In a recent letter to Shri. L. Kannan, Secretary to the PPST Foundation, Shri. Winin Periera has commented in some detail on the theme of Traditional Sciences and Technologies in general, and the Bombay Congress in particular. As the letter touches upon many important issues that are presently under debate within PPST as well as amongst the organizers of the next Congress, we are reproducing the same here almost in its entirety.


I had earlier read both Venugopai Rao's original article and your comments in the EPW. While I agree with most of your criticisms of Rao, I feel that we have to go much deeper into what traditional technology was and should be. Some points on the EPW articles are discussed here, together with other thoughts on the Congress. I also prefer the term traditional to indigenous since the former has a quality of continuity. However, I think that there is need for terms to be more clearly defined. At two of the preliminary meetings of the Congress at IIT to which 1 was invited, 1 brought up the question of defining what we mean by traditional technology, but the subject was not taken up for discussion. In addition to such obvious inclusions of n on-traditional technology as the promotion of foreign earthworms, a clear definition I felt would make us understand what has damaged traditional technology and what should be done to restore the situation to that in which such technology was able to fulfill all basic needs through extensive research on natural plant and animal resources. I have tried to put this down in " From Western Science..." I have tried to describe the methods of research and other, characteristics of traditional technology (which includes both the old and the living), in contrast to those of Western Science. I think, these criteria answer many of the objections that Rao and others have raised regarding traditional technology's possible role.

It appears that Rao confuses capitalist entrepreneur’s hip with technological innovation. While the development of Western technology and mass production does usually require a lot of money and a particular spirit of .risk (risking other people's money), traditional technology did not require high investment and artisans risked their own time and money.

Regarding Rao's claim that the Congress was biased .towards the- Hindu religion, a few others have also mentioned this. Many traditional textile innovations and much of present production are carried out by Muslims. To say that the Muslim contribution was "conspicuously absent" is wrong. On the other hand, the organizers have every right to limit the Congress to Hindu-related technology only, but then they should say so clearly. Rao's criticism of the absence of papers on Muslim .architecture could be true, but when contributions were openly invited from all, one can hardly blame the organizers for their absence - unless, of course, such contributions were deliberately ignored or discouraged. Again, the area of traditional technology is so very vast that papers covering every aspect of it cannot be entertained in a Congress lasting a few days. In any case, rather than architectural styles, it is more important to work on traditional methods of construction using recyclable materials.

I have deep respect for Dharampal and his pioneering work, but that does not mean I have to agree with all he says and follow his religion. I think any reasonable person can distinguish between the two. Not all scientists needed to follow the religion of the Western scientists you have listed. On the other hand, if you believe that the Hindu religion helped traditional technology develop, then more definite proof is required. Unfortunately, do not have the full papers, so l does not know what exactly was discussed.

There is no doubt that some of the papers, from what I have been told by those who attended the Congress, seem to be irrelevant, if not nonsense. Regarding the papers that tried to present Vedic knowledge as scientific, I think it is necessary to be more careful. The authors should clearly state whether they take the Vedic statements to be provable in the Western scientific sense, speculative or to be merely a probable source of ideas for more, scientific theories. While, for instance, one can associate numbers with mystic concepts, much depends on where this leads in practical or theoretical terms. Such an association should not be an end in itself. In all the connections of "eminent" scientists with oppression or religion, what is important to note is that their scientific achievements do not appear to be derived from their beliefs, except in limited cases like the practice of euthanasia or Lysenko. Western science does need to be controlled by an independent code of ethics, if it is not to destroy life on earth.

This again, is where the policy of the Congress needs to be defined properly. The point is should there have been a screening committee to eliminate these? For, there is always the possibility that even the most nonsensical paper could trigger off ideas in others which could lead to genuine progress. Again, this is a point to be discussed before the next Congress. The problem of the connection between the Hindu religion and the development and maintenance of traditional technology is again contentious. It is not only Hindus who have developed important technologies, but Muslims and Adivasis, too. Such development does not need a particular religion, though religion may have helped - or hindered - innovation.

I am not sure that I agree with you fully on the status of caste in old societies. It does appear that all artisans were considered as belonging to the lower castes. While there is little doubt that artisans were restricted to the technologies fixed by their caste, and that this did help to carry on and improve their respective technologies, there is no need to continue with the same system. Craft guilds could accomplish the same purpose, without limiting the artisan's children to his or her family trade.

If Rao's quotations of Madhav Gadgil's and Banwari's are correct, then I would strongly object to them. The caste system may have helped, preserve ecosystems but were not necessary to do so, as witness the Adivasis systems. There is little doubt, in my view that the caste system was horribly unjust. As for Banwari, families do not have untouchable members. The existing caste categories are, in some cases at least, discouraging and destroying the practice of traditional technologies. For instance, potters and leather workers complain that their children do not want to continue their traditional crafts because of the caste stigma attached to them. Perhaps, the conversion of so many artisans to Islam may have been due to this too. It appears, then, that if you are primarily interested in promoting traditional technology, then one cannot j promote the caste system. The reorganization of society which Sahasrabudhey mentions has to be in this direction. However, rather than debating the issue, we should acknowledge that such injustice could have existed and efforts should be made to correct such imbalances in the future. I had discussed this point with Dharampal when he visited me just before the Congress.

Although the distribution of land was unjust, traditional innovation was probably carried out only by those who actually tilled the soil. It is so today. Large landowners do not appear to innovate nowadays, but agricultural tenants do. Many innovations, for instance, on pest control, do not require a long term interest in the land. It may be necessary to separate the social evils of a system from the technological characteristics. Traditional agricultural technology did not require large investments and hence was not at all dependent on large rich land owners. What needs to be done is to make the system more list, which does not appear to need a change in technology. On the other hand, one can have' better land distribution and an unsustainable agricultural technology. Some of Rao's questions have been answers in my book "Tending the Earth I have personal knowledge that highly oppressed people and groups can be creative since it appears that their own culture supports them. This does not, of course, mean that oppression is necessary for innovation.

I hope you do not mind if I comment briefly on some other points regarding the Congress.

I am worried about intentional or inadvertent actions that could damage if not destroy the traditional culture. One is recommendation of the commercialization of the traditional knowledge to obtain funds to promote traditional technology. This I feel, is self-contradictory. The harmful effects of such commercialization are discussed in "From Western Science...." and in "Tending the Earth". The question has even -been raised whether the purpose of the Congress was to make traditional knowledge available for commercialization.

In the same books I have also discussed the danger of trying to marry Western science with traditional technology, of institutional scientists demanding that traditional practices be-verified, or that they 'have the capacity and right to improve upon traditional technology.

Another point which worried me during the preliminary meetings was the proposed expenditure for the Congress. Traditional technology is above all developed with extremely limited resources. Is there a contradiction in trying to promote it through a lavishly expensive forum? Or, more unsettling, was the Congress meant to promote traditional technology, or merely a means of adding one more item to an institutional scientists biodata? Being dependent on funds from industry and the government, would I feel automatically bias the Congress to what would please the donors.

I have not discussed the problem of traditional science because that, as far as we know, most traditional technology has been developed without a theoretical basis in the Western meaning of the term. These points need to be thrashed out at least before the next Congress. In particular, it needs to be clarified whether traditional technology is being prompted or not, and if promoted whether it is looked upon merely as an interesting curiosity or as a sustainable system on which we will have to depend when the Western industrial system collapses due.io its internal contradictions. If it is the latter,' then it is essential that we act specifically in several areas from preserving and promoting the culture of innovation to raising awareness about the limitations of Western science and technology. This is just a short, quick reply to your letter. The problems require much more and deeper discussion. If it is wished that discussion proceeds, to my mind it would be advisable to start with a clarification of intentions and the problem of definitions.

I find your newsletter most interesting and, in fact, believe that having such- a means of communication and dissemination of information is much more effective - and cheaper – than organizing a huge Congress. One problem with the Congress was the necessity of parallel sessions, which meant that those with broader interests would necessarily miss some sessions. Another, those time limits on discussions does not allow in-depth discourse, the discussion often reduced to that of the person at the lowest level of knowledge of the subject and the loudest voice. With a newsletter, however, not only can reading be done carefully, but comments can be written in detail. So, I hope that you are going to encourage and invite comments and discussions. I also hope that the other sections will have similar newsletters. One can then select all those in which one is interested. Perhaps it may be necessary to reply to Rao's specific allegations' in the newsletters.

I did not- receive Issue 1 of your Newsletter. In Issue 2, there is just a minor point that I would like to bring to your notice. In general, information on traditional technology only should be given. For instance, the development of biopesticides by the TNAU is not a traditional technology. Perhaps, it would be useful to have another category of intermediate technology into which such types of useful technology could be described. But this again requires clear definitions. However, such discussions could be limited to a few at present in order not to get bogged down in (trivialities.

With best wishes for success in your endeavors,

Yours sincerely,
Winin Pereira


* The references here are tc/the article "Learning from Legacy: How and what" by N. Venugopala Rao in Economic and Political Weekly of 5th February 1994 and L.Kannan's response to it -"Traditional Science and Technology: Learning from Legacy" in Economic and Political Weekly of We 11th 1994).

The two books referred to in this letter, are

1. Tending the Earth: Traditional, Sustainable Agriculture in India by Wtnin Pereira (Earth care Books, Bombay) 1993

2. From Western Science to Liberation Technologies by Winin Pereira (Earth Care Books, Bombay) 1993.

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