Only participatory technology is appropriate

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

THE GRAND Mughal Akbar, whose 450th birth anniversary was marked this year, once remarked he would venerate the person who could grow two blades of grass where one grew previously. Was he not talking of Appropriate Technology, a term that has come into vogue more than four centuries later? It is not known whether Akbar found the person he was looking for, but he would have heartily approved scientists at the Indian Institute of Science setting up ASTRA (Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas) in 1974 to fight rural poverty.

Formed during the 1970s under the impetus of the worldwide quest for appropriate technologies, ASTRA manifested the growing concern of many in the scientific community for technological solutions to the problems of rural India. This was accentuated by the government's apathy to harness technology for rural development. Though not the only experiment in this field, ASTRA was one of the boldest and most publicised, and it garnered many new insights into the understanding of rural problems.

However, rhetoric aside, rural India still goes a-begging for appropriate technology. Modern technological interventions have usurped and obliterated traditional technologies and widened economic divisions in rural society because the few who have access to them have used the knowledge to dominate the rest.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs. Firstly, many scientists in the developing countries hold the view that rural people are ignorant and do not even know what is good for them. Such a belief could be excused in the country's middle-class intelligentsia, but it is deplorable in scientists. This has led to the ironic situation wherein confronted by fast-eroding food self-sufficiency, rural India today needs appropriate technology breakthroughs more than ever before, but scientific interventions are failing to make a dent in villagers' life. Scientists, as interventionists, maximise their objectives by promoting technologies that they have deemed will be appropriate to meet the people's needs. The people's choices, needs and perceptions do not matter.

Appropriate technology will succeed only when solutions are sought in a people's own milieu. Technology is not value neutral because it is in a sense community technology and so it has to be part of a social movement. Therefore, scientists interested in bringing technology to villages cannot stay away from the political dynamics of the villages. Appropriate technology is never appropriate unless it is participatory. This was the first lesson learnt by grassroots environmentalists who wanted to regenerate the degraded rural environment. They found that interventions aimed at improving the rural natural resource base did not work unless they were also prepared to intervene in the social and political dynamics of the village society, organise it into a true community and then get the villagers to decide what they want.

The attempt to drape science and technology with neutrality is a Western hangover of contemporary scientists and it has contributed much to their failure in making appropriate technology a national movement. Their efforts, unfortunately, remained at the level of isolated experiments by dedicated and committed scientists, too few to constitute a powerful enough force to induce social change.

Rural technologies are generally considered soft science and this deters most career-conscious scientists. The few who braved the ridicule of their peers and battled on are now not an exuberant lot. But they should not be disheartened if they remain true to their profession. Objectivity and a desire to know are the distinguishing marks of the true scientist. Indian practitioners of appropriate technology should learn from successful rural development projects and amend their technology development and dissemination strategies.

E F Schumacher's famous book, published in 1973, brought worldwide attention to the concept of appropriate technology. It had a delightful title: Small is Beautiful. Following almost a decade later was George McRobie, who titled his book Small is Feasible. But the most attractive title in the series came in the late 1970s from a Dutch organisation, which described its experience with appropriate technology development in Indonesia. The Dutch preferred Small is Difficult. But that is no reason why the appropriate technologists of the 1990s should not keep striving for the problem still remains.

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