REFLECTIONS ON MY DESTINY, MY PROFESSION
Dr. T. M. Thiyagarajan
Professor emeritus, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University
You may not believe it now, but you will accept that my professional life has been driven by destiny when you finish reading this piece. Born in a rice-growing family and in a typical deltaic rice area in Tamil Nadu, my becoming a rice scientist was never planned or dreamt of. Starting a career as a soil surveyor in 1969 and now ending up as a SRI scientist has been a forty-year journey driven by turning points at various stages that directed me to this stage where I am writing this short autobiography.
I was born in 1948 in a village, Thiruppayathangudi, located in the tail-end area of the Cauvery River. In Tamil culture, there is an adage that you should not live in a place where there is no temple. For such a small village, there was a big Siva temple at its centre as is the case with every other temple town, however small. My name as after the name of the God Thiyagaraja, reigning deity of the temple in Thiruvarur, a town 14 km south west of my village. In our culture, many people carry the names of gods/goddesses that we worship.
My father, Shri T.D. Muthukumarasamy, who studied up to the 10th class (at age 15), had to take up the responsibility for his family after the sudden demise of his father, and accordingly he became a rice farmer for 60 years until the age of 93, when he lost his eyesight and had to leave the village and stay with me in the city. The village was a heaven for him, and anyone coming to the village could not leave it without tasting the food that my mother was cooking. He was also the village Munsif (magistrate) for some time. His daily routine included 2 hours of pooja (devotionr) at home and visiting the rice fields.
Our house was just in front of the temple, and there is a huge banyan tree at the back. At the border of our backyard, the river Valappar, a small river branch of the Cauvery system, runs and used to be our bathing/swimming place whenever there was water (during monsoon season), and in summer it used to be our play area.
The entire village originally belonged to our undivided ancestral family. Partition over time saw three big families (Pannais) evolving: Keela Pannai (eastern farm), Periya Pannai (big farm), and Kovil Pannai (temple farm). My father broke out from Periya Pannai and commenced Chinna Pannai (small farm). All our families together controlled the agriculture of the village and lived in the southern side of the temple. The managerial and artisan groups lived on all the other three sides. The labourers lived in a separate area.
I was the fourth son to my parents (five sons and two daughters). It is an irony that I still remember the childhood time when the temple priest initiated me into education by holding my right index finger and writing the Tamil letter ‘ah’ into paddy grains spread over a plate (This is a custom many parts of India).
I studied in the village school, a small thatched roof building with mud walls, up to third class. By that time, my father had set up a house in Thiruvarur for all of the children to stay and to study there with our grandmother, who used to cook for all of us. So my education shifted to Thiruvarur from the 4th class to 6th class. We had a cow for milk purposes, and taking it for bathing in a nearby canal was one of the hobbies for us. A bullock cart was the mode of transport for us to travel back and forth from Thiruvarur to the village.
We had a herd of about 40 animals (cows, buffaloes and bullocks). Farmyard manure was heaped in the backyard, and in the summer it was transported to the rice fields by using the bullock cart. Riding in the bullock cart in summer was another hobby. Our farm followed a rice-rice-pulse cropping system, depending upon water availability in the canal. Father used to commence the first rice season with a ceremonial nursery sowing at the northeast corner (considered auspicious) of a field close to the house. I remember keeping watch on the harvested produce drying in the thrashing floor during holidays.
When my elder brothers moved for college education, we shifted to Chidambaram, and I spent my time there from 7th standard until graduation. Grandmother continued to cook for all of us. Chidambaram was also a historic place3 with the famous Nataraja temple at the centre of the town. During examination time, I used to study in a calm place in the temple.
My father was keen that I should become a medical doctor. Just before the results of big examination were out, he had managed to ensure (with the help of one of our relatives who was in Government service) a seat in the MBBS course in Madras (now Chennai). My destiny was to be different, however. I missed scoring the minimum mark needed in biology (my favourite subject!) to be admitted to the MBBS course and thus could not even apply.
With the help of my maternal uncle, who was an auditor at that time in Annamalai University, my father got me into the B.Sc.(Agriculture) course. I was a small boy at that time, and I remember being asked during the interview for admission by the Dean of the Agriculture College (Dr. G. Rangaswami, who later became of the Vice Chancellor of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University and where I started working from 1974): how will I handle the huge Kangeyam (bullocks) for ploughing practice?
I wanted to be with my father doing agriculture in the village after my graduation in agriculture, but my father did not want that. In those days when I graduated (1969), all agricultural graduates were offered Government jobs in the state's Department of Agriculture. At that time, agricultural education was also under the Department. A relative who was serving in the Government as an IAS officer helped me to get posted in the Chemistry section of the Department, which was a much sought-after position.
I thus joined the Soil Survey and Land Use Organization on 23rd October 1969 in Coimbatore as a Deputy Agricultural Officer. Although it was under the control of the Additional Director of Agriculture & Dean of Agricultural College & Research Institute, this unit was enjoying independent administration in the campus. I underwent some training in soil survey and then began working as a soil surveyor, doing reconnaissance and detailed soil surveys in different parts of Tamil Nadu. Doing survey work was strenuous, traveling in a jeep and mapping soil boundaries, but I enjoyed the work as studying soil profiles was fascinating to me. I was deputed for a six-month training in soil survey at the Soil Survey Training Centre (ICAR) at Nagpur in 1973.
I would have remained as a graduate only had I not opted in 1974 to move to the newly-formed Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. This was yet another turning point in my career. I joined as a Research Assistant in the Department of Soil Science and Agricultural Chemistry of the Agricultural College & Research Institute, working an ICAR study on soil physical conditions, which gave me chance to continue studying soil profiles.
My passion to study soil profiles continued in my dissertation work for both the M.Sc.(Ag) and Ph.D degrees, the latter completed in 1985. While I was doing the post-graduate studies, I was also asked to be the Manager of the farm attached to the Department of Soil Science, and also to take care of the PG laboratory maintenance. Both assignments I enjoyed although it was taxing to my family life.
In 1983, I was moved to the Office of the Dean (PG Studies) to assist in post-graduate education, and I was there until 1985, when a promotion to the post of Associate Professor got me transferred to Soil Salinity Research Centre in Trichirapalli. Soil profile studies continued on saline soils of Tamil Nadu. So this was the time when I started working on rice in a limited way.
I would have continued as a soil scientist had I not been sent for a two-month training on Simulation and Systems Analysis for Rice Production (SARP) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in February-March, 1988. This was a major turning point in my career as it brought new knowledge and new dimensions in my research standard and perspectives, new friendships and collaborations. At IRRI, I met Dr. Frits Penning de Vries, Dr. Hein ten Berge, and Dr. Bas Bouman of the Centre for Agrobiology and Soil Fertility, with whom I continued my association even after the end of the project.
After the training at IRRI, I was transferred to the Tamil Nadu Rice Research Institute at Aduthurai in November, 1988, where I conducted several interesting experiments on rice. Rice has been my only interest since then. I also acted as Deputy Director in the Institute, assisting the Director in administration for about three years By this time my father had to leave the village and come stay with me as he had lost his eyesight due to glaucoma. Since I was living close to my native village (about 30 km), I looked after the farming until I left for Wageningen in October 1994. I was able to maximize the rice yield up to 6 t /ha!
Working in the SARP project gave a lot of opportunity to understand the physiology of the rice crop. Dr. ten Berge was the leader for the group on Crop and Soil Management in the project, and we were working on nitrogen management for rice through a systems approach. There were opportunities to visit some other countries where workshops were conducted under the project. I became co-ordinator for the theme ‘Crop and Soil Management’ during the last two years of the project, 1994 and 1995, and during this time I had the opportunity to stay in Wageningen and Los Baños along with my wife. Dr. ten Berge and I made some interesting research and publications on systems approach on nitrogen management in rice.
After my return from IRRI by the end of 1995, I was transferred to the academic campus in Coimbatore at my request, and I was back in the Department of Soil Science and Agricultural Chemistry, now under the Directorate of Soil and Crop Management. The new alignment with Dr. V. Balasubramanian, Coordinator of the CREMNET project of IRRI, brought me to the research areas of Leaf Colour Chart for nitrogen management and controlled-release nitrogen fertilizers for rice. I was also offering courses for Ph.D students. In 1998, the Director of Soil and Crop Management, Dr. C. Ramasamy, wanted to make me Head of the Department of SS&AC, and he tried his best with the then-Vice Chancellor. But the VC had to decline this move as there was opposition from some of the staff in the department who objected that I was junior to many other Professors in the department.
By the end of 1999, I had an opportunity to work again at IRRI (with Dr. Balasubramanian), and I was preparing to leave the country to take up that assignment when destiny made me apply for the position of University Officer. Without influence of any sort (thanks to Dr. Kannaiyan, who was then Vice-Chancellor of TNAU for the confidence that he bestowed upon me), I was selected for the position of Director for the Centre for Soil and Crop Management.
I held this position for three years from March 2000 to March 2003. The Directorate was the biggest in the University with 7 component departments: Agronomy, Agricultural Microbiology, Animal Husbandry, Crop Physiology, Environmental Sciences, Seed Science and Technology, and Soil Science and Agricultural Chemistry. It encompassed about 1,000 staff (including labourers) and about 250 post-graduate students. It was during this period that I became involved with the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). My destiny with SRI, which is still continuing, started like this.
In the middle of 2000, my good Dutch friend at Wageningen Dr. Hein ten Berge forwarded a message from Dr. Norman Uphoff on SRI. The SRI idea of non-flooding water management attracted me as the state was facing severe water crisis, and I started an experiment in the wetlands of the Directorate’s experimental farm. Being the Director enabled me to have good control over the experiment.
Dr. Uphoff had mentioned in his paper that small amounts of irrigation water were to be applied in the evening and drained the next morning. This was strictly followed. The experiment included two methods of crop establishment (wet seeding of sprouted seeds, and the placement of 10-day-old-seedlings) with five plant densities. When this experiment was ongoing, there was a call from Wageningen inviting me to join the project it was planning on 'water-less rice' that had gotten funding from the Dutch government. This was a welcome opportunity.
The project’s planning workshop was held at Nanjing Agricultural University in the People's Republic of China during the first week of April, 2001. I presented the results of my initial experiment with SRI methods, which showed that flooding of rice fields was not required for good results, and that plant population could be drastically reduced. This is where I met Dr. Uphoff for the first time. I proposed including the testing of SRI principles in the project plan. I designed my part of the project in such a way that agronomy, soil science, crop physiology, and soil microbiology aspects under SRI were all studied by involving MSc(Ag) students in the respective disciplines, with chairpersons from the respective concerned departments.
The first experiment started in September 2001, and I was watching the treatment effects almost daily. When the yields were estimated, the result from one particular treatment combination, similar from all three replications, caught my attention. This was the moment when I concluded that the SRI principle of soil-aerating intercultivation with a mechanical weeder had a great effect on the growth of plants. Although there was no significant effect on yield in these trials, water saving of about 46% was a very interesting result from SRI.
In TNAU, we have a rice scientists meeting every year. During the meeting in 2001, I presented the results of our first experiment which generally enthused the participants. I later came to know that one of the Deans who listened to me had asked his relative to try SRI in his farm, and so the results of the first experiment itself prompted SRI trials in a farmer’s field during the first season of 2001-2002. A second experiment had visitors like Tony Fischer of ACIAR of Australia who saw the experiments in October 2002. (Tony wrote: I enjoyed the visit, especially that to your SRI research.)
After completing the second experiment, these results were presented in the first SRI international conference held in Sanya, China, and then at the Wageningen project workshop on 'water-less rice' held at IRRI in the Philippines, both convened in early April 2002. Based on this initial experience, a package of practices based on SRI principles was tested in the following season.
Some other experiments evaluating SRI principles by Ph.D students were also initiated. I took the Vice Chancellor of TNAU, Dr. C. Ramasamy, an economist by profession, to the field experiment on a Saturday (a holiday) in my car to show him the difference in the growth of rice plants due to SRI. It was a fortunate moment that at the venue, he remarked that SRI should be taken to the farmers of Tamil Nadu. Still, it took 4 years from that time for the State to become fully aware of SRI.
Having heard about SRI from Dr. Uphoff, Dr. J. S. Samra, Deputy Director-General (NRM), ICAR, wanted to know about the potential of SRI in May, 2002; and also Mr. Srivastava, Additional Commissioner of Agriculture, Ministry of Agriculture, Govt. of India, requested for results of SRI in September, 2002.
A trip to Sri Lanka in October 2002, facilitated by Dr. Uphoff, gave me an opportunity to see well-managed SRI fields for myself and to talk with SRI farmers. It was also an opportunity to meet again the early SRI farmer, W. M. Premaratna, and Dr. Gamini Batuwitage, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Govt. of Sri Lanka, who was a great supporter of SRI. I had met both of them previously at the Sanya conference in China.
Dr. R. Kannan, Commissioner of Agriculture, Govt. of Tamil Nadu, visited our SRI experiments on December 30, 2002, and he became keen on promoting the technology. Immediately, a policy note was sent to him on the need to adopt SRI in Tamil Nadu. A similar policy note was also sent to the Ministry of Agriculture, Govt. of India, for adopting SRI in the country. The Ministry forwarded the letter to ICAR, but even so, nothing evident happened after that.
Next I had the opportunity to present our SRI experience in a workshop on ‘Bright Spots,’ organized by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Bangkok in February 2003. Dr. Penning de Vries was impressed and expressed his interest in modeling SRI process, though not much came of this.
Following the end of my appointment as Director of SCMS, I applied for the position again. It was a pleasant surprise for me that the State Agricultural Production Commissioner, Mr. Sridhar, who was a member of the Selection Committee, told that the policy note sent by me to the Commissioner of Agriculture had reached him, and he asked me whether we can recommend SRI to the farmers of Tamil Nadu. When I confidently affirmed it should be done, he asked to submit a proposal to the State Government for tests verifying SRI in farmers’ fields, as was done in March, 2003.
We sent a proposal to Government in April 2003 to take up adaptive research trials (ART) on SRI. By this time I had been posted as Dean of TNAU’s Agricultural College and Research Institute at Killikulam, the university’s southern-most campus, and hence I included the Tamiraparani basin for the trials.
With support from the 'Water-less Rice' project of Plant Research International at Wageningen University and of IWMI, an international symposium on ‘Transitions in Agriculture for Enhancing Water Productivity’ was organized and held in Killikulam on September 23–25, 2003, where SRI was discussed in one session. Dr. Uphoff, Dr. Bas Bouman, and Dr. V. Balasubramanian also participated. One of the invitees, the Joint Director of Agriculture, Thanjavur, challenged that SRI will not be suitable for the Cauvery Delta of Tamil Nadu. (This is the same officer who invited me to visit 2,000 demonstration fields for SRI in the next season!).
One M.Sc (Ag) and two Ph.D students started SRI research in the new campus. In an unbelievably fast process, the State Government sanctioned Rs. 2,500,000 for conducting ARTs in 100 farmers’ fields in each of the Cauvery and Tamiraparani river basins. A team of scientists of the college and research fellows were assigned to the evaluation, comparing SRI with conventional cultivation, in which all 100 farmers were given hands-on training in SRI and were given field support to conduct their on-farm ART trials. Care was taken to estimate the grain yield in a very systematic way and to keep track of all inputs and costs. One unexpected finding was that labor inputs per hectare were actually 8% lower on the SRI plots than on farmers’ own-method plots.
Based on the results of the ARTs, SRI was formally recommended for adoption in the state at the annual ‘Scientific Workers Conference’ of 2004 which is the main forum to discuss and adopt technologies for Tamil Nadu state. There was, however, lukewarm response for SRI in the state’s agricultural extension side.
A World Bank-funded pilot project, in preparation for the much larger IAMWARM project to improve water use efficiency throughout Tamil Nadu state, was implemented in the Adavinayinar river sub-basin. When our College was included as one of the participating organizations in the project, we took the opportunity to demonstrate SRI in that basin. World Bank officials who visited the demos were keen on the results of SRI for water saving.
Between October and December, 2004, I had the opportunity to present the results of our SRI experience in several venues: at the China National Rice Research Institute's International Year of Rice conference in Hangzou, China; at the World Rice Research Congress in Tsukuba, Japan, as part of the International Year of Rice program (Dr. Uphoff provided me an opportunity to chair the parallel session on SRI at the WRRC); and at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Philippines. Dr. Bouman supported a project to promote SRI in Tamil Nadu state through IRRC, and I travelled to some research stations and spoke to many farmers in the Cauvery Delta.
When I had about 2½ years of service left with Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (which sets retirement at 60 years of age), I opted to move to the TNAU Rice Research Station at Tirur, near Chennai, as my son had a job in Chennai by that time. I continued with SRI research at this station also. By this time, the World Bank had approved and funded the IAMWARM project in the state. I made a presentation on SRI before the planning of TNAU's component of the project, and it was decided that SRI should be the major thrust area in the project. It was a fortunate coincidence that Dr. B.J. Pandian, a TNAU professor of agronomy who was involved with SRI in the pilot project operated from Killikulam, was now put in charge of TNAU's involvement in the IAMWARM project. His direct experience with SRI helped him to take SRI seriously in the project implementation.
SRI thus became a major attraction not only to rice farmers of different river basins, but also to the state's Agriculture Department from 2006 on. I was also involved in monitoring the implementation of SRI projects in all the basins during 2007-08 and 2008-09, which was quite an experience.
By this time, the WWF-ICRISAT 'dialogue project on food, water and environment' had taken a lead in promoting SRI in the country, and it organized National SRI Symposia first at Hyderabad in 2006 and then at Agartala in 2007. I was invited to both the events.
When I retired from TNAU service on 31 July 2008 and was not sure of my post-retirement activity, I received a call from Dr. Biksham Gujja and Dr. Vinod Goud asking me to join the WWF-ICRISAT project to work on SRI. I had never thought that I would continue my destiny with SRI after retirement. I started as a consultant for the project working from home most of the time. We organized a very successful 3rd National SRI Symposium at TNAU campus in Coimbatore in December, 2008.
Dr. Gujja and I happened upon a report about ‘Single Seedling Planting’ being promoted in Tamil Nadu by the erstwhile Madras Presidency of British India already in 1920! Dr. Gujja was very curious about this news as it reminded him of SRI today. We began a search for more information in the libraries in Chennai and were informed about three publications put out in Tamil language in the year 1911 about the single-seedling planting (accidentally found by a professor in the TNAU library).
Further research and the search for details about the farmer-authors of the articles in their native places brought us to write an interesting story of the SRI-like rice cultivation method discovered by farmers of Tamil Nadu 100 years ago. The story was published in the SRI Newsletter No. 6 put out by WWF-ICRISAT project: http://sri-india.net/newsletter/SRI%20issue%206%20(17-05-09).pdf.
Working in the WWF-ICRISAT project brought new opportunities to visit SRI farmers, workshops and seminars in different parts of the country and also new associations with SRI proponents like Dr. Shambu Prasad of the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneshwar.
SRI also renewed my association with Wageningen Agricultural University when Dr. Dominic Glover, Dr. Ezra Berkhout and Dr. Herman van Keulen, who had taken up a study on SRI, visited India. Dr. Shambu Prasad and I had an opportunity to visit Madagascar to attend a workshop organized by Wageningen in March 2010.
The SRI association with Dr. Uphoff which started more than a decade ago is still continuing. The rice farmers of Tamil Nadu and the Government of Tamil Nadu owe him a lot as SRI is a now major agricultural activity in the state. The journey with SRI is still continuing. Do you agree with me that my professional life has been driven by my destiny?
I thank my good friend Dr. Shambu Prasad, who instigated me to write this story after reading a short autobiography of Dr. Willem Stoop (although I don’t have such a background as that of Dr. Stoop). It is a strange coincidence that Dr. Stoop also started as a soil scientist and ended up as an SRI scientist!