. The Centre's objective is to make itself redundant, so to speak, over a period of time to the people who benefit from its expertise. This is a consistent theme with the Centre, and it's a huge bonus for the organisation and, more importantly, the villages it works with.

"The famine of work causes the famine of food," says Mr Swaminathan, the patriarch whose vision shaped the centre. "Today's world is in need of a message of hope. What we need is an ecology of hope: not a 'doom ecology', but a 'do ecology'. This is where the new movement for eco-enterprises and ecotechnology has become a very powerful instrument."