="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" viewBox="0 0 512 512">

10 Sustainability, Plurality and Justice

Scientists, policy makers and citizens need to renew their responsibility in decision- making about India and the role for science and technology in its further development. A new form of trusteeship by scientists for society will take into account the marginalised people who have not benefited enough and in fact suffered from science and technology which have unthinkingly caused violence and amplified existing inequities through a mindless pursuit of progress and economic growth. This Manifesto argues for learning from India’s own history, from the strength of its local institutions and dissenting science movements.

What should be the implications this new trusteeship? How to move forward? What is the role for science and technology in shaping the future of India? Firstly, an understanding of sustainability is needed that goes beyond functionality by including diverse forms of subsistence and survival. Secondly, a democratic politics of science and technology is needed that understands how a society becomes unduly vulnerable when it does not celebrate its plurality of knowledge systems. We imagine new citizens who carry within themselves a confidence of identity and of diverse forms of expertise, craft and knowledge. Thirdly, this Manifesto makes a plea for cognitive justice—for a justice that builds on and gives shape to knowledge democracy.

Redefining sustainability

The world today, this Manifesto argues, is facing multi-faceted crises: a resource crisis, a climate crisis, an institutional crisis, and an economic-financial crisis. Speaking from the margins of this crisis, this Manifesto urges the new commons to turn these crises into opportunities. It is time to re-visit our definition of sustainability to include survival and subsistence. A new conception of sustainability will plan for everyone’s needs and for strengthening local institutions. This re-conceptualisation will question the blind faith in technocratic institutions and the use of economic instruments to evaluate sustainability.

When talking of growth or scale, sustainability is seen as a function of productivity and efficiency. It is a reductive term that does not challenge market economics and which sees nature as a resource to be exploited. This Manifesto proposes that for a society to be sustainable in the long term, the concept of sustainability needs to be broadened by looking at nature, by going beyond industrial factory time, and by incorporating diversity.

Societies that traverse through time in a linear fashion have different realities along a timeline. In India such realities exist alongside each other. The linear timeline splits into multiple realities that exist simultaneously. The reality of that part of society that benefits from science and from the “progress” it offers exists parallel to the reality of other groups of people who are marginalized and excluded from this “progress.”

The margins have helped us understand risk better and have shown how subsistence economies often improve conditions through risk minimization rather than profit maximization. Over a million famers in Andhra Pradesh have, for instance, moved away from a distress causing strategy of reliance on external inputs that promise maximum profits and adapted principles of Non-Pesticidal Management (NPM) to increase farm incomes by minimizing risks.

New notions of sustainability that redefine livelihood force us to define the problem of our society’s margins differently. People living in the margins, pushed away from mainstream discourses, emerge with strength from this re-definition. What do we learn from our margins when we recognize how large they are? In what way do our margins survive? Can we use science to benefit marginalised people and to stop creating new forms of violence and exclusion? To be sustainable is thus to have a theory of non-violence.

To see how science and technology can help re-define sustainability, the question of energy, which has been central to so much scientific enquiry as well as social developmental policies, we offer an example (see text box below). Science and technology are pre-occupied with large electricity systems, with fuels, and with production and distribution. Electricity companies largely work from a supply perspective, catering to economic needs that are easy to quantify. A more decentralized perspective that looks at use in the context of social needs will necessarily include long-term benefits to balance the older notions of economics. As opposed to the current supply-centric growth-oriented paradigm, an alternative perspective would advocate an end-use centric, development-oriented paradigm. Prevention and end- use efficiency are central criteria, rather than cure and consumption. Promoting equity and democratic institutions then necessarily becomes high priority and education should support initiatives to achieve these goals. Such a perspective would work simultaneously towards catalyzing a societal transformation.

Reconstructing Sustainability in the Built Environment

It is estimated that the construction industry accounts for 22% of carbon emissions and is thus a significant contributor to climate change. Disasters are sites where reconstruction of the built environment occurs at an accelerated space.

A study on piloting knowledge swaraj that looks at the issue of reconstruction in three recent disasters in India – the Gujarat earthquake, the Tsunami in Tamil Nadu and the Bihar floods on the Kosi river – has shown how in the absence of processes to involve communities on issues of habitat choices, the reconstructed colonies end up forcing standardized living spaces with choices of material that have a high carbon footprint. There are however examples of sustainable reconstruction, such as the dwellings designed by Laurie Baker, that are organized around design principles that value the client’s knowledge and build on it through an appropriate choice of building material that incorporates sustainability and is not costly too. These choices indicate possibilities of a swaraj in the built environment and are worthy of renewed interests by professionals and public policy experts in the light of newer challenges of sustainability. The case study also suggests that these choices are not typically either only traditional or only modern but are mediated and socially constructed by the communities and that the professional scientists or technologists can play an important role in shaping and co- creating alternatives with communities.

Plurality and democracy: experiments from civil society

Plurality of knowledge is an engagement across differences, especially when it is acknowledged that there are different experts.. When we include notions of survival and economy of subsistence into sustainability, we recognize plurality in different ways of living such as in the existence of craft and tribal communities. When we understand multiple and often oppositional realities—of rural and urban, of agricultural and industrial, of traditional and modern—that push large sections of our society into the margins, we can re-examine the linear notion of time and recognize the parallel realities that this Manifesto wants to celebrate.But what benefits are to be expected from the co-existence of diverse realities that seem to exclude each other? Whether through traditional occupational and social classifications such as caste or through more modern segmentations through class and scale—differences exist in our society. Every society has a structure through which it defines an optimum scale and builds logic of governance. Traditionally the caste system worked on socio-economic transactions, with no space to negotiate the political system. One was born into a lifestyle, or an occupational choice, and the structure and hierarchies enforced by these became the foundations for Indian society. Any movement out of this structure became impossible and thus oppressive. The modern state tries to address this imbalance through giving equal political rights to every citizen. But how can Indian society ensure this equality, given the diversity that exists within it?

To define equality without falling into a bland language of homogeneity, a new language of heterogeneity is needed. Is it possible to move beyond a slogan of “unity in diversity” that makes the Indian plural identity disappear? What does being different mean: being diverse, or alternative, or dissenting? Diversity can come from isolation of ways of living and across geographies. When these alternatives engage with each other in a modern context, this will typically happen within some kind of constitutional space in which secularism facilitates their interaction through erasing their identities.

Does science create alternatives? Does it allow for cultural alternatives? When tribals in the Narmada valley are displaced in the name of scientific and technological development and are offered work in the factories, can this offer be considered a cultural alternative? When cultures built during centuries are destroyed for someone else’s irrigation and electricity, as in the case of displacement of communities living close to the river, this seems more a case of denying plurality than creating alternatives. For a society to be sustainable it is imperative that people participate in the choices that will impact them, and that there is recognition of knowledge plurality. This is the best guarantee that there will always be alternative solutions available in a society. Democracy as a theory gives voice and as a practice it allows for participation; but it is still incomplete if it does not allow for alternatives that challenge the status quo and celebrate the margins.

Cognitive justice

There have been various dissenting peoples’ movements in recent history that challenged science policy. These asked for reform and change against the violence that dominant forms of knowledge and politics cause to other forms of knowledge and science. These dissenting movements were strongest where the survival of a marginalized few was being eschewed for the sustainability of the so-called greater common good. Does science as it is being practised today allow for different ways of knowing how to co-exist? Can science become more tolerant to allow for plurality of ways of knowing? Can science reflect the violence it engenders and amplifies by creating a dominant paradigm that marginalizes people through centralizing of wealth and resources, while privileging its own ways of knowing over others’ so-called “non- scientific” forms of knowledge? What are the implications of this Manifesto’s plea for plurality for today’s science policy? If we have to reduce the vulnerability of our technological choices, it can only be done with a multiplicity of expressions that exist on an equal basis, valued by Indian society for their contribution to reduce the risks of the dominant paradigm over time.

It is this diversity of scientific imagination that Indian knowledge society needs to take seriously. Such diversity has been made possible by the co-existence of plural knowledge systems in health, textiles and many other sectors in India. Rather than mimicking ideas of universal science, Indian scientists need to recognise and be empowered to engage with plurality, in order to create and celebrate the diversity of knowledge based on a nuanced understanding of expertise outlined in the second chapter of this Manifesto.

Taking such knowledge democracy seriously implies a new form of justice—cognitive justice. Cognitive justice recognizes the right of different forms of knowledge to co-exist but adds that this plurality goes beyond tolerance or liberalism to an active recognition of the need for diversity. It demands recognition of knowledge: not just as method, but also as a culture and a way of life. This pre-supposes everything this Manifesto has argued for: that we need a pluralistic view of expertise, of science and technology, of knowledge and craft; that we recognize that knowledge is embedded in culture, that every knowledge has its own cosmology; that we need to add trusteeship to the social contract between science and Indian society to own up to India’s rich plurality of parallel knowledge systems; that we need new engagement of civil society to build a social democracy with the knowledge democracy. The plurality that cognitive justice pre- supposes and builds on demands the diversity of time that this Manifesto mentioned previously. Current citizenship is built on the instant time of global financial markets and local industrial manufacturing plants; other varieties of time such as tribal time, body time, and festival time need their place on the timetables of new citizenship to allow for cognitive justice.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Sustainability, Plurality and Justice by Florence Piron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.