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Remembering TVR "Ramu" Pillay (1921-2005)

Friends of TVR "Ramu" Pillay

In India they call them stalwarts, people like Ramu Pillay. It is shorthand for an otherwise lengthy list of descriptions like tall stature, strength of character and far vision, and a long list of achievements. He would have been described a stalwart had he only worked in India. He would have been recognized as the father of modern aquaculture had he chosen to apply his energy, passion and wisdom only within Asia where 90 percent of the world’s farmed fish is now produced. But still 30 years before the previous millennium ended, when the best available record of global aquaculture production was 3.5 million tons, he saw that the world needed to farm more fish, farm it scientifically, and farm it cleanly. That was vision. How he sought to turn much of it into reality is the story of how modern aquaculture evolved.

Ramu blazed an outstanding career in fisheries and aquaculture research long before he moved into the sphere of international aquaculture development. He authored more than a hundred research papers many of them seminal and continue to be cited by researchers the world over. Beyond doing research, he felt a greater need in its systematic and practical application. While in FAO, where he served with remarkable distinction, he set several milestones for aquaculture. The first was the 1966 regional conference on warmwater aquaculture that was probably the forerunner to the 1976 Kyoto Conference on Aquaculture. Besides organizing and technically backstopping innumerable national and regional projects on aquaculture development he also had a hand in initiating the collection of reliable statistics on aquaculture production.

With the growth of capture fisheries leveling off in the early 70s, despite improvements in fishing gear and fish finding technologies (a worrying combination even then), Ramu Pillay saw an urgent need for a concerted effort to accelerate the development of aquaculture to meet the increasing demand for fish and fishery products. However, fish farming was in the main a traditional practice, at best an art, and generally regarded as a poor cousin to capture fisheries. It did not even figure in most governments’ economic development plans, and where it did, there were not enough support especially in terms of scientific and technological resources. Aquaculture was so diverse that the proposed mechanism to deal with its research and development needs, which was to set up an international research centre, was seen as inadequate. Ramu Pillay saw in this situation the opportunity to focus global attention on the new sector and design a novel arrangement to address its diversity, lift it from obscurity in national and regional plans, and move it from a traditional practice to a science-based food production sector.

That broad vision of a global organizational arrangement crystallized into the Kyoto Strategy for Aquaculture Development. The core of the strategy was technical cooperation among developing countries. It was a strategy that aligned with FAO’s mandate and UNDP’s advocacy.

The Kyoto Strategy was the product of a series of regional meetings and a global conference that FAO carried out with UNDP support. Ramu Pillay was charged with the planning, oversight and running of the African, Asian and Latin American regional workshops (held in Accra, Bangkok and Caracas during 1975) and the Kyoto Conference in May 1976. The Strategy conceived of a global network of regional aquaculture centres established in Africa (ARAC), Asia (NACA), Latin America (CERLA) and a regional programme in the Mediterranean (MEDRAP). Each regional centre and programme essentially comprised national institutions of excellence, or a network of such institutions for applied research and technology development, training and exchange of information. A fifth centre, the Fish Culture Research Institute in Hungary, or HAKI, by then strengthened through previous UNDP/FAO assistance, was later identified to provide these regional centres with support in key disciplines including pond design and engineering. HAKI’s becoming a part of the global network owes much to Ramu Pillay’s foresight. Hungary was one of the first European countries assisted by FAO for aquaculture development. Once rich in fisheries resources, a century of tampering with its rivers and wetlands led to its near total reliance on farming for fish supply. Ramu Pillay foresaw a similar global process in Hungary’s transition, during the 1970s, from capture to culture fisheries. HAKI pioneered the transfer of highly productive Asian fish farming practices to Europe. With guidance from Ramu and its scientific advisory board, it grew into an international research, development and training centre that served well, through the global network, the needs of developed but especially developing countries.

To coordinate and develop this global network, UNDP supported the establishment in FAO of the project, Aquaculture Development and Coordination Programme (ADCP) and put Ramu Pillay in charge. As Programme Leader, he proceeded to translate the Kyoto Strategy into a global action programme. He recruited and welded a multidisciplinary team of scientists and mustered their expertise to develop regional system-oriented programmes of research, training and information that were carried out by the regional aquaculture centres. The centres were identified through consultations with governments and strengthened, with investments from governments, UNDP and other donors to become top caliber institutions of research and development. The regional programmes were developed for implementation with full participation of national teams of scientists, technologists, farmers and government planners, assisted by the ADCP Team. This infused the global programme elements of national and regional priorities relevant to local problems and needs. This and TCDC became the operating guidelines of the regional networks, probably exemplified best by the Asia-Pacific network, NACA, which established itself as an intergovernmental organization in January 1990. Two of five is a fair record but Ramu Pillay might have done more to improve on it had he not retired in 1985. Nonetheless, the efforts put into developing their programmes and staff enabled the others to develop into centres of excellence and continue rendering useful research and development services to their regions.

Retirement from FAO did not mean retirement from aquaculture. Ramu Pillay became Director of the Svanoy Foundation for Aquaculture Development, Norway, from which he channeled private sector contributions for aquaculture development in developing countries. When this phase ended as well he resumed writing books. Besides the earlier publications (Planning of Aquaculture Development and Advances in Aquaculture) his other books are: Aquaculture Principles and Practices, 1990; Aquaculture and the Environment, 1992; and Aquaculture Development: Progress and Prospects, 1994. These have become standard texts for students and practitioners and been translated into several languages. Most retirees would have kept to writing. Ramu Pillay stayed active in aquaculture. He lectured, advised the Government of India, wrote and gave numerous keynote papers at technical conferences. His contributions to world aquaculture development were recognized much earlier, in 1976, when he was awarded an honorary life membership by the World Aquaculture Society.

He maintained a close relationship with NACA and was appointed honorary adviser by its Governing Council in 1995, helping to guide it to become the model that a number of recent network development efforts have found worthy to emulate (such as the recently founded Network of Aquaculture Centres in Central and Eastern Europe, or NACEE, and the one being developed in the Americas, the putative NACTA).

At that late stage in his career, he sparked the second of his two most important contributions to world aquaculture: The Conference on Aquaculture in the Third Millennium in Bangkok in 2000, designed as the sequel to Kyoto. He worked with NACA to write the Conference prospectus and develop its agenda, and then headed a multi-agency committee to steer it to completion. The chairman of the Bangkok Conference summed up Ramu’s role in it by acknowledging that he "provided the spark, vision and encouragement" for all participants to join the Conference. He was thus the architect of the Kyoto Declaration on Aquaculture and the prime mover of events that led to the Bangkok Declaration and Strategy for Aquaculture Development Beyond 2000, two of the most important milestones in the development of world aquaculture. Guided by the Bangkok Declaration, NACA included in its programme of work for the first five years of the new millennium what Ramu Pillay had envisaged in 1976: inter-regional cooperation in accelerating and expanding aquaculture development. This has made inter-regional cooperation an important part of the organization’s programme, and has found concrete examples in many of NACA’s joint projects with institutions and countries in other regions including the South Pacific, the Americas, Africa and Europe, some in direct partnership, others in consortia with international organizations. The latest of these is sadly born of a catastrophe, but he would have been proud to see that the regional and international organizations, to which he had given his touch and legacy in various forms and degrees, rapidly formed a consortium to collectively respond to the restoration and development needs of the communities devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Ramu Pillay made aquaculture his raison d’etre, his life. But his influence on its development had not been like the spawning of a sudden wave of interest and action. It was, as with his life, a deliberate, systematic and progressive process, more like stemming from a headwaters of vision, given momentum by perseverance and doggedness, gaining volume and gathering substance from the confluence of numerous tributaries of interests and objectives as they flow along, and eventually branching out into several streams and rivulets of purposes, each carving its course and nourishing the developmental landscape as it flows on to the sea. The active career of Ramu Pillay in fisheries and aquaculture research and development may be recorded in finite terms as 58 years, from 1947 to 2005. But the river flows on.

His passing is a great loss to his family. The aquaculture community share their grief and wish them comfort in their bereavement. He worked until his time came up, having just finished the second revision of his book "Aquaculture Principles and Practices." It was as if he did not want the world aquaculture community to feel the loss of his going away.

Stalwarts are never lost to the world; they live on in their legacy. Ramu, we thank you for the legacy.

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