INDIA'S long history of excellence in science and technology is well known. There are several examples of Indian products -- not just textiles and spices -- that other civilisations admired for a long time. In AD 662, Syrian astronomer-monk Severus Sebokht wrote of the knowledge of the Hindus, "...of their subtle discoveries in the science of astronomy...of their rational system of mathematics, or of their method of calculation...using nine symbols."
Much has been written about ancient India's maritime trade. Though nailing and riveting were known, ancient Indian ships were made of timber lashed together because it was more resilient. The present-day catamarans of south India, too, are logs lashed together.
Recently, a five-day congress on Indian traditional sciences and technologies -- the first of its kind -- was held in Bombay. The congress was organised by the Patriotic and People-Oriented Science and Technology Foundation (PPST) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay.
Says B D Nag, president of the congress and IIT-Bombay's director, "Most of these traditions still exist and possess a large functional significance even today. This is evident from the diversity of traditions which, despite severe survival problems, continue to serve life-supporting social needs."
The best example of this is the diversity of centuries-old irrigation systems, which have been modified continuously and still serve a large majority of farmers (See box), be it the Himalayan kuhls , essentially diversion channels that run for kilometres, or the tankas, kundis and sarovars of Rajasthan, which provide rural and urban communities with harvested rainwater round the year.
Agriculturists the world over are turning to organic cultivation, but Indian farmers have practised it for centuries. Organic farmers are not antiquities -- they are continuously selecting and innovating appropriate technologies, sometimes even those rejected by official researchers. K Vijayalakshmi of the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (CIKS) in Madrs and coordinator of the agricultural section in the congress , cited the example of a paddy variety called Mahsuri, which was tested by agricultural scientists in 1967-68 and rejected. Somehow, this variety reached a farm in Andhra Pradesh and today, because of farmer-to-farmer extension, it has spread to Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Outside agriculture, too, villagers have shown remarkable ingenuity. In Rajasthan's desert, junked aeroplane tyres are used as camel cart wheels. In Ranchi district of Bihar, discarded bicycle wheels are popular as pulleys to lift earth when excavating wells. Such adaptations took place in the past, too. The famed wootz steel technology was probably adapted from China (See box) and the concept of the surangams (horizontal wells) of Kerala came from the qanats of Iran.
Argues Dharampal, former PPST president and author of Indian Science and Technology in the 18th Century , "The fact that these traditions still exist in large parts of the country is itself proof that they perform life-supporting social roles for millions of people who have not been touched by the modern system, except to be exploited."
Unfortunately, awareness about traditions has been reduced to their aesthetic and decorative aspects and not the functional. "We proudly display beautiful handicraft items, but how many of us find out about the irrigation systems perfected 2,000 years ago?" asks Nirmal Sengupta, an expert on indigenous water harvesting systems at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
Notwithstanding the supporters of traditional science and technology, the discussions in the congress reflected the dilemma of many modern Indians about the role and relevance of traditional sciences today. Should traditions be viewed as relics or as systems that are alive and thriving? Why have traditions been ignored? Why did many of them die? Can or should all of them be revived? Which technologies should we choose to revive and what are the criteria to guide this choice? Can technology be relevant or effective in isolation from the social conditions in which it grew? Are traditional technologies economically viable in today's liberalised market system? How can they be blended with new technologies?
It became clear in Bombay that these questions cannot be answered without a good understanding of the social setting and the management systems of traditional science and technology. Mere pride in the greatness of tradition will be insufficient to chart out future action.
The confidence of the people in the practical wisdom they had gathered over the ages got a severe blow in the immediate post-Independence period, following Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's philosophy of equating the big with the modern and the modern with development. While token patronage and support was given to traditional sciences and technologies, it was largely accepted that social and economic programmes couldn't be built around them and they were looked upon as hindrances to development, rather than assets. This led to the formation of a dual society.
Though almost every village has a blacksmith and a potter, factory made agricultural implements and plastic pots have become increasingly popular because they are considered cheaper and more durable. Consequently, artisans today prefer cash for their products and consumers, who now pay money, want the best products. Another reason is the decline of jajmani relations, which gave all agricultural households fixed amounts of grain. Commercialisation of agriculture saw a further decline in these relations.
Sometimes, ecological compulsions caused the decline of traditional crafts. Shiryara village in Dakhshina Kanara district of Karnataka was once famous for its leather industry, especially sandals. But today, only Sanjivanna Samagara, 44, retains his traditional occupation. He explains, "Leather is expensive and in this region of heavy rain, leather chappals wear out fast. Even I use plastic chappals, though I know it's not very healthy. Earlier, we used to waterproof leather chappals with extracts from the nuts of Honnekai trees and wax from the hives on those trees. But now, these trees have almost disappeared and so have those bees."
But more often, shortsighted state policies are to blame. Weavers of Andhra Pradesh, despite their superb skills, are dying of starvation because of conflicting economic policies. With the current stress on boosting exports, the prices of raw material for weavers shot up, forcing weavers into debt. And, whatever relief the weavers got from the government went to repay debts.
Perhaps the dying out of traditions has to be looked at differently. Every period has two traditions -- a people's tradition that is constantly adapting and an elite tradition, which is derived from people's knowledge, but soon gets divorced from it and becomes fossilised. Modern scientists and technologists delve into the past and often end up with the works of their counterparts of a bygone era.
Mohini Mullick, who teaches philosophy at IIT-Kanpur, says, "Every age is an age of modernity. Whatever is good or useful persists over time and every society transforms traditions. Traditions are not objective, static monoliths. Some people take moth-eaten texts out of cupboards or unearth buildings to find out the truth, calling it tradition."
Indian science and technology was once closely related to the country's caste system. Until recently, most artisan castes were considered low and leather workers were "untouchables".
In a hierarchical social set-up, the rudiments of a profession, regardless of its scientific value, were learnt at home and transmitted from family to family and from generation to generation. Often, the knowledge of most pundits didn't go beyond that of their ancestors, and sometimes it deteriorated substantially.
Though caste and class inequalities are rather strong in contemporary India, no advocate of traditional science and technology wants a return to a rigid society. Promotion of traditional technologies in a non-hierarchical social setting, therefore, poses a major challenge.
If the wide variety of skills and knowledge presented by tradition is understood properly and recognised, many of today's problems can be solved. It is necessary to support, strengthen and build up on these traditions, fusing them with modern knowledge to meet the needs of the people, rather than wait for modernity to do a solo performance. As Dharampal puts it, "This is not a revelation -- it was the main strand of thought during the freedom movement."
Says A V Balasubramaniam, director, CIKS and secretary of PPST, "At that time (pre-Independence), though many felt indigenous foundations needed strengthening with inputs from Western science and technology, there was no doubt about the significance of these traditions in the soon-to-be-free nation."
Why are these technologies relevant today? For one, resource scarcity. Says Ashok Jhunjhunwala, professor of electrical engineering at IIT-Madras and treasurer of PPST, "We have laboured under resource scarcity because we refused to recognise the existence of the indigenous resource base of the people. In fact, the people didn't matter. We have not been able to feed, clothe, house, educate or employ all our people. Housing plans are curtailed by acute shortages of cement and steel and health care cannot be extended substantially because of the lack of drugs and hospitals. Human skills are also lacking."
He adds, "The perception of scarcity really arises from the way we look at development. If we use only cement and steel, we cannot provide houses for all. But if we use locally available building material and technologies, solutions can be found easily."
C N Krishnan, professor of electronics at Anna University in Madras and director of PPST adds, "If we include the wide variety of proven medicines and health practices and principles that have evolved indigenously, the resource position on health care will not be all that bleak."
Though Indians use diverse home remedies for minor ailments, a recent National Council for Applied Economic Research survey showed 80 per cent of the people don't go to traditional medical practitioners for major ailments. For short-term therapies, they look for allopathy. Part of the problem, says Ayurveda specialist Ramesh Madhusudan Nanal, is that people forget that Ayurveda works as a part of a lifestyle and cures include changing the lifestyle itself, whereas people want simple herbal remedies.
Which traditional technologies are relevant today? The answer is rather straightforward: agriculture, water harvesting and forestry -- in other words, traditions that deal with natural resource management. Indians have traditionally been great foresters. Sacred groves -- virgin forests that are not only major gene banks but also a rural community's medicine chest -- exist in many states. These sanctuaries were strictly regulated by the community. The Bhimashankar Sanctuary consists of several large sacred groves. But wherever the forest department has taken over these forests -- and excluded the people from managing it -- utter ruin has set in.
But Indian villagers are more than conservationists -- once empowered, they can regenerate the environment, too. The villagers of Seed in Udaipur district of Rajasthan, have in the last 15 years restored a 60 ha forest land to its pristine glory. Even the wildlife has come back and the forest stands as an oasis in the barren Aravalli hills. This was possible because the villagers formed an assembly under the Rajasthan Gramdan Act of 1971, which empowered them to manage all their community assets, including waste and forest lands.
Several experiments during the last two decades have shown the key to success lies in forming open and transparent community organisations like gram sabhas to involve and empower the community in decision making. Such organisations must ensure equitable distribution of the benefits of projects. The state and scientists and technologists can contribute to this process as facilitators.
The work of Sunil Sahasrabuddhe of the Institute of Gandhian Studies in Varanasi, among traditional iron-workers of Madhya Pradesh and other examples of ecological regeneration -- Seed, Sukhomajri and Ralegaon Siddhi -- have one thing in common: restoring community institutions to control their occupations and professions, their knowledge and their resource base.
While the community has to be empowered to control its economic, scientific and ecological destiny, strong laws are needed to ensure that injustice doesn't occur due to reasons of birth, gender, religion or caste.
"The present inequalities and rigidities have to be removed," says Sahasrabuddhe, "and it is necessary to radically transform society to make the traditional sciences and technologies relevant in the present context." He suggests upholding the non-consumerist qualities of Indian society, which exists even today in large parts of the country.
While an argument can be made for the revival of traditional technologies on economic grounds, especially in terms of the great numbers of people that can be productively employed by such technologies, it is more important to consider the social organisation through which such efforts can succeed. It is within a non-communal and secular spirit that the relevance of India's traditional technologies should be found.
Sahasrabuddhe's solution lies in not looking at traditions as mere techniques, which restrict the debate to whether such traditions are obstacles to development or not, but to look at them socially, which would lead to an "emphasis on the study of traditions to empower their practitioners."
A transformation of society is needed along Gandhi's lines. Says Jit Pal Singh Uberoi, a professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, "The need of the hour is cold, pragmatic thinking on how to attain swaraj (freedom). Indian principles of swaraj are based on ideas of renunciation, pluralism and tolerance. India is a macrocosm of many miniatures Indias, each with its own traditions. Swadeshi (of our own country) is only a part of swaraj. Swaraj is also self-reform and it is meaningless to talk of changing society unless we change ourselves."
However, this transformation will require tremendous effort. "Further progress will depend on all of us, collectively and individually, as scientists, social activists and ordinary citizens," says C V Seshadri, PPST president. Traditions cannot be expected to play a useful role in nation building if they are merely transplanted into the modern factory environment. Village water tanks cannot be looked after by irrigation officials.
"The people have to be put first," says Anil Gupta, of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. But to respect the people, it is essential to have self-respect, and that can happen only when the limits of one's own learning are recognised.
"If we reject traditional technology merely because it is not modern, it will be like throwing out the baby with the bath water," said Seshadri. "By that token," he added, "the zero and the decimal system, too, would have to be rejected as it was invented by Indians."
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