Dr Ramalakshmi Datta: The Silent Force Working Sincerely and Competently to Bring the Magic of Science to Rural India 

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Luminaries

Dr Ramalakshmi Datta was born in Pudukkottai, Tamil Nadu, on September 12, 1964. Her parents’ destiny took them to Delhi and that was where she grew up. 

She was deeply impacted by the captivating stories that her father, Late Shri S. Y. Raman, used to relate about her grandfather, Late Shri Y. Srinivasa Iyer, a strict disciplinarian. He was a devoted teacher who had taught and nurtured countless students in the rural areas. Hearing about her grandfather and his role in shaping and moulding many young lives inspired young Ramalakshmi to dream of working in the hinterlands of India and making a difference. Her mother, Late Alamelu Raman, encouraged her in this aspect.

As a high schooler, she was deeply influenced by her class teacher who played a crucial role in shaping her life. She used to say, “Try to bring out the best in you as well as in others. The future depends on what you do at present.” These words did not just motivate her as a student but stuck with her lifelong.

Following the establishment of the Plant Tissue Culture Unit at VIB and the involvement of rural girls in laboratory work, Dr Datta began to realise that her desire to work in the rural area to empower the local community was no longer just a dream; it was becoming a reality. The statements made by her high school teacher became a guiding light even as she was leading and training her team of girls in the unit, instilling the same drive in them to meticulously keep the necessary records and data.

Professional Journey

Dr Ramalakshmi Datta joined Vivekananda Institute of Biotechnology (VIB) in 1997, as a Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) Pool Officer. She embarked on journeys to the creeks, canals, and islands in the Sundarbans region of West Bengal to collect mangrove alga – Catenella – for her work. As she was doing so, she was confronted with a stark contrast. On one hand, she was amazed and awed by the region’s rich natural resources, while on the other hand, she could not ignore the prevalent poverty, particularly the dire conditions faced by rural women. 

During that time, a unit on Plant Tissue Culture was initiated at VIB with the support of the Department of Science & Technology (DST) under its Young Scientist Scheme. Young girls from Nimpith village were trained to work in this unit.

Following the establishment of the Plant Tissue Culture Unit at VIB and the involvement of rural girls in laboratory work, Dr Datta began to realise that her desire to work in the rural area to empower the local community was no longer just a dream; it was becoming a reality. 

The statements made by her high school teacher became a guiding light even as she was leading and training her team of girls in the unit, instilling the same drive in them to meticulously keep the necessary records and data.

Mission

The primary focus of Dr Datta and her team involves technology generation, modulation, adoption, and diffusion; primarily benefiting the women of Sundarbans. The concept of plants being grown inside closed bottles was quite a new thing for the people in this region. They conducted awareness programmes in selected remote areas through the ‘Reaching the Unreached’ programme to demonstrate that these banana plants were like the other banana plants they grow in their backyard. They kick-started a group called ‘Nursery Group of Women’ who underwent training. These women then nurtured the tissue-cultured plantlets produced in the culture bottles by the ‘Culture Group of Lab Technician Girls’ and prepared them for supply to the farmers for plantation.

To reach the grassroots in Sundarbans as well as other parts of West Bengal and the Eastern States, Dr Datta got in touch and networked with community-based organisations (CBOs) in the Eastern States. The network of CBOs has given a basket of technologies which could generate improved livelihood, better sanitation, and economically empowered and confident youth through skill development programmes. 

The People

The work on Banana Tissue Culture has evolved as Banana Technology. The tissue-cultured banana plantlets have reached the farmers; the hardening of the micro-propagated plantlets is established as an income-generating activity for the rural women (of the Nursery Group). The Group could standardise a simple method for the extraction of banana fibre as a rural household technology for women. The Culture Group has standardised the protocol for the ornamentals and other horticultural crops. The Rural Youth – the para workers – who were trained at VIB – are empowered with knowledge and skills. They are now analysing 1.39 lakh soil samples in the lab, and Soil Health Cards are being issued to the farmers.

Impact on the Community

Dr Ramalakshmi Datta’s work has played a major role in establishing a modern lab as a resource centre to provide support for different Science & Technology-based programmes to the people who need it the most while also developing the community. She emphasised the delivery mechanism – Training Pedagogy – which included the development of competency-based curricula, manuals, organising hands-on training and follow-up programmes for the rural youth. The multi-skilling training module on bio-fertiliser technology gave scope to the rural youth. It helped to identify the area he or she wants to take up work whether as a knowledge worker or establish a microenterprise of his or her own. 

Dr Datta’s contribution has impacted over 17,000 people across 273 villages in 19 Districts of the four States of West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand.

To reach the grassroots in Sundarbans as well as other parts of West Bengal and the Eastern States, Dr Datta got in touch and networked with community-based organisations (CBOs) in the Eastern States. The network of CBOs has given a basket of technologies which could generate improved livelihood, better sanitation, and economically empowered and confident youth through skill development programmes. The big impact anticipated is that S&T interventions could reduce the gap in the social barrier. In the present scenario, since many of the CBOs are facing problems continuing their work, they must be empowered with knowledge, skill, and support to face challenges. That is where VIB comes in – building a rock-solid network of competent CBOs, creating a platform for sustainable community betterment. And Dr. Datta plans to go forward in this direction.

With a vision to build up a platform of sincere, dedicated team members and demystify technology for the benefit of the community, Dr Datta and her husband, Dr B. K. Datta, are working with the mission to further reach the people in the remote regions with relevant S&T interventions. 

Dr Datta’s contribution has impacted over 17,000 people across 273 villages in 19 Districts of the four States of West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand.

It is rare to find scientists who innovate within lab conditions and implement their findings on the land with social group mobilisation. Dr Ramalakshmi Datta’s work is a perfect example and initiative of the lab-to-land research programme. Her work is truly remarkable in making scientific research accessible and beneficial to small farmers. She is not just making science accessible; she is making it work for small farmers, training them up, and handing them the keys to the research kingdom. She has trained and employed rural scientists to good effect. Dr Datta and the team have also given research tools to the farmers. Her work truly contributes to the advancement of rural India, as she firmly believes in demonstrating competence while working diligently and silently with unwavering dedication.

Dr Ramalakshmi Datta is a recipient of the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for Application of Science and Technology for Rural Development 2023.