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NECTAR acting as catalyst to promote technology in rural Northeast: Director General

Priyanka Chakrabarty , June 29, 2024
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Guwahati: Dr Arun Sarma, the Director General of Northeast Technology Center for Technology Application and Reach (NECTAR) spoke to Business North East on its mission, plan, vision and its zeal to bridge the technology gap in the region through their outreach programme. Excerpts of the interview are as under:

Business North East: Tell us about your mission to inform people in the Northeast about the benefits of technology?

Dr Arun Sarma: The Northeast Technology Center for Technology Application and Reach (NECTAR) is a unique organization that focuses on the dissemination of technology for societal development and skill manpower creation. The organization connects developed technology from labs like CSR labs, IITs, and central universities to the industry and society, resulting in a large number of livelihoods across various sectors. As an organization under the Ministry of Science and Technology, NECTAR provides opportunities for connecting other science and technology institutes across the country. The goal is to use the available technologies in the lab to benefit society and contribute to societal development. The NECTAR's mission is to create a thriving ecosystem for societal growth and development.
Business North East: How much funds are spent on the technology outreach mission?

Dr Arun Sarma: The organization operates two prominent schemes: TOSS, a technology outreach services scheme, and BURNS, a bamboo and allied service scheme. These schemes provide funding to entrepreneurs, self-help groups, NGOs, state governments, and academic institutions. The proposals must be submitted through an online process and vetted through the state government department. The aim is to establish a close connection with the state government and understand the projects happening in the respective states. Under these two schemes, around Rs 25 lakh is provided to initiate projects, not in the form of research and development (R&D) but in product or technology development. The criteria for applying for these schemes is that the proposal must be accessible to anyone and must undergo vetting through the state government department.

Business North East: Let us know about your collaboration with the government in technology.

Dr Arun Sarma: NECTAR is a unique organization in the country that provides funds for capacity building and entrepreneurship development. They take up projects through online processes, screening them through their committee and then taking them to their project assessment committee (PAC), which is made up of industrialists, scientists, or administrative officers. The committee members then present the screened proposal to the state government, particularly the science and technology department or planning department, to decide whether they will take the project.

We have implemented technology to mitigate arsenic from water, a major problem in Northeast India, particularly in Assam. They asked the state government department to provide at least four, five, six, or seven schools in remote areas where they lack pure water. This allowed them to implement the arsenic mitigation technology in the school compound.

NECTAR is also working on creating a platform for regional economic boom. They have provided funding for R&D, capacity building, and entrepreneurship development. They ask entrepreneurs to provide a business model and evaluate the return on investment (ROI). For example, if they provide Rs 25 lakh to an entrepreneur, they must consider the timeline at which they will receive the money back.

NECTAR has also given around 160 proposals within the last 3-4 years, with more than 70 being approved. This approach ensures that the projects are funded and implemented effectively, contributing to the regional economic boom.

Business North East: Recently the NECTAR organized the North East Start Up and Entrepreneurs Conclave. What was the impact?

Dr Arun Sarma: The project has been given to 162 agencies, including NGOs, self-help groups, individuals, and state governments, with 70 of them having completed or in the process of completion. To showcase their achievements, the project invited government officials from various departments, including agriculture, science and technology, donor ministry, horticulture, all ministries, MSME department, and all ministries representation. Entrepreneurs were invited to showcase their products, allowing people to know what they were producing and gaining a direct market link for their products.

The main idea is to take them to the global market. NECTAR has also been asked about its plans to develop scientific culture and technological interest among school students and other age groups. To achieve this, the government has introduced initiatives for digitization, which requires a good geoinformatic system, geospatial, UAV, drone, data processing, and drone assembly facilities. To train people in these areas, NECTAR has created an ecosystem with a well-developed skill development center on geospatial technology in Khanapura, Guwahati.

The center invites students from all over the Northeast to come and receive training on various aspects, such as data processing and piloting. A recognized pilot training institute has started, with the first batch dedicated to women. This connects NECTAR to school students and works with the AICT and All India Technical Council to address the lack of STEM subjects in the North East.

In summary, Nectar has been working with various agencies to improve their skills and promote STEM education in the region. By partnering with the AICT and the All India Technical Council, Nectar aims to address the challenges faced by the NorthEast in STEM fields and promote a more inclusive and effective educational environment.

Business North East: which of the states in the Northeast are easily accessible for technology outreach and which are difficult to reach?

Dr Arun Sarma: Assam and Nagaland are easily connected, while Mizoram and Arunachal are a challenge due to poor road communication. For example, a solar coal storage installation in Mejora required five days to transport due to poor roads and a large truck. The technology was purchased from the National Institute of Solar Energy in Ghaziabad and was transported through a bad truck.

Location and transportation issues are also significant challenges. People are often hesitant to discuss the technological benefits in states that are lagging, like Nagaland. Arunachal is coming up, and Mizoram is confined to itself. However, these challenges can be overcome if approached positively. This presents an opportunity to involve and work for these communities, ensuring they are not confined to their interests. By addressing these challenges, we can work towards a more sustainable and connected India.

Business North East: What kind of collaborations NECTAR has made with educational institutions and how has it benefitted both parties?

Dr Arun Sarma: We have an MoU with Cotton University, NEHU, a few departments of IIT, and some other institutes. We have developed a training center with Cotton University in mobile mode.

Business North East: What role does innovation play in NECTAR’s strategy?

Dr Arun Sarma: In doing a project in Megalaya, one guy has developed a ramp pump. So what is the ramp pump? It elevates water without electricity. That's an innovation. So that innovation can be protected in terms of copyright or patent. Similarly, a lady from Manipur is extracting fiber from the lotus root. And from that fiber she is making very high-quality clothes, and shawls. So that's a unique technique that she has developed. So, such things are happening because of her own innovation. So, this is what we have been trying. However, the technology dissemination and livelihood generation remain our priority.

Business North East: Are there any emerging technologies that NECTAR is particularly excited about or investing in?

Dr Arun Sarma: The Prime Minister's Development Initiative in the Northeast is focusing on using banana trees for 100% utilization. One of the projects is a unique one that involves extracting fiber from the stem, which is made up of a large amount of water from the ground. This water is highly antibacterial and can be used for various purposes. The remaining part of the stem is stored and pressable to produce liquid fertilizer, which can be used as fiber or biomass. The fiber can be used to make cotton, yarn, and vagal leather, which is highly biodegradable and eco-friendly.

The cotton produced can also be used to create antibacterial sanitary pads. The initiative has already been implemented in 75 girls' schools in Tripura and Meghalaya.

The North East has 43 different types of bananas, including many delicious ones. Dryers and drying machines are being used to dry different types of bananas, fuse them, grind them, and add badam or pista to create a protein called Vita, which can compete with Horlicks and Bonvita.

Innovative technology is being developed to utilize banana trees for various products, such as liquid fertilizer and sanitary pads. Bamboo sanitary pads made in China are not as effective as those made from bananas.

In conclusion, the Prime Minister's Development Initiative in the North East is focused on using banana trees for their unique and sustainable uses. By utilizing technology and innovative methods, the region can create a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.

Business North East: What is NECTAR doing for the sustainability of its projects and initiatives? 

Dr Arun Sarma: Many people have taken government money without proper monitoring, leading to issues like theft and lack of accountability. To address this, we advocate using technology and digitization to ensure that projects are given to individuals with GPS tagging. This allows for easier tracking of projects and their progress.

In Mizoram Lake Village, for example, after a project is sanctioned, it is mandatory for individuals to upload their work, including photographs and videos, to the office for review. Although not 100% successful, the text emphasizes the need for sustainable practices.

Examples of successful projects include five girls in Azara, who are now providing jobs to other housewives and earning money. There are many other examples with great potential for work in the northeast.
Business North East: What long-term goals does NECTAR have for the development of the Northeast region? 

Dr Arun Sarma: Prime Minister's Development Initiative for North East Region (PM-DevINE) has two major projects under their purview. The first project, received from the Ministry of the donor, involves the construction of 12 plants in the Northeast, including one in Boko, Rivoy, Colasip, and Tripura. Each plant will produce three common products: fiber, liquid fertilizer, and biomass. The investment for each plant is around six to six years.

The second project, which promotes scientific organic farming, involves the production of 250 farm labs that convert normal land into organic land within two years. The products produced will be certified by an agency, either PGS or NPOP, allowing them to be sold as organic products within the country and internationally.

The 250 farm labs will produce 25,000 trained organic farmers, who will be connected directly to the market to ensure their products reach the market. The company also has a significant market linkage with major retailers like Reliance Retailer and Tata, who are interested in marketing their products.

The ultimate goal is to take the products from the Northeast to the entire world, focusing on rural technology rather than hi-fi technology. The focus is on rural technology, not just hi-fi technology.

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