A Date With Dates!
This writer led a delegation of the Agriculture Ministry to Oman for bilateral discussions on co-operation in the areas of food and nutrition security, agricultural research, extension, dairy development, micro irrigation, food processing and opportunities for investment in India’s storage and warehousing sector. This visit also gave the Indian delegation to understand the salience of agriculture, livestock and fisheries sector in Oman’s economy which in popular perception is based only on petrol and gas. However, there is more to Oman than oil and gas— even though it is true that the bulk of the national income (over 65 per cent) comes from oil. But even as the nation leapfrogs into a post-modern society, agriculture, and food security continue to be major concerns, and retaining leadership and excellence in dates continues to be an abiding passion. In fact, Sultan Quaboos has, through a royal decree, ordered that a million date palm trees have to be planted in the Sultanante.
While dates are the only vegetation that grows in abundance in most of the Arab countries, Oman has a leadership position in documenting and improving the different species of dates, and establishing protocols for the propagation of dates using tissue culture labs, and micro propagation techniques. At the tissue culture lab in the ancient city of Nizwah (which was the former capital of Oman) scientists are engaged in perfecting the techniques, not just in the lab, but also in the nurseries and greenhouses where date palm plants are kept in readiness for distribution to the farmers. Currently, the lab has a capacity of producing 35-40,000 plants a year, and as can be expected, plans are afoot to double the capacity in the coming year.
However, the visit was not about dates alone. The delegation also visited the Marine Sciences laboratory, Livestock Research and Breeding Centres and the Quality Control Centre of the Agriculture Department. All centres were equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and the scientists had received their education in the best universities throughout the world, including India. Omanis are very clear in the areas in which collaboration with India can be helpful—dairying, horticulture, farm level food processing women in agriculture, farm mechanisation and micro irrigation being among the big tickets.
What were the main learning points for us? First and foremost, even though prosperity was clear and visible, the country was keen on achieving self-sufficiency in food, and developing the competencies of its own scientists in this direction. Even though it was possible to import all the cereals, dairy products, meats and fruits the country had taken a conscious decision that an over- dependence on oil cannot be a sustainable model of development. Unlike Dubai, which had positioned itself as the global centre for trade and real estate, Omanis were trying to balance their traditional livelihoods with the science and technology, and government was offering incentives to farmers, herders and fishermen to adopt the best technologies to improve harvests and incomes. With a coastline of over 3000 km, fishing had been a traditional source of livelihood, and the government has taken a conscious decision to stop trawlers, and encourage individual fishermen to go out in their boats to harvest the fish. Again, while it was possible for the country to import all its cereal and dairy requirements, a conscious effort was underway to ensure that the 27 per cent rural population contributed to the food and nutrition security of the country.
The second lesson was about the ‘externalities’ of oil exports. The general assumption is that when a country exports oil, it gets abundant revenue, and there is no loss, whatsoever. However, Omanis realised to their horror that when the petroleum tankers returned to the shore (with water from the shores of the country where the oil was exported), it brought with it sea- weeds, algae, fish remains and other pollutants, which affected the coastal and marine life in the country. This mingling of waters from Australian ports caused a major crisis for the Omani fishing industry a few years ago, and now protocols with respect to ‘ballast waters’ are being rigorously implemented. Taking a cue from this, Oman is now establishing a very strict food safety and standards regime. In fact even as we were there, Oman had banned eggs from India on account of some reports about their being affected by avian influenza. It took considerable effort on the part of this delegation that India was such a big country, that ‘precautionary principle’ had to be applied with respect to a state, or at best, a neighboring state. That banning eggs from Hyderabad for an outbreak in Tripura did not make logical sense was explained by using the map of India to good effect.
The third lesson was that a nation does well to have a clear sectoral vision. Oman has absolute clarity about domains in which they could be world leaders, and those in which they had to ‘copy-paste’. Thus dates, coastal fisheries and ruminants were their focus and in that order. For the rest, they would follow best practices evolved elsewhere. The focus was clear while citrus, banana, tomatoes and potatoes also need to be improved—Oman could achieve global excellence in dates, and if anyone (including India) needed some help on this front, support would be more than forthcoming.
Before closing, the final footnote on dates. Fresh dates are offered to guests in season but when they are not available, a delectable Omani halwa made from dates is served, which may not be refused. This comes with Omani coffee (kahva) in small cups called ‘finjan’, and both are served with a degree of formality and ceremony much like the Japanese tea tradition.
The date with ‘dates’ was really enjoyable: this writer will cherish these interactions for quite a while.
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)