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Stewardship and Trusteesh
  By A.J. Philip  
  I ACCOMPANIED Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his visit to South Africa on the occasi  
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Letter to Metropolitan
  By Rev A.P. Jacob and five other priests  
  Most Rev. Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar  
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Back to infancy -- they n
  By Shaheen Chander  
  ENJOYING a relaxed weekend, I was checking updates on the Facebook page. I came across a b  
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Bicycling for a cause
  By Archana Sudheer Gayen  
  IF a young man on a bicycle stops you and tells you what AIDS is all about, you needn't be surprised. You might have just bumped into 26-year-old Somen Debnath, who is on a unique mission to make the world aware of the dreaded disease.

At first glance, he seems like any other college student with long hair and bright eyes, but there is something very different about him. This young lad from Basanti village in the Sunderbans, West Bengal, is on a tour -- "Around the World Bicycle Tour for HIV/AIDS Awareness Programme & Seminar on Indian Culture." His journey began on May 27, 2004, just two days after he acquired a Bachelors degree in Zoology from the University of Calcutta. Debnath also has a 'Visarad' in Fine Arts from Sarbabhartiya University.

So, how did Debnath get on such a unique bicycling trip? "I was inspired by an article I read when I was 14. The story -- 'AIDS is Deadlier than Cancer' -- was about a homeless man who was abandoned by his family and left to die outside the Medical College of Calcutta. I was saddened by his plight and wanted to know more and do something about the situation. I began asking my teachers about HIV/AIDS, but none was able to answer my questions," Debnath says. Two years later, Somen enrolled for training at West Bengal State AIDS Control Society (WBSACS), following which he began his awareness campaign. His teachers were the first to be educated.

The young entrepreneur is on a tour of 191 countries. He has traveled to 40 countries so far and hopes to cover the entire world by 2020. In India, Debnath has covered 75,400 km, starting from his own village. Worldwide, he has conducted programmes for 350 NGOs, 3,560 schools, 3,750 colleges and 68 universities. He has also visited 139 red-light areas, 'kothis' and numerous roadside restaurants.

"My mission was initially meant to spread awareness in my village. It has now become a global campaign. I want to make people aware of this deadly, yet preventable disease. My main focus is the underprivileged, the poor, and the tribal population, who have the lowest level of awareness. I also give seminars on Indian culture," Debnath states.

"I aim to educate people by raising awareness in schools, colleges and universities. I want these institutions to initiate HIV/AIDS awareness programmes and promote the use of condoms for commercial sex workers," Debnath says, with the tone of a winner.

However, his tour has not always been peaceful. In November 2009, Debnath was taken captive by the Taliban while travelling through Afghanistan. He spent 24 days in captivity, blindfolded and strapped to a chair in a small dungeon. He was accused of being a spy, beaten and starved. He somehow managed to convince one of his captors, who knew little English, to allow him to cook them a meal. That did wonders. The Taliban were impressed by the lavish meal. "I cooked hot, spicy Indian food for them the way we have it in the Sunderbans. They realized I was a safe guy and released me," he says. In another incident, he once had to sleep on a tree to escape the cheetahs and leopards pacing below.

Finances are a big hurdle. He relies on individual sponsors and benevolent people to open up their homes to him. "I use to find people who will host me during my stay in their country. This significantly decreases my costs." His basic costs include expenses for food, water, phone and bicycle repair.
Debnath's efforts have not gone unnoticed. He has been honoured by nine Presidents, 38 Ministers and Governors in different countries. He has also received letters of support and recommendation from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Ministry of External affairs, Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and Ministry of Broadcasting, Information and Parliamentary Affairs.

Debnath's spirits are not dampened by any adversity. With the European leg of his tour beginning, he is all geared to continue his mission. As his Facebook account declares: "I am Somen Debnath, travelling around the world on a bicycle. I want to know people, understand them and learn from them." The least we can do is wish him all the best.
Photo: Courtesy The Guardian
Changing face of agriculture
  By Afsana Bhat  
  Dr Anwar Alam is a man on a mission. As Vice-Chancellor of Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology-Kashmir (SKUAST-K), he has contributed immensely to the growth and development of the varsity and is all set to ensure that farmers use the latest technology available. Dr Alam, who was born in Allahabad on July 5, 1945, has 324 publications to his credit. His illustrious 43-year career included three years as Chief Technical Adviser, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). He received a doctorate in 1972 from the University of Illinois, US, and a DSc (Honoris Causa) in 1999 from Chander Shekhar Azad University of Agriculture and Technology, Kanpur. In this interview to 'The Herald of India', he talks about the university, its research projects and his role as vice-chancellor.

Q. When did you join SKUAST-K? What are the changes you see in the varsity now?

When I joined the university in 2003, there were only three faculties -- Agriculture, Veterinary Sciences and Animal Husbandry and Postgraduate Studies. There are three more now: Fishery, Forestry and Horticulture. Two faculties in the pipeline are Sericulture and Agriculture Engineering.
Every faculty member performs three functions: Teaching, research and extension education. There are 42 subject divisions. SKUAST, which was established in 1982, is involved in developing human resource for agriculture and allied fields, undertaking research to increase agriculture production and impact the livelihood of rural people, extension education and transferring of technologies to farmers. Sadly, the university's infrastructure growth was hampered for a while due to the tumultuous political situation in the state. In September 1999, SKUAST-J (for Jammu division) was established. The parent university then came to be renamed as SKUAST-K with its jurisdiction restricted to the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh.

Q. What are the courses offered by the University?

We run seven undergraduate programmes (four-year courses, except veterinary that is for five years), 29 postgraduate programmes and 18 PhD programmes. Above 400 students enroll at the university every year. So far, the university has produced 2,250 professionals.

Q. Tell us something about the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences and Animal Husbandry?

Inspired by former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, I doubled the department's intake capacity. I knew that there was great scope for employment in this sector. Although Veterinary Sciences and Animal Husbandry offers good jobs, students want to study more. They are keen to join postgraduate courses. The faculty also undertakes regular research activities. We successfully introduced poultry breed 'Vanraja' in the state. The birds weigh about 3-4 kg in 18 months, compared to traditional ones that weigh only 1.5 kg. Another superior breed 'Gramapriya' has helped supplement farmers' income.
The university has set up a hatchery to promote these birds. Our poultry house breeds about 60,000 chicks every year.

Q. Could you give us an overview of research conducted by SKUAST-K?

The university has 20 research units, covering almost all districts. Major research projects are externally funded. Our researchers mainly focus on increasing crop production at lesser costs. We are trying to bring about food and nutrition self-sufficiency.
So far, we have released 60 improved varieties of crops, including hybrids, 30 of them in the last five years. Five varieties of rice, eight of maize, five of wheat and two of barley have been released. We have developed more than 100 agro-techniques that increase production and reduce cost. Production of seeds and planting material, developed by the university, is funded by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). We sell university seeds under the brand name of 'Shalimar Beej'.

Q. What is the scope of saffron and Kalla Zera in the Valley?

Saffron and Kalla Zera are two important cash crops. Last year, saffron cost Rs 300 per gram, which I thought was expensive, but it made the farmers happy. Saffron yield is low. Even 1-2 kg per hectare is considered good. Iran produces over 5 kg per hectare. The traditional method followed here is outdated and not rational. As saffron is grown on slopes, it requires sprinklers or drip irrigation.
Kalla Zera is still in a semi-domesticated stage. To date, I have not come across a good crop. People are slowly beginning to identify causes for this. If the bulbs are 2-3 grams in size, it bears good crop, but if it is too small, the farmers have to wait another year. This causes great losses.

Q. How is SKUAST-K working for the revival of these two cash crops?

SKUAST-K conducted trial production of saffron on 13 kanals of land at Konibal-Pampore. The university is planning to acquire more land at Konibal in order to set up a Saffron Research Lab. A Kalla Zera Research Station will be established at Gurez. We carried out sprinkle irrigation at Konibal-Pampore and found the results to be satisfactory. We are asking the government to provide the same facilities to farmers in the state.

Q. Do the university's Kisan Melas benefit farmers?

The melas are organized by the Directorate of Extension Education. We organize 'Ghostees', where farmers interact with scientists. Agriculture Minister G A Mir took great interest in past melas.

Q. Tell us something about the Mushroom Research and Training Unit set up by the university?

When I joined the University, I was invited to a lab where I found our employees working, as there were no facilities for the same in the varsity. I asked them what the requirements to set up a lab were and requested them to train people in mushroom farming.
Later, the Mushroom Research and Training unit was set up. Hundreds of bottles are produced every year and villages like Kunchipora in Tangmarg and Kanuer in Chadoora have taken to mushroom farming.
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