34) A role in the life of the poor (April 2000)

From his Danuman West village in the Philippines' Iloco Sur province, little William had to walk two kilometres every day to his elementary school. Since his parents could not afford to educate him further, he did odd jobs to be able to pay for his college fee. He completed his studies, thanks mainly to the scholarships he picked up.

After an illustrious career as an agricultural scientist and as an administrator, Dr William D Dar left for Patancheru in Andhra Pradesh, to guide a premier agricultural research institution. Dr Dar, director-general of the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics is revolutionising the institution.

At 46, he is the youngest head of any institute under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. Since the time Dar has taken over as (January, 2000) he has given Icrisat a new mantra: Science with a human face in the new millennium.

Excerpts:

What do you mean by science with a human face?
It means good science. It means science that is to be used as a weapon to fight poverty and hunger. We will have a more interactive and coherent agenda for the future. It will be a demand-driven, participatory approach.

Does this mean Icrisat was not doing science with human face all this while?
It was not the motif of Icrisat. Now we want to play a bigger role in the life of the poor. We want to make it better. I feel we have to introduce changes and fast.

How easy is it or rather difficult?
We have just started. We have to convince our donors about the suitability of the new agenda. I believe I am succeeding in that mission.

What is the most important difficulty that you foresee in implementing your agenda?
It is the attitude. The attitude of the administrators, policy-makers, scientists, researchers... We have to sell the idea that it is no longer enough working on our five mandate crops. If you want to improve the life of the poor, you have to bring additional income to their homes. To make this practical, we have to start thinking differently.

What steps are you planning to take in Icrisat?
Till now our research was confined to the five mandate crops: sorghum, millet, groundnut, chickpea and pigeonpea. Now we are exploring ways to introduce more items in the agenda, without losing our focus. There are nutritious crops like the legumes that can take care of health in poor families. For instance, in some areas there are date palms. We will start working with institutions who have the expertise.

What do you think will the result be?
It will be a success. When I leave, I will leave behind a changed Icrisat. My trust in my people, scientists and the donors.

You have talked about poverty. Have you seen poverty in its real form?
I come from a poor family. I did all the work in that three-hectare land my family owned in the village. It was a hand-to-mouth existence for us. Hunger is not an abstract idea to me.

How did you break the barriers posed by poverty?
By hardwork and determination. I was a good student. I did my BSc (Agricultural Education) and MS (agronomy) from Mountain State Agricultural college, La Trinidad, Banguet and PhD (horticulture) from the University of the Philippines at Los Baños College, Laguna.

How did you start your career?
I started off as a farm management technician at an agricultural extension centre in 1973. Then I moved to teach science in a secondary school. My life with Mountain State Agricultural College started as an instructor in 1975 and ended as special assistant to the president for research, planning and development. I became a professor at the Benguet State University in 1986 and left it as vice-president for research and development services.

And then your career with the government began.

Yes, I was appointed director, Bureau of Agricultural Research, Department of Agriculture in 1987 and continued in the post till 1994 when I was made executive director for the Philippines Council for Agriculture, Forestry and natural Resources Research and Development. I took over as Agricultural Secretary (equivalent to the Agricultural Minister in India) under President Joseph Estrada in 1998.

But you could not become a politician.
I'm a scientist and at best an administrator. Never a politician.
From an instructor to a minister to being Icrisat DG, you have held posts of different hues. Which have you like most?
I have enjoyed every bit of my life and my career. The job here is very challenging. However, guiding this institution to become a change agent in the lives of the poor offers me immense satisfaction.

How do you find life in India?
I am getting accustomed to it. But spicy food three times a day is a bit too much!

Have you left your family behind in Philippines?
My wife Beatrice is with me here. Our eldest daughter May (22) has completed her graduation and she is in Philippines. Celeste (16) and Christine (15) are doing their studies and are also in Philippines.


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