80 Years of CNRS



While inaugurating the ‘Institut Français de Pondichéry’, the first Prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru desired that Pondicherry would be the ‘open window to France’. How do you see the contribution of IFP and the UMIFRE over the years in bridging France and India?

Frédéric Landy: The IFP was officially recognised by the 1956 Treaty of Cession of French “settlements” to the Indian Union. Scientifically, the IFP has three missions: research, higher education and expertise. We are consultants for Indian organisations, train Indian and French students, conduct research on India and we act as an interface between the two countries thus establishing multiple bridges. Interestingly, as for research, the Indian public and organisations recognise both the utility and legitimacy of the French Institute, since an original component of our tasks is to help maintaining, cataloguing, preserving, researching the cultural and natural heritage of India. Of course, all this is not fully known by the Indian public, not even in Pondicherry itself, but we have a very good reputation and the visitors are deeply impressed by the quality and the diversity of our research.

What are the missions of IFP now, and how have its research interests been relevant to today’s South Asia?

FL: In addition to training of students (master and PhD), hosting post-doctorates and expertising and consultation, our research is conducted in our four departments: Indology, Ecology, Social Sciences, and GeoSMIT (Geospatial Monitoring and Information Technology).
In Indology, we focus on the key features of classical India, namely, its religions, its literature, its languages (mostly Sanskrit and Tamil). In Ecology, we concentrate on biodiversity and notably on the functioning of fragile ecosystems (forests, mangroves, etc.). The research in this department is crucial for South Asia given two major threats on the natural environment, locally (urbanisation, population growth, etc.) and globally (e.g. climate change). GeoSMIT has a component dedicated to research on Indian coasts and forests, mostly in relation with the department of Ecology. It is conducting pioneering work in modelling trees and forests by recent technologies (Lidar), or by using satellite imagery. The Department of Social Sciences promotes research on major social issues and on the relations between human societies and their environment: social management of water, urban development, demography and social mobility, migrations, finance and debt, the impact of industrialisation on rural systems, the diffusion of new technologies, environmental archeology, etc. To concludconclude, two key words characterise our research: “environment” and “heritage”.

How do you assess the academic, scientific and organisational interaction of the UMIFRE with the Indian counterparts?

FL: It is good. Comparatively, we need to intensify our interactions with institutions in France, which are paradoxically not so strong. As our research involves extensive fieldwork, we often need permission to get access to temples, forests or documents under study. Since most of our staff is Indian, since many Indian research centres and universities have a good academic level and we have a dense network of links with Indian institutions. Many Indian institutions are funding our research
projects (Sanskrit universities, Department of Sciences and Technologies, etc.), and we also receive private sponsorship. Some Indian and French researchers of the IFP supervise or co-supervise Indian PhD students.

Do you think that the French public in general and French scientific community in particular are aware of the documentary heritage and the knowledge treasure that the IFP represents and do you think they are extracting the maximum benefit from your institution?

FL: Not at all! UMIFREs as such are too often ignored by the French scientific community, not to speak of the French public. Yet, they are unique tools (only France has such a network) for working as an entry gate and an interface between France and the host country.

In this respect, as we are celebrating the 80th anniversary of CNRS, how do you envisage the role of CNRS in spreading the awareness in France, of the work of your institution?

FL: IFP enjoys a privileged association with CNRS. CNRS has produced documentary films on three programmes of IFP.
Two long-term, French scholar visits of about two years for supported by CNRS following a call for application where UMIFREs in general, and IFP in particular, are showcased. In addition to a relatively small annual subsidy, CNRS also funds the International Research Network SustainAsia that brings together the 5 UMIFREs in Asia with partners. Thus, in terms of communication, IFP is strongly backed by the CNRS.

Do you consider that the evolution of IFP has been healthy and how do you think we can further strengthen the Indo-French relations through IFP?

FL: Scientifically, the evolution of IFP is relatively healthy since research production is good and often even very good. But financially it is quite alarming. The IFP cannot any longer reduce its staff and rely only on short term research projects. It has collections as well as a heritage building to maintain. The forest plot must be visited every year, with outside funding or without. In my opinion, the subsidy provided by the ministry of Foreign Affairs and CNRS is a very good investment in terms of research produced and scientific diplomacy per euro spent. CNRS should definitely increase its support to IFP (by more funds rather than by one more research position, if I have to choose). CEFIPRA should be more open to social sciences. But IFP must take its future in hand, by looking for new resources and sponsorship ; that is why it has created a trust in order to make fund raising easier. So many partners could be interested in sharing our adventure in researching or in conserving our collections!


Read the interview, view the pictures, find out about the French Institute of Pondicherry HERE