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12 Towards a Knowledge Swaraj

The high profile ‘India everywhere’ campaign at the Davos economic summit of 2006, the recent launch of Chandrayaan (India’s mission to the moon), the recognition that India has the second largest consumer market in the world and that it has more degree-holders than the population of France—are all indicators of India’s scientific and technological prowess. This celebration, however, is tempered by the embarrassing Human Development Indicators of India and the evident disconnect of large sections of the Indian population from science and technology. What do the Indian people get from science and technology? What are their priorities? Do policy makers of today have the capability and patience to engage in a dialogue with citizens to find answers to this? Should Indian people only be seen as passive recipients of the “blessings” of science and technology; be grateful for its short term mercies; silently bear the damages it inflicts in the name of social development?

The need for democratic experiments

This Manifesto is grounded in the firm belief that it is possible to develop new forms of trusteeship, new forms of people’s engagement with science and technology, new forms of science and technology for the democratic development of Indian society. One example that illustrates this is an experiment with civic engagement during the earliest stages of nanotechnology in The Netherlands.

The democratic experiment and dialogue on nanotechnologies shows that it was especially the heterogeneity of means that proved successful. Rather than a naïve belief in the Internet as a “global panchayat,” the committee used a combination of small-scale but specifically targeted activities, with large-scale broadcasting and publishing via TV, printed media, and Internet. This dialogue yielded an interesting result that is potentially farther reaching in terms of its societal importance than the regulatory governance of nanotechnologies. The general attitude certainly is not anti-science; but the public is not prepared, as in the 1950’s, to give scientists a blank cheque either. Instead, a continuous critical appraisal of risks and benefits of science seems to be called for: a new form of democratic risk governance.

The mechanisms to provide such a risk governance of science and technology are not readily available. Countries need to experiment with such innovations of democracy, as much as scientists experiment with the new technologies that shape our world. It is unlikely that what worked in The Netherlands will work in India, and vice versa: the difference between the proverbial consensus-oriented Dutch and the equally iconic diversity-celebrating Indians may be too large. But the democratic issues remain just as pressing. Can The Netherlands find ways of democratically coping with the opposition around nuclear power: the ‘new’ benefits of lower CO2 emissions versus the ‘old’ risks of nuclear waste storage, the ‘old’ benefits of energy autonomy versus the ‘new’ risks of international terrorism? Can India find ways of democratically reaching a well-informed and broadly shared policy on Bt Brinjal by moving the current moratorium to a next phase?

Democratising Knowledge: Societal Dialogues on Nanotechnology

On January 27, 2011, the Dutch public’s agenda on nanotechnologies, titled “Responsibly forward with nanotechnologies”, was presented to the Government of The Netherlands. This resulted from the Societal Dialogue on Nanotechnologies in 2010 wherein Dutch citizens spoke out about their research priorities: what to do and what not to do, what they fear, and a hope for balancing the risks and benefits.

Nanoscience and nanotechnology deal with the very small and have wide ranging applications but potential hazards with scientific evidence of some toxicological risks that is still not known. Following the Societal Dialogue the general public in The Netherlands is more aware of the risks of nanotechnologies, and at the same time more supportive of further nanotechnology development. This is surprising and is in contrast to the long-held views on the relation between the public and science. The standard view on “public’s understanding of science” argues for better “risk communication” as the general public does not understand science and technology sufficiently to appreciate its benefits, and due to lack of knowledge irrationally fears new science. The view that emerges though is that Dutch people are more fearful of a government that hides potential risks of nanotechnologies than the risks themselves—when monitored and researched well. Parallel to the process of the dialogue, the knowledge and opinions of a representative sample of the Dutch population was surveyed. “Having heard of nanotechnologies” increased during the societal dialogue from 54% to 64% of the Dutch population; “knowing the meaning of nanotechnology” increased from 30% to 36%.

Four elements were crucial in the set-up of the Societal Dialogue on Nanotechnologies above. (1) An independent committee was responsible for the organisation of the dialogue. (2) The committee created a three-step process of providing information, raising awareness and having the dialogue. (3) Most of the substantive work was outsourced, to keep the organising committee credibly independent. A broad variety of scientists, NGOs, firms, and individuals were responsible for these projects. (4) The use of a broad spectrum of media (from TV and Internet to science cafés, theatre plays and teaching materials) and the participation of a wide range of people (from children to scientists, from religious organsiations and groups, patient organizations to industrialists) contributed to the solidity of the resulting public’s agenda (see www.nanopodium.nl).

Elements of a science and technology policy

This Manifesto is not anti-science or anti-technology, but it does imply a change of the dominant paradigms of science and technology and challenges liberal democracy by using a language of swaraj and swadeshi of the Indian people, leading to a fundamental renewal of societal institutions and the role of knowledge therein.

The change of paradigms, call for innovative ways of celebrating the rich variety of parallel knowledge cultures in India and of renewing the relevance of “traditional” knowledge and craft. The inevitable consequence is that space will be given—within this science and technology policy—to religion and multiple cultural identities.

Ethical dilemmas now reappear in a new form. Whether intellectual property rights, patients’ consent, or the ethics of displacing people for the common good—how can we include the Gandhian option of non-violence in the gamut of strategies that techno-sciences employ for the development of the world? Sustainability takes the form of inter-generational and cultural trusteeship, making the original Gandhian trusteeship concept contemporary.

A new science and technology policy needs to be as down-to-earth and rooted in the Indian experience as this Manifesto is. That implies the need for a transparent discussion of the economies of science and technology. Globalisation exists, but it is also continuously remade by the accumulated efforts of a multitude of actors, individual and institutional. Economic and financial relations are important, and sometimes even violent, but not unchangeable. A new Indian policy for science and technology will aspire to quality rather than to quantity, and will invest in infrastructure and process rather than events and products. For instance prevention and service delivery will be prioritised in health care; and value and self-esteem become central goals of education, rather than producing a willing and unreflective work-force in deceptively value-neutral institutions.

Socialising Science in India: Kisan Swaraj Yatra

In 2010, starting on the birth anniversary of Gandhi from the Ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad, members of a large, informal pan-India network called ASHA set off on a “Kisan Swaraj Yatra” to draw attention to the plight of farmers in this country, the continuing agrarian distress in the countryside and to also highlight sustainable solutions. This Kisan Swaraj Yatra travelled for 71 days, meeting thousands of Indians in villages and cities to initiate a debate and knowledge dialogue on issues pertaining to “Food, Farmers and Freedom”, or Kisan Swaraj. The Yatra questioned the existing economic model of development that has led to distress in Indian farming, with many policy makers believing that displacing farmers from agriculture and shifting them to urban centres is the only way out. The Kisan Swaraj Yatra tried to point out that our Indian vision of development need not be borrowed from the West, and that rural livelihoods can indeed be improved and made viable without causing concomitant environmental destruction. These solutions lie with communities and their own positive innovations. The Yatra, with its emphasis on Swaraj and Swadeshi, found large resonance with the people that it met over its 16,000 kilometres journey and has come up with a Kisan Swaraj Policy for discussion by scientists, researchers, farmers, consumers, political parties and policy makers.

Practicing Sustainability through Knowledge Swaraj

Farming in many parts of Andhra Pradesh is dependent on ground water. The use of borewell technology in recent times has led to an explosion of private wells and the conversion of a common property resource such as ground water into a private resource. This situation has led to heightened competition amongst farmers leading to a tragedy of the commons and the government responding by banning new borewells with a view to prevent unsustainable use. The Centre for World Solidarity (CWS), a civil society organization, followed an alternate approach to mitigate the problem. It combined existing traditional knowledge and practices of sharing surface water (known as Gonchi) with simple tools for water literacy and budgeting, to initiate knowledge dialogues amongst farmers to find ways out of the problem.

A pilot project on ‘community based governance systems of ground water’ with local partners enabled farmers to cooperate rather than compete, by creating a situation of sharing ground water and providing social regulation to prevent excessive mining of natural resources. The successful pilot was expanded from 2004-2010 with the formation of over 300 ‘sharing groups’ in 19 villages in 5 districts of Andhra Pradesh. The law that failed in most parts of the state was implemented voluntarily by the community that created new institutions and mechanisms for equitable access, even as the communities agreed to augment groundwater resources through conservation, recharge and demand-side management. CWS’ work was expanded by WASSAN (Watershed Support Services and Activities Network), another civil society organisation, that extended this model through a network of pipes to ensure protective irrigation in the main cropping season for a large number of farmers rather than assured irrigation for a small patch of irrigated crops. The work of CWS shows how sustainability can be practised by ensuring justice and equity for farmers by combining plural knowledge systems through dialogues with communities.

Elements of a people’s policy

As important as a science and technology policy for India, is the self-rule by Indian people of their science and technology. That not only implies an effort to think from the perspectives of the peoples of India when drafting the policy document, but also an effort to create the necessary accompanying measures by reinventing Indian democracy and its social institutions. The challenge is to dream beyond the boundaries of state politics.

Taking seriously the arguments in this Manifesto reinstalls the citizen as an expert, as an inventor. It not only reinstalls the richness of parallel knowledge systems, but also celebrates the morality of the weak and marginalized. It challenges the current moral base of science and technology as validated by the state, which creates second-class citizens without rights to their way of life and knowledge cultures. A new science and technology policy, for and by the people, needs cognitive justice. It gives, following Gandhi, an identity of strength to the weak.

This Manifesto set out to rewrite Hind Swaraj and explore the meaning of Indian self-rule of its science and technology. As Gandhi reinvented Europe while outlining an independent India in Hind Swaraj, this Manifesto argues for reinvestigating the relations between India and the world, while developing science and technology into a plurality of knowledge and crafts to create cognitive justice and a sustainable future for India and its people.


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Towards a Knowledge Swaraj by Florence Piron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.