Traditional knowledge: Let the people decide

  • 14/01/1994

With the help of the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay, a premier scientific research organisation, the Patriotic and People-Oriented Science and Technology Foundation (PPST), a science-based NGO, brought together 1,200 people from all over India to discuss the country"s heritage in science and technology and what, if any, relevance it has today. The size of the gathering demonstrated the keen interest that people from diverse professions and ideologies have in the subject.

This is not surprising. Every society in crisis is forced to evaluate its strategies. And, concern for traditions as part of an alternative developmental strategy is often part of that revaluation. The strongest evidence for this comes from the Communist revolutions of China and Vietnam. The Chinese Communist Party in the l920s dismissed Chinese medical systems as scientific obscurantism. Vietnamese communists, too, were not enamoured of indigenous Vietnamese medical knowledge. Part of the problem lay in the fact that indigenous medical practitioners who constituted the key lobby pushing indigenous medical systems were extremely right-wing and revivalist in character -- very much similar to our Vaids and Hakims who push the Ayurvedic and Unani systems of medicine. But when adversity fell upon them, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh quickly revised their position and remained lifelong pushers of traditional medical systems despite opposition from the medical profession. Mao realised the life-saving abilities of Chinese systems during the Long March when not a tablet was available to treat sick people and only skills in acupuncture and people"s knowledge of herbs in the remote countryside could cure the sick revolutionaries. Ho learnt his lesson during his long struggle against the French and then used this experience to create an extraordinary health system to deal with the long duration of war wounds during the struggle against the US.

India, too, is in a crisis. Unemployment is high while its labour force grows rapidly. Poverty has proved to be a persistent and highly tenacious problem. Capital is scarce. Trained professionals shun rural areas and slums. The gap between the rich and the poor appears to be growing. And, globalisation threatens to wipe out the remaining elements of Indian culture. While the state finds itself being pulled in all possible awkward directions, the people are now dependent on the state for almost every need, literally asking for development at their doorstep. The colonial state wanted to encourage the idea of ma baap sarkar (the government is my mother and father), but a resurgent independent state cannot be built on this belief. More than 45 years after Independence, the Indian state is beginning to recognise the inadequacies of a strategy that emasculates people"s own initiatives and reduces them largely to spectators, though nobody can deny the key role of the state in determining the framework in which popular action must take place.

The environmental movement is the source of another serious rethink. Growth and equity are as important goals of development as they always were, though people can now question the kind of growth we need. In addition to all this, however, development now has a third objective: sustainability. But what is sustainability? How can it be operationalised? All these are open questions. People searching for a Third Way, therefore, have an open field today. Several people today recognise that steel and cement cannot provide decent houses to all people for many, many decades to come. So what do we do in the meantime? People have also begun to ask if we provide drinking water to all and irrigation water to all fields from tubewells. What will that do to our groundwater resources?

It is precisely in this context that the conference in Bombay had some interesting ideas to offer. Traditional scientific knowledge can provide us with low-cost and labour-intensive technologies that can become a source of employment and industrial dispersal. It can also provide us with techniques and strategies to develop environmentally sound ways of natural resource management and land-use. In fact, it was unfortunate that the conference did not focus much on popular resource management strategies -- far greater attention was paid to various traditional technologies. But it is doubtful whether many of these technologies can compete and survive in today"s globalised economy without enormous state support and subsidies. Undoubtedly, efforts must be made to secure their contribution to as many niches as possible.

But in the area of natural resource management, there are strong reasons to believe that many traditional practices and techniques continue to have some validity even in this day and age. This is simply because the ecology hasn"t changed much in its fundamentals even though the economy may have changed dramatically. The fact that India receives it entire year"s precipitation in a few hours within the year has not changed for thousands of years. To deal with this problem, Indians became the world"s greatest water harvesters as a rational response to the ecology to they lived in. For this reason, the Europeans did not and never had much to teach India in this area. In areas like grasslands management, forest management, water management, botanical and zoological knowledge, agroforestry, mixed cropping, sustainable fishery management and land-use systems, people"s knowledge can contribute a great deal to shaping a better future. But there was precious little discussion on these issues. This shows that even among those looking at the past for answers to solve the future, there is very little knowledge about these dimensions of traditional science and technology.

Much of this knowledge has become coded into the cultural genes of India, just like the knowledge that evolution has coded into our biological genes. People made innovations and tried them out. Over a period of time, those innovations that could not sustain themselves during adverse periods got weeded out and those that could were adopted and over decades became a part of the culture. Explanations may not be available at the drop of a hat for the scientific rationalist, but that by itself is no reason to deny the ecological wisdom that is usually inherent in these practices and techniques. The rationalist should accept or reject them only after careful scrutiny, but the initial approach must be that of humility and respect.

The following calculations will show the power and potential of traditional water harvesting technologies even today. Let us assume we are living in one of the driest regions of India, where annual rainfall is just 100 mm (0.1 metre). Let us try to harvest all the water that falls on one hectare (10,000 sq metres) of land and we can achieve only a 75 per cent collection efficiency. This would give us 10,000 x 0.1 x 0.75 x 1,000 or 750,000 litres of drinking water. Again, assuming an abstemious society that is not accustomed to the water profligacy of a household with piped water supply and hence a very tight requirement of 10 litres per person per day, about 200 people can meet their drinking water needs round the year. So with five hectares, a village of 1,000 even in the driest area can meet its most critical need.

It is this understanding that gave rise to cities like Jaisalmer in the heart of the Indian desert. Therefore, there is reason to argue that every Indian village can become self-reliant in its drinking water needs if it uses water harvesting techniques. No need for government-owned tankers or subsidised tubewells. But, of course, if we are not prepared to take care of our needs, even a place like Cherrapunji with an average annual rainfall of 14,000 mm can have a drinking water shortage. There is no end of woes arising out of mismanagement, regardless of the richness or the paucity of the resource base.

So why has all this knowledge been neglected and what can we do to identify what is good and use it? The answer lies partly in the disempowerment of our people and their emasculation in the development process. Both the market and the state in all countries have proved to be agents and ideologues of development. And in India, both the left wing and the right wing have borrowed ideas of modernisation and development from the West. The state, therefore, empowered professionals and bureaucrats who were capable of bringing in and transmitting knowledge from outside.

Respect for traditional science and technology will, therefore, truly emerge only when the people are empowered to determine their future and manage their natural resource base. Once this happens, traditional knowledge, or more correctly, people"s knowledge, will begin to assert itself. People will then use their wisdom to evaluate and accept modern knowledge only if it is more productive and less risk-prone than what they already possess.

People"s knowledge is not static. It evolves all the time -- the tradition of innovation, as Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad calls it. Alder farming in Nagaland probably emerged less than 100 years ago among the Angami Nagas in response to the declining productivity on shifting cultivation farms because of declining shifting cultivation cycles. Today, it is one of the most fascinating approaches to dealing with the shifting cultivation problem.

People"s knowledge awaits political empowerment. Only this would help it to move from the abyss of subsidies to the capital of pride, which can clean away the colonial cobwebs of our minds; the capital of rational and respectful enquiry, and, then only the capital of financial empowerment. Over a period of time, it must also get the protection of patents. All through history, the biological knowledge of the poor has been superior to that of the rich and it has consistently been exploited by the latter without any gains to the former. Any revival of interest in traditional or people"s knowledge should not unleash another wave of exploitation of the poor"s knowledge. Respect for people"s knowledge must get ultimately translated into legal rights of the poor over their knowledge.

It is, however, another matter whether recourse to traditional/people"s knowledge will remain at best a transitional strategy. The Gandhians would definitely disagree. In fact, all those who think the vulgarity of modern lifestyles cannot continue for long would think the same way. But the Chinese who used people"s knowledge extensively to bring benefits to their people always regarded it as a transitory matter, good only during times of resource scarcity. China launched a major rural housing programme in the late l970s, in which mud was used intelligently with modern building principles. It was a feat that no developing country has even attempted. But Chinese planners in Beijing did not consider such houses as proper houses and continued to plan for their replacement with brick and cement structures. In the early l980s, all rural schools were plastered with an award-winning painting by a child entitled China 2000: A child looking upon a landscape full of elevated motorways as in New York, skyscrapers and planes that looked like Concordes.

There can, therefore, be a debate on the long-term validity and relevance of people"s/traditional knowledge. But let the people decide how they want to shape their present and their immediate future. Millions of Indians living in modern India will definitely want to use and learn from their own technologies. PPST must go on to organise such conferences every year.

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