Mahatma Gandhi - Grassroot science
by Dr Vibha Gupta
was 1946. The month was May. A little more than a year before India
The steam engine came to a screeching halt. A fair complexioned, six feet tall young man with a sensitive face and inquisitive eyes stepped down the train on a sleepy platform of Wardha, situated in the Maharashtra state of central India.
He was Devendra Kumar, the 22-year-old grandson of a district collector and an oil technologist from the famous Harcourt Butler Technological Institute, Kanpur. It was Gandhi's message to the scientists of India that stirred him to leave his job with a big company and follow the Mahatma.
Gandhi had said: "You can device a far greater wireless instrument which does not require external research… all research will be useless if it is not allied to internal research which can link your hearts with those of the millions. Unless all discoveries that you make have the welfare of the poor as the end in view all your workshops will be no better than Satan's workshop."
Keen to employ his accumulated knowledge of science and technology for rural development, this young scientist was given the responsibility of the research laboratory of All India Village Industries Association (AIVIA) by Gandhi and asked to work under the guidance of J.C. Kumarappa. Kumarappa was an economist trained at America's Columbia University. He evolved the salt satyagraha, which became a turning point in the freedom struggle.
In 1935, at AIVIA, Gandhi initiated a movement called 'Science for People', with an advisory board of scientists and national personalities. The think-tank comprised top-brass intellectuals such as Rabindranath Tagore, J.C. Bose, P.C. Ray, C.V. Raman, San Higginbottom, Robert McCarrison, Purshottam Patel, Vallabhbhai Patel, B.C. Roy, S. Subbarao, M.A. Ansari, Rajabally, Jivraj Mehta, G.D. Birla, Jamal Mohammed Sahib, and Ramdas Pantulu.
Under Devendra's guidance, the AIVIA team lobbied for promotion of renewable energy, commercial use of perennial trees, and for increasing the efficiency of mechanical devices run on human and animal power.
Youth from all over India were trained in rural industries and technologies that were ecologically sound and economically viable. It was while assisting Kumarappa in his agrarian reform committee programme for All India Congress Committee, that Devendra realized he knew too little about the Indian villages.
He decided to leave AIVIA and live in a village to acquaint himself with the plight of teeming millions. In 1952, along with a hand-picked team of fellow workers, he settled in Machhla village in Madhya Pradesh. As one of the landless labourers, he struggled for their rights.
After a long struggle the Machhla team restored three hundred acres of land to the landless, dug wells and organised collective farming. They opened co-operatives, schools, health centres and cottage industries. They also raised their voice against untouchability.
This brought home the irony that the third largest force of technologically trained manpower in the world had no interface with the people of the soil.
It was in 1960 that on Vinoba Bhave's persuation he became the secretary of the Gandhi Memorial Trust at New Delhi. This gave him an opportunity to interact with many core thinkers of that time such as Rachel Carson, E.F. Schumacher, Ivan Illich, the Dalai Lama and Lanza Dalvasto.
In 1965, Devendra formed an advisory board of prominent scientists and planners of that time including D.S. Kothari, M.S. Swaminathan, Y. Nayudamma, Sethna, Ramalingaswami, B.D. Tilak, M.G.K. Menon, V.G. Bhide, and A.P. Varma.
By mid '70s there was a shift in global thinking towards Gandhian vision of alternative development. By now Devendra had a strong conglomerate of young scientists and environmental journalists from India and abroad. They joined him in a dialogue with policy makers, scientists, teachers of various technical institutes, along with science activists working in remote corners of India.
This movement culminated in setting up of research centres in top technological institutes of the country, commissioning of science and society division at the Ministry of Science & Technology, setting up of the Council for Appropriate Rural Technologies (present CAPART) in the Ministry of Rural Development, setting up a network of S&T based voluntary organizations for the first time in the country.
Following the initiative, the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) made it mandatory for all scientists to offer their services to voluntary agencies working in rural areas for a minimum of three years.
The turning point was at the Indian Science Congress held at Waltair, Andhra Pradesh in 1976 where a parallel congress, 'Science for People' evolved as a core topic for debate where scientists' contribution towards the welfare of the poor was enunciated. As a first step, it was realised that a network of S&T groups should conduit between the portals of the national scientific labs and the doors of the mud huts of rural India.
In 1976, from the very premises of AIVIA in Maganwadi, Wardha, Science for the People of India, Centre of Science for Villages (CSV) started functioning. CSV's objective was to identify and define technological problems in rural areas, to find suitable S&T interventions to mitigate them, evolve them into technologies, convert them into livelihood forms and make them rurally digestible.
Under Devendra's dynamic stewardship CSV developed more than 75 rural technologies benefiting a rural population of around 2 lakh. Some of the technologies developed are: Weather, fire and rodent resistant mud houses costing 50 per cent less, a sanitation system that is low on water and high on hygiene and an irrigation system requiring 10 per cent of water used in flood irrigation and costing half as compared to drip irrigation.
Even after the sad demise of Devendra in August 1999, his team of dedicated scientists and artisans continue to carry the benefits of science and technology to the rural areas like true Gandhians.
Dr Vibha Gupta is the daughter of Devendra Kumar. Her major area of work is development of Indian rural women through appropriate technology. She is working as the director of Centre of Science for Villages (CSV) in Mumbai.
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