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IITian becomes farmer

R Madhvan, an engineer from IIT, now a farmer

Off-beat is in. The oft beaten track, not so.

One of the most interesting themes at this year's Pan-IIT event was the session on rural transformation. IITians who have chosen an offbeat career hogged the limelight at the event. In this series, we feature some of the IITians who preferred to be different, rather than get into a corporate rat race.

The star at the event was R Madhavan, an alumnus of IIT-Madras.

This is Madhavan�s success story as a farmer. . .

Passion for agriculture

I had a passion for agriculture even when I was young. I don�t know how my love for agriculture started. I only know that I have always been a nature lover.

I used to have a garden even when I was a teenager. So, from a home garden, a kitchen garden, I gradually became a farmer! My mother used to be very happy with the vegetables I grew.

My family was against my ambition of becoming an agriculturist. So, I had to find a livelihood for myself.

I wrote IIT-JEE and got selected to study at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. I enjoyed studying mechanical engineering.

My intention was to transform what I study into what I love; mechanisation of farming. I felt the drudgery in farming is much more than in any other industry, and no one had looked into it.

Working for ONGC after IIT

I started my career at the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). My father refused to give me any money to start farming. So I asked the officials to let me work at the offshore sites, on the rigs.

The advantage was that I could work on rigs for 14 days and then take 14 days off. I chose to work on the rigs for nine years.

My first farm land

After 4 years, I saved enough money to buy six acres of land. I bought land at Chengelpet near Chennai.

I chose that land because the plot had access to road and water. Back in 1989, a man in a pair of trousers aroused curiosity among the farming community. That was not the image of a farmer!

Tough beginning as a farmer

I became a full fledged farmer in 1993. It was tough in the beginning. Nobody taught me how to farm. There was no guidance from the gram sevaks or the University of Agriculture.

I ran from pillar to post but couldn�t find a single scientist who could help me. I burnt my fingers. My first crop was paddy and I produced 2 tonnes from the six acres of land, it was pathetic.

When I lost all my money, my father said I was stupid. I told him, it didn�t matter as I was learning. It was trial and error for me for three years. Until 1997, I was only experimenting by mingling various systems.

Going to Israel to learn

In 1996, I visited Israel because I had heard that they are the best in water technology. Take the case of corn: they harvest 7 tonnes per acre whereas we produce less than a tonne.

They harvest up to 200 tonnes of tomatoes, whereas here it is 6 tonnes, in similar area of land. I stayed in one of the kibbutz, which is a co-operative farm for 15 days.

I understood what we do is quite primitive. It was an eye opener for me. They treat each plant as an industry. A plant producing one kilo of capsicum is an industry that has 1 kilo output.

I learnt from them that we abuse water. Drip irrigation is not only for saving water but it enhances your plant productivity. We commonly practice flood irrigation where they just pump water. As per the 2005 statistics, instead of 1 litre, we use 750 litres of water.

Dr Lakshmanan, my guru

Imet Dr Lakshmanan, a California-based NRI, who has been farming for the last 35 years on 50-60,000 acres of land.

He taught me farming over the last one decade. Whatever little I have learnt, it is thanks to him.

I knew a farm would give me much better returns in terms of money as well as happiness. Working for money and working for happiness are different. I work and get happiness. What more do you need?

No guidance in India

I said at one platform that we have to change the curriculum of the agricultural universities. What they teach the students is not how to farm, but how to draw loans from a bank!

What they learn cannot be transformed to reality or to the villages. The problem in the villages is not mentioned in the university. There is a wide gap and it is getting worse.

After burning my fingers for four years, from 1997 onwards, I started making profits.

Even though it took me four years, I did not lose hope. I knew this was my path ven though I didn�t have any guidance from anyone.

In those days, communication was slow. Today, I can get guidance from Dr Lakshmanan on Skype or Google Talk, or through e-mail.

I send him the picture of my problem and ask his guidance. In those days, it took time to communicate. There was no Internet or connectivity.

That was why it took me four years to learn farming. Today, I would not have taken more than six months or even less to learn the trick!

The farming cycle

I started crop rotation after 1997. In August, I start with paddy and it is harvested in December.

I plant vegetables in December itself and get the crops in February. After that, it is oil seeds like sesame and groundnut, which are drought-resistant, till May.

During May, I go on trips to learn more about the craft. I come back in June-July and start preparations on the land to get ready for August. In 1999, I bought another four acres. My target is a net income of Rs 100,000 per annum per acre. I have achieved up to Rs 50,000.

Selling the products

I sell my produce on my own. I have a jeep and bring what I produce to my house and sell from there. People know that I sell at home. I don�t go through any middle man.

I take paddy to the mill, hull it and sell it on my own. In the future, I have plans to have a mill too. These days, people tell me in advance that they need rice from me. I have no problem selling my produce.

Engineering helps in farming

More than any other education, engineering helps in farming because toiling in the soil is only 20 per cent of the work. About 80 per cent of farming needs engineering skills.

Science is a must for any farming. I have developed a number of simple, farmer-friendly tools for farming areas like seeding, weeding, etc. as we don�t have any tools for small farmers.

If I have 200 acres of land, I can go for food processing, etc. My next project is to lease land from the small farmers for agriculture. The village will prosper with food processing industries coming there. My yield will also be more with more land.

Abdul Kalam visits the farm

Dr Abdul Kalam visited my farm when he was the President, after hearing about what I was doing. He spent around two hours on my farm.

During his visit, he said: �We need not one, but one million Madhavans!

If I am able to inspire or create even one entrepreneur, I will be very happy, because that is what Dr �Kalam wished me to do.

Experimental farming

Every acre of my land has ten cents of experimental farming. I have done this for the last 15 years.

This is a part of my research and development. Some of it may fail, but even if I succeed at one thing, that is enough for me.

Entrepreneurship in the village

I feel that the number of people engaged only in farming should come down. Instead of ten people, there should only be two people. I am not saying the eight should go jobless.

What we should do is, create employment in the villages based on other agro activities like value addition, processing, etc.

We can go for mechanisation in large areas so that the cost per acre goes down. In India, the cost per every meal is very high. So, my next concern is, how do you make it cheap.

In America, the unskilled working for one hour can earn three meals a day. Here, in the rural areas, even if they work for one day, they can�t get one meal a day. How do you bring down the cost? By producing more food. So, my intention is to make more food.

Food insecurity in India

The United Nations says 65 per cent of the world population suffers from food deficiency, and India ranks first in the list.

About 49 per cent of our children are undernourished. This means our future generation will be affected.

If we are not going to give attention to this area, we are in for real trouble. Food insecurity is more threatening than an atom bomb!

You can send an email to R Madhavan at madhur80@hotmail.com

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