Breaking the rural barrier

  • 30/12/1992

Breaking the rural barrier INDIA is probably the most industrialised developing country in the world today, with more than a million trained scientists. But this has only resulted in creating a deeply divided society. The last three decades have witnessed a proliferation of institutions set up to promote rural development through science and technology. Their social impact, however, has remained extremely limited.

Appropriate technology, as applied in this country, suffers from a basic drawback: It has been developed by Western-trained scientists who not only determine what is appropriate but also decide what the people need. The concern for appropriate technology as a vehicle for social transformation can be traced to the worldwide interest that the subject aroused in the mid-1970s. The interest was fuelled by E F Schumacher"s book on the virtues of small-scale production, Small is Beautiful, which was published in 1973. But Indian scientists, driven more by notions of charity than those of empowerment, have not been able to climb out of their technocratic ivory towers. Since the masses have had no role to play in determining their technological needs, it is not surprising that they reject the technologies they get.

This state of affairs is exemplified by the pioneer in this field: the Centre for Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas (ASTRA), a cell of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore. ASTRA (which means weapon in Sanskrit), was set up in 1974 by A K N Reddy who was on IISc"s faculty since 1966. Reddy shot into worldwide fame as the appropriate-technology man within two years of founding ASTRA, when his theoretical writings on appropriate technology won him assignments from the United Nations Environment Programme headquarters at Nairobi. After the emergency was lifted in 1977, Reddy was even invited to join the Planning Commission, but turned down the offer.

There was a strong visionary appeal about the centre Reddy helped to set up. Recalls K S Jagadish, a professor of civil engineering who has been associated with the centre from its inception, "It was conceived as a voluntary group to initiate, catalyse, sustain and develop IISc work relevant to rural development." ASTRA"s mandate was to fight rural poverty and link institutions such as the IISc to the technological needs of the rural poor.

Yet, today, in almost two decades of existence only two technologies developed at this centre -- smokeless stoves or oles and compressed mud blocks (see Down To Earth, October 15, 1992) -- out of perhaps hundreds experimented with, have had some popular acceptance. But disseminating cooking stoves has been a problem because of the government"s target mania (see box) and stabilised mud-blocks for mud houses have become more of an urban fad.

Some of the first experiments in ASTRA involved biogas plants and windmills. The biogas project was stymied by high initial investments and running costs and the skewed distribution of cattle in rural areas. Disseminating the technology also proved a difficult task. The windmills were too esoteric, expensive and perhaps impractical in a country where, except in coastal areas and in parts of Gujarat, there is hardly any wind between October and February.

Other ASTRA projects included agro-processing, transport, water and solar ponds. Some projects never materialised because, as Jagadish observes, "A project would be started with great enthusiasm and then would get stuck because the person working on it would either go abroad or retire or simply lose interest."

Capital-intensive technologies
Part of ASTRA"s problem is that even the apparently appropriate technologies are highly capital intensive. "The poorest are so poor that however cheap you make something, it is too expensive," Reddy once commented. "In India, small is ugly because only the richest 10 per cent can afford small technology."

Conscious of the pitfalls that lie in the way of Schumacherian idealism, ASTRA"s declared approach is to promote self-reliance -- as distinct from self-sufficiency -- of villages and to attain sustainable development by promoting technologies harmonious with the rural environment.

Practical shape was given to this philosophy by opening a rural extension centre at Ungra, a village 115 km from Bangalore, in Tumkur district. Here, a 23-ha government seed farm was taken over and the extension centre was opened in late 1977. Socio-economic surveys of Ungra and nearby villages were carried out to determine the technologies appropriate for the area. According to ASTRA"s first annual report in 1975, the possibilities included small-scale sugar and jaggery plants, bagasse-based handmade paper, rice-husk and rice bran oil products, cement plants from local limestone and silk-worm rearing. In addition, there were weavers, potters, blacksmiths, bullock cart-wrights and brass workers in the region.

Ungra became a pilgrim centre for the leading appropriate-technologists, perhaps because the centre offered the urbanite academic the romantic prospect of living under the same conditions as villagers. Originally, it was supposed to have no electricity and visitors were required to spend at least a night there. It was mandatory for ASTRA staff to stay in the village. Reddy had emphasised that "if a civil engineer builds a low-cost house, he must be prepared to live in it."

Little impact
Today, the Ungra centre is a far cry from Reddy"s original vision. Its neon lights and sanitary toilets, despite their crude appearance because of the low costs involved in manufacturing them, are still quite incongruous in a village setting. But, even more important, the centre in its 15-year existence has hardly made any social or economic impact. No senior scientist stays there full-time and ASTRA project associates move around on rickety mopeds with measly fuel allowances, trying to bring about a social revolution.

The situation is desperate enough for a very committed project associate, S N Srinivas, to invest in a personal motorcycle. The campus wears a desolate look, with rubble from earlier constructions lying uncleared. Given that their employment is only for as long as a project, which can vary from six months to one or two years, associates spend a major part of their time worrying about their future. They are not eligible to study further at the IISc. Besides, they have to contend with problems like lack of water and access to goods and services. All provisions have to be obtained from Durga, a small town about eight km away.

In nearby villages like Pura, where the villagers now manage an ASTRA-installed biogas plant to generate electricity, self-sufficiency is still a distant dream. While plans of promoting holistic development, including regeneration of rural industries, have long been forgotten, elementary details are also neglected. For instance, the centre failed to motivate the community to desilt the 4 ha village tank, which according to 35-year-old village resident Narsappa Narsayia Gowda, has gathered at least 1.5 m silt since his childhood. In fact, the sum of ASTRA"s rural adventure in this region would be the stray presence of some wood gasifiers and biogas plants.

While many ASTRA scientists seem to be sensitive to the problems of Indian society, social activists remain critical. Says Nandana Reddy, director of Bangalore"s Concerned for Working Children, "ASTRA thrusts things from the top. They say they are for the people and with the people, but it is not really so. The social technologies are not there, nor have the people"s needs been taken into account." M M Ganapathi, a social activist of South Kanara district, comparing ASTRA to a factory, points out while "they (ASTRA scientists) go to a village, start working and tell the people that here is a technology that will do you good, their technologies do not involve the people, their perceptions, needs or experiences."

An ASTRA associate with a rural background, who preferred anonymity, said, "ASTRA scientists are basically urbanites who attend a seminar in the US and get ideas about executing a project without trying to understand rural people and their needs. The villages are mere labs for their experiments, papers and seminars. The people really don"t matter." N H Ravindranath, an ASTRA social scientist for 10 years, however, dismisses such criticisms as "empty (and) not constructive."

ASTRA does have a very high rate of failure but its scientists cannot always be blamed for this. J Srinivas, in IISc"s mechanical engineering faculty, said about his solar ponds project, "Under lab conditions at the institute, I got very satisfactory results with the solar pond. But in the field, the experiment failed because the polythene sheet that I had used for lining the pond started leaking as it was not of the right density. Unfortunately, heavy-density polythene sheets are not manufactured in India."

At the village level, ASTRA"s work is appreciated, perhaps because the people have been so neglected that they accept whatever comes their way. But often, the problem is that technologies are hastily introduced with inadequate understanding of the socio-economic reality of the village. For instance, take the case of the community biogas plants introduced at Pura. As S N Srinivas explained, "The primary need of the villagers in this area is water. We were wrong initially in thinking that they need just cooking gas. But when the people told us what their priorities were, we changed our focus."

Now, the biogas plant at Pura generates about 5 KVA of electricity to run an 8 hp pump. Piped groundwater is supplied to some village households for a monthly payment of Rs 5 each. Other households get water from public taps. But a venture to start a cooperative dairy involving the Pura villagers and those of the neighbouring village Sugganahalli proposed two years ago has not taken off.

A factor that hinders Indian rural development is the caste system, which goes to underline class divisions. L Narasimharaju, an associate at Ungra, explains, "We can solve the technical problems of the people but can do very little about certain social issues. For instance, in a lot of these villages, including Ungra, Harijans are not allowed to enter tea shops. Our efforts to remove social untouchability has not had much success."

On the other hand, there are instances of villagers displaying resourcefulness. Take the case of Hosehalli, a hamlet near Ungra where a wood gasifier was installed by ASTRA to provide 43 households with electricity and water. The villagers operate the gasifier themselves and carry out minor repairs. When a gas chamber began leaking because of corrosion and the ASTRA staff was debating whether to shift to a ceramic chamber, the villagers went ahead and used a paste of soap and flour as a sealant. The 5-kW gasifier uses about 16 kg of wood daily, obtained from a 2.2 ha plantation of quick growing trees.

The system works well and should, by all accounts, continue even if ASTRA leaves the village, but for one problem. Doddana Lingayya, secretary of the village energy committee, said some powerful persons from nearby Bandihalli has encroached on to the plantation and the villagers have not been able to dislodge them. Asked why the interlopers were not socially boycotted, especially because two of them are from his own village and all of them are of the same caste, Lingayya pleads, "We have made many complaints to the tehsildar. These people are strong, they are of our own caste and there is no unity in our village."

Ravindranath, who has spent more than six years at Ungra, contended that the scientists do interact with rural people in developing a new technology. He cites the case of the fuel-efficient, smokeless stoves. "We first interacted with the village women, understood their needs and traditional methods of cooking before developing the design. Even after the stoves became popular throughout the state, we introduced many modifications after getting feedback." But it must be remembered that the Ungra extension centre is almost a kilometre away from the main village. And perhaps Reddy"s experiment to see if middle- and upper-class professionals living close to a village can understand its problems as well as voluntary workers who have lived in villages was not so successful after all. The Ungra extension centre has remained just that -- an extension of an elitist institute.

But Ravindranath has a realistic attitude towards ASTRA projects. He says he is put out by queries about how many villages ASTRA has changed. "We are not so presumptuous as to think of changing a village. All we seek to do is to bring some improvements in the life of the villagers." According to him, technologists must produce the right technologies and leave the task of organising the people to social activists. Part of ASTRA"s problem has been that they did not involve social activists -- in fact they stayed away from them. In the process, ASTRA technologists missed learning from the successes and failures of grassroots voluntary agencies in tackling similar rural problems. The philosophy of social change, so ardently advocated by Reddy, in spite of the well-meaning individuals he brought together, has not been sufficiently internalised. For the scientists, society and science are separate entities.

Ravindranath"s position reflects the general dilemma facing the Indian intelligentsia today. How can it, with its middle-class background, bring about socio-political change in rural India? Perhaps, this also explains why ASTRA, despite its brave attempt, remains an isolated experiment not only in the scientific world, but in the academic community in general. Ravindranath maintains lack of money is a major constraint to its effective functioning. But Udipi Shrinivasa of IISc"s mechanical engineering faculty and convenor of ASTRA refutes this, saying, "Money is not a problem. Even if IISc does not give any money, funds can be obtained from so many other sources. I do not think any project was ever held up due to lack of finances." ASTRA gets about Rs 1 lakh annually from IISc from the Rs 8 crore that the institute has earmarked for its projects. ASTRA spends up to Rs 40 lakh annually and most of the financing comes from, among others, the Department of Science and Technology, the Tata Energy Research Institute and the Karnataka State Council for Science and Technology.

One of the main reasons for the failure of ASTRA stems from the scientific community"s negative attitude to research in rural technology, whether at IISc or elsewhere. Comments Shrinivasa with a touch of irony, "All our work is considered soft science."

Jagadish blames Western definitions of what constitutes good science as reasons for the lack of interest in rural technologies. Ravindranath more explicitly states, "Among our scientists, the predominant approach is that what is from the West is best. Many find it humiliating even to talk of rural problems."

Others, like J Srinivas, say peer pressure is also a factor. As Ravindranath says, "Even in IISc there is a feeling that working on rural problems is not high science or engineering. Even though we published many of ASTRA"s more than 300 articles in the same international journals in which conventional work is published, there is some kind of a mental block against us. This deters many from taking up rural issues." Rural work is looked down on in elite institutions and, he contended, IISc is no exception.

A major problem for ASTRA is to attract motivated young persons to stay in the villages. Students generally try to go abroad or find lucrative and more secure employment. L N Srinivas, who has an engineering degree, says, "I have been working from a certain ideological commitment to rural areas. The pay is low and the working conditions are not easy. But more than all that is the uncertainty of what one will do when a project is over. We are all temporary staff." He says he is able to continue with ASTRA because he is a bachelor whereas "many leave after they get married because they want to settle down in a stable career."

Jagadish agreed that this is a problem. "Although we try to help as much as possible, there is nothing that we can officially do for the bright young people who work for us once a project is over." He suggested that a movement for rural technology, with the backing of the government, might be a way to sort out such problems.

Reddy had often spoken of the need to subordinate production techniques to social needs. Unfortunately, ASTRA has not succeeded in doing this and this is possibly the root cause of its failure. Reddy almost foresaw today"s situation when he commented many years ago that "appropriate technology is a necessary condition for development but it is not a sufficient condition. It is also essential that the political structure and the socio-economic framework are both committed to development goals."

ASTRA obviously could not give direction to the political changes that were taking place at the national level and has not even succeeded in bringing some respect to the discipline of rural technology within IISc itself. Worse, the abandoning of various projects that were taken up and the negative attitude of traditional scientists caused a near-crisis for ASTRA. Shrinivasa put it this way: "When I took over as ASTRA"s convenor just some time ago, I was given the mandate of assessing whether ASTRA should continue or not." Shrinivasa, however, felt ASTRA should not be closed down, "as within a limited horizon, it has been making an effort for the cause and shutting it down would destroy whatever hopes one has of ever taking technology to the people."

It is just as well that Shrinivasa decided not to bring down the curtain on one of the boldest experiments in the history of Indian appropriate technology. Despite all the failures caused by social apathy and an unfriendly work environment, the ASTRA experiment represents an important search for alternatives which go beyond the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.

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