Research is not an end in itself, especially when it involves farming and the livelihoods of marginal farmers. It is a social cause to start with, and an economical cause as its end. And to such an end the benefits of research needs to be reached efficiently and quickly.
Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is uniquely placed within this problem. While on the one hand, its marginal farmers have been trudging through organic farming cycles, often bereft of modern technology as an aid, it also has some of the best educational institutions in the country. The two have finally met, and research and its benefits have percolated through to the farming cycle, resulting in rich, healthy yields.
Shillong’s schools and colleges come under the umbrella of the North East Hill University (NEHU). NEHU is a university every Indian can feel proud of. We bring you a report on a one-on-one interview with a faculty member of NEHU, who believes that the benefits of research should reach people and has acted on this belief.
An Academician Who Wants Benefits of Research to Reach the People
Team Zizira met with Dr S.K. Barik, Professor of Ecology in the Department of Botany, NEHU, for an interview in the middle of September 2015. He has published 40 research papers, 8 books and 20 technical and research reports. Many of his research papers are highly cited worldwide.
What impressed us most were his simplicity and his sincerity of purpose in wanting to apply what is learned through research to improve the livelihood of people. Very conscientious, he strives towards perfection - be it teaching, mentoring, research or helping the underprivileged people.
Dr Barik was very direct and open in his interactions. The more engaged he became, more informative and insightful the discussions were! We had a set of questions prepared as the backbone for the interview, but his eagerness to share his experience with us covered things beyond what we wanted! We could not have asked for more.
His Early Days
I am from Orissa, from a remote location. I was a village boy who has seen poverty. Botany was not by choice – I chose the subject that was available. But I did well in my M.Sc, with specialization in environment biology and got a rank in the university
First Stint at NEHU
“I first joined as a Lecturer in Orissa. I knew that JNU, BHU and NEHU were good for Ecological Science and decided to come to NEHU. After two years of my lecturership in Orissa, in 1988, I registered for a PhD. After completion of my PhD field and laboratory research works in 1990, I joined the Regional Centre, National Afforestation and Eco-development Board, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India at NEHU and was there till 1995.
Had the opportunity to work on developing Joint Forest Management resolutions of seven north-eastern states, a natural resource management policy that would enable people to participate in forest management with the state forest departments and also help people reduce dependence on forests for livelihood."
As I was in close contact with communities and saw their poverty and also because I was from a similar background I could relate to them and their issues. This helped me in my work.
Many say Jhum is bad, but it is not. It has many good aspects too. It is beneficial with respect to the eco-system and financially as well, if at least 12 years Jhum cycle is maintained. So, we developed two models that improved Jhum cultivation. Some people still use them.
Returned to NEHU as Faculty
“I returned in 1997 to NEHU as faculty and am here since then! Nearly 20 years!"
He has learned as much in these two decades, as he has learnt. Says Dr Barik: "My observation is that the poor are blessed with talent and labor, but lack resources. I tried to give them support by providing them with modern techniques, machinery and any source of fund available for the needy.
Interestingly Dr Barik was involved with Farmers Self Help Groups growing Lakadong Turmeric in Laskein that team Zizira had visited. We were not aware of it when this field trip happened but came to know about it later.
Regarding Lakadong Turmeric: "Farmers in Laskein were moving away from cultivating Lakadong turmeric as demand was going down and they were getting poor returns. The production rate was decreasing because people opted for another turmeric with lower nutritional value, as it was cheaper. Hence price was a consideration over quality.
Meghalaya Rural Development society had developed 137 Self Help Groups among the turmeric farmers in Laskein. We stepped in and educated them on the importance of the Lakadong variety and trained them on how to increase productivity"
We wanted productivity to go up from 2 tons per hectare to 10 tons per hectare, using only organic means. And we reached 8 to 9 tons per hectare. It was a very satisfying project. The farmers of Laskein are very gentle people and are hard working too.
“As a next step, as a value addition for the product and hence to help the farmers, I worked on getting funding from the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, for setting up a pilot plant for extracting Oleoresin from Lakadong turmeric.ICARand Rural Resource Training Center (RRTC) became our partners.
As I did not know enough about how much funding to ask for, I asked for a small amount. It was sanctioned but was not enough for the project/equipment. I had to use many other contacts and well-wishers, like Father Cyril of Ri Bhoi district and Pradeep Kumar of Techno-chemicals Pvt. Ltd. Calicut, to set up the oleoresin plant in Laskein. Meghalaya Rural Development Society (MRDS) provided the housing support to establish the plant,” he said.”
Then came a novel idea of Dr Barik in implementation. “Instead of setting up the pilot plant in the university campus, at NEHU, we set it up in the village itself where farmers could use and benefit. It is now ready and has the potential to produce oleoresins. All it needs is an organization to take it over and run it.”
Dr Barik prepared a roadmap for Medicinal plant sector development. The same was submitted to the State Medicinal Plant Board.
In Garo hills, there is a lot of cashew nuts. Here rain comes early, and if flowering takes place in the rainy season, then pollination fails. So Dr Barik and his team identified early flowering varieties from Shiv Bari area, took scions (a young shoot or twig of a plant, cut for grafting or rooting) and grafted it on the rootstock raised from the ordinary cashew seeds. He then distributed the seedlings to farmers. Unfortunately, insurgency came in and they could not make frequent visits to guide the farmers. As some people were well trained, he hopes that they must have done well.
While discussing problems of Khasi mandarin (i.e. juicy orange of Shillong), Dr Barik recalled an incident where two villages “Bholaganj” and “Nongtrai” had drought and larval infestation which were hampering orange production. He and Dr Deshmukh of ICAR suggested mulching technique for moisture conservation to counter the drought situation.
He had the chance to work on rice plasma conservation – encouraging cultivation of rice that was on the verge of going extinct. He told us “There are over 147 varieties of rice in Ri Bhoi district alone”
Meghalaya is good for black paper – it grows well. He recalled an incident in Khulia village.
I salute the Headman of this village. We gave him 200 or so cuttings, to propagate good quality pepper vines. He himself made further saplings and distributed them. This was in 2011. The headman took interest, learned the technique and propagated for the benefit of the village.
This was perhaps what Dr Barik needed, someone to move forward selflessly to work for improving the livelihood of the poor in the region. Dr. Barik visited several remote locations through different projects and behind each of his visits he had an interesting story to share.
Any Message for the Youth of Northeast India?
“Yes, Let us do something” can be their motto. He described the youth of Northeast India and Shillong as being very talented but perhaps, lacking in commitment. His call is for every youth to work hard, work towards conserving our environment and to step forward and help the poor in improving their livelihood.
As we left Dr Barik took us around his research lab where we met with many bright research scholars pursuing PhD and Post Doctors research. If so much is happening in the labs and if there is plenty of good intention all round to support the livelihood of people in the Northeast, Zizira's efforts to make a difference in the lives of farmer seems to have all the back-end support it needs.
Do you have success stories to share about the farmers in Northeast India? Add them as comments. Do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about this article or about unique spices and agricultural produce of Meghalaya. Look forward to hearing from you! World's Best Turmeric