Making science, technology serve the people

For R S Hegde, a primary school principal and rural technologist, science is useless if it remains confined to labs and libraries.

 
By Amit Mitra
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

AT 52, Ramachandra S Hegde is a broken man. After more than 25 years as a primary schoolteacher in Karnataka, he recently became a headmaster of a primary school in Kumta, about 150 km from Mangalore. But, at the fag end of his career, this talented teacher and rural technologist (see Grassroots, p 23), has been transferred to a far-flung rural school because, he contends, he cannot bribe the right people.

Hegde is a man of courage and a strong sense of purpose. Although he has just a senior school leaving certificate and lacks formal training in science and technology, he has been involved in developing and promoting energy-saving devices, especially oles (stoves).

Down To Earth interviewed Hegde in Kumta recently.


How did you get interested in oles?
My involvement with oles began in 1980 when my brother, M S Hegde, a scientist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, who is also involved with the Centre for Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas (ASTRA), and some of his colleagues came to Unchige, my native village to conduct experiments during a solar eclipse. I told them about the acute distress people were facing because of the shortage of fuel. Then somebody came up with the idea of a fuel-efficient stove to make jaggery. After all, 10 per cent of the area under cultivation in this region is under sugarcane. Earlier, a lot more sugarcane was cultivated, but because of the problems of getting fuel to make jaggery, many farmers have stopped cultivating the crop. The high costs of fuel pushes up the cost of producing jaggery, but the market prices are not remunerative enough. Making jaggery the traditional way uses up a lot of wood.

When did the forests start disappearing?
Villagers always got what they needed from the forests. But they knew how to preserve them, too, contrary to what people say. Around 1971-72, government contractors came to the region and started felling the trees. The people also joined them as they did not want to be left out, and soon there were hardly any trees left.

In my childhood, the forests were not only very dense, but even tigers, wolves, mountain goats and many other kinds of wildlife used to be around in plenty. Today, only the wild boars remain. We used to have very good teak growing in this region. Wild mango, jamun, burla, bamboo, jackfruit, matti and honegallu used to grow in plenty.

What happened when the forests disappeared?
The first problem was the shortage of firewood for cooking. Poor people would have to walk even 15 km to the Chandravan forest to get fuel. After some time, the wood stocks in Chandravan, too, began to decline, causing more distress to the poor.

Earlier, the fields would be manured through compost fertilisers made of green leaves from the forests and cattle dung. We had a lot of cattle as fodder was not a problem. When the forests disappeared, the green manure disappeared. Lack of fodder forced people to reduce their cattle -- and milk has become a major problem now.

Crop yields, especially of paddy, started falling and people, to get higher yields, began to use hybrid varieties and chemical fertilisers. But, in the absence of water, the soil got destroyed and the output fell further. Are you against chemical fertilisers?
I would say I am. Look at what happened to my village. When the yields started falling, the people began to migrate. The rich and the educated went away for studies and jobs to the cities, but the poor became coolies in cashew, coir or tile factories and sometimes in coffee plantations.

The other casualty was the soil itself -- its fertility is gone and I do not know whether it will ever come back. Sometimes I feel very sad when I remember the range of paddy that used to grow in my village. We had the halaga, the white and red varieties of jeddu-kempi, and the guddebatta, a paddy that used to grow only in the hills, which had a grain that was both white and sweet. There was even the kagga, a paddy with bristles, which grew in the saline backwaters. They are all gone now and you have these foul-smelling hybrid varieties.

Are you suggesting that all advances in science and technology are useless?
I am not suggesting any such thing. I was talking about the mindless application of chemical fertilisers and the harm it has done. As such, we are helpless, as we cannot recreate the past. We have to accept things, including the decline in the state of our environment. Science and technology can be our only hope to get out of the present crisis that we are in. But this science has to be appropriate to the needs of the people.

What does science and technology mean to you?
There are two aspects of science. One concerns research to arrive at theories and principles. The other -- and to my mind the more important one -- is to identify the problems of the people and try and solve them by applying technological principles that are simple and inexpensive enough for the people themselves to maintain.

Could you give some examples of this from your own work?
Take the example of the ASTRA oles. They were developed by scientists who live in urban areas, with the privilege of cooking gas. Their wives never have to cook meals using the ole, day after day. They came up with a three-chamber stove, which was useless for most families. It was too big and most people did not need a stove where three pots had to be heated simultaneously.

This was why I came up with a two-chambered stove, which is more appropriate to the needs of the people. It produces more heat and consumes less fuel. Similarly, I have carried out further experiments and come up with other models of oles to make jaggery and to heat bath- water.I developed my jaggery ole in 1981 and ASTRA took it up later.

We have heard reports that the ASTRA ole does not often work in places where the government has taken up the programme?
I think the major reason is the lack of proper training and testing of skills. Anybody and everybody who undergoes a training programme is considered skilled enough to build oles. When the scheme was handed over to the government, the work was given to the taluka boards, who gave it to people at random, without ensuring that they acquired the necessary skills. The training programmes have become more of a joke. The trainees come to the taluka town for a day or two, roam around and then go back "trained".

What do you think of the work of ASTRA and how has it benefitted the people?

Where it has been properly implemented, by NGOs, the ASTRA oles have benefitted the people a lot.

How do you justify the crores of rupees spent by ASTRA?
I don't know. Maybe you could ask Manmohan Singh this question. But I think instead of spending crores on useless science and technolgy, there should be schemes to promote rural technologists like me, who are hardly educated. Science and technology should not be restricted to big people, as the scientists in India tend to become, but it should come down to ordinary persons. Many villagers have a lot of scientific knowledge. They should be identified and encouraged by institutes like ASTRA.

What are some of your other inventions?
Of late I have been working on improving the ole for heating bath-water. I have also been working on an improved kiln to bake pots -- a kiln large enough to accomodate 500 pots at a time, but consuming the minimum amount of fuel.

My designs come from just observing people's needs and a wish to solve their problems. Sometimes I consult scientists, but what ordinary people have to say is more important to me.

Have you been rewarded in any way for your services to the community?
My work has never been acknowledged. Booklets and pamphlets have been written using my ideas, but my name has not been mentioned anywhere. On the contrary, I have often been in trouble with the authorities for getting involved in community development. I had this headmaster who would not even give me casual leave to go and address people about the need to save energy, even though I had completed my teaching syllabus. I have a few years to go in my job, but now they have transferred me to a remote area, because I cannot pay a bribe of Rs.20,000. I don't have that kind of money. I have made some applications and if my transfer is not revoked, I might have to resign. What a Padmashri to get!

But my reward has come from the people and the appreciation they show me. That is my only consolation.

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