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Welcome focus to improve rural India...

It is an interesting and necessary initiative. Engineers without Borders (EWB) is a global organisation in which engineers, along with under-grad students in engineering, lend their expertise to serve rural India.

EWB, which originated in the US and has chapters in several countries, has been active in India as well. Engineering professionals have set up chapters in several colleges and extend their knowledge and expertise to enrich the life of rural India. The focus is on sanitation, water, energy, roads and education.

A two-day conference of EWB was recently organised at IIT-M.

The timing is quite opportune: on 02 October. Prime Minister Modi launched the Swachh Bharat (clean India) campaign. There is the prospect of such a campaign getting funded through the mandate for companies to set apart at least two per cent of their profits under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

In 2005, I presented at the Purdue University, USA, several factors that lend for India emerging a strong food bowl of the world.  These included large arable land of around 400 million acres,  round-the-year agriculture season,  rich biodiversity, a strong pool of scientists and engineers and, most important, very low levels of productivity.

I observed a disconnect between the urban and rural economy. I cite a few instances :  

One, ISRO has mapped land resources in detail through satellite imaging. But these are not available to the average farmer.

Two, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) provides data relating to weather,  crop nurturing, crop protection and market price information. These are available for every part of the state. The weather information provides temperature, humidity, rainfall and a whole lot of connected information for a week ahead. Likewise, the prices of agriculture commodities in several markets are readily available. Efforts are also made to provide this information through the cell phone. But such information is not available to the average farmer.

Three, there is the dearth of male farm labour in Tamil Nadu. There is drudgery and pain involved in attending to several simple tasks like pruning or cutting out weeds. The farmers continue to use the sickle for centuries. Engineers can help introduce rechargeable electric saws that can reduce drudgery and enormously improve productivity. In the developed countries hundreds of such simple gadgets are available. EWB can adopt these and familiarise these to our farmers.

EWB can help the rural folk to access Internet and make use of such precious and useful information readily available.  Their expertise can be utilised in the purification of water and in sanitation. These alone can reduce widespread incidence of communicable diseases in rural areas.

IIT-M Director Dr Bhaskar Ramamurthy has been urging on harnessing solar power for agriculture and domestic consumption. This, he says, can reduce 50 per cent of the current consumption of power used by these two segments and thus help meet the serious problem of energy shortage.  Massive use of such technology will also help reduce costs.

Elango Rangaswamy, an engineer and a scientist at CSIR, resigned his job and applied his expertise to enrich the life of the villagers at Kuthambakkam village.  In less than two decades he has made the village self-sufficient and a model, vastly enhancing rural employment, jobs and quality of life.  The average family income of the farmers has increased from around Rs 3000 to over Rs 25,000 p.m. There is a well-integrated community life. The Panchayat has empowered the villagers and made a success of decentralised self-governance. EWB can help replicate this model.

Think of the power of youth. In Tamil Nadu alone there are about 550 engineering colleges and over 1000   arts and science colleges. EWB should endeavour to harness this resource base and power of this wonderful force.  They should direct this energies to improve the living standards of rural India.

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