Be it endogenous or exogenous, technology has in many ways shaped lives and livelihoods in the rural areas. From the humble sickle to the mighty combine harvester, technology has come to symbolise the level of progress of a society. Yet, the access and acceptability of the technology per se has remained influenced by diverse socio-economic and cultural conditions.
Statistics clearly indicate that despite the best of political will, investment environment and the media thrust, the benefits of modern technology have reached only about 200 million in the country. An estimated 800 million living in over 100 million households have neither the purchasing power nor the physical access to products of modern science and technology.
The role of technology in improving the lives of the poor has rather gone unnoticed. Neither has the research and development infrastructure in India invested in backstopping such concerns nor has the mainstream media considered providing consistent space for voices from the margins. In the process, both the technology and the poor have stood to suffer. Unlike modern technology that has invaded cultures with impunity, appropriate technology has remained rooted to a context. Consequently, its penetration in terms of reach and impact has been countered by a variety of factors, varying from one set of social conditions to another.
Brains and bullocks
Technology for rural women
In his answer to the problem E F Schumacher, who was adviser to the Indian Government in the 1960s, had advocated simple technologies to reduce drudgery, improve production and enhance income of the poor. Although he did not say it in as many words, the author of Small is Beautiful apparently cautioned the poor governments against making substantive investments in hi-tech when the benefits of appropriate technology stood to benefit them the most.
In his report to the Planning Commission Schumacher had argued: "It requires no lengthy argument to agree that India is 'long' in labour and 'short' on capital. This means that she requires a level of technology that is likely to be very different from that currently in the west, which are 'long' on capital and 'short' in labour.
But there were few takers for his ideas, then and even today. The Rural Industries Section of the Planning Commission was enthusiastic and tried to get some action, but they were very much in minority. But for the launch of Schumacher's inspired world's largest cattle-dung based biogas programme, progress on appropriate technology has remained cosmetic in nature. No wonder, rising unemployment and social unrest is the order of the day. A market-driven economy riding on hi-tech has literally failed to offer any solutions to the problem of economic stagnation.
For the media, these are one-time human-interest stories. Used as a dressing to make the horrendous news palatable, such stories relieve newsroom overdose of politics and violence. However, such stories are never turned into an end in themselves as they must be. Neither is there any conviction to take such ingenious efforts to their logical destination.
Tej Singh Goyal, 55, has been a victim of media apathy. Though a high school dropout, the innovator in him bagged the National Innovation Foundation award in 2001. He has developed a device that can lift water to a height without any external source of power. A few kilograms of waste paper is needed to lift water to the second floor height of a house.
"Gas laws had intrigued me a lot," says Tej Singh. Way back in 1972, he came up with his first notable invention. Taking two drums of equal volume, he filled one with water and kept the other empty. Both were attached through a pipe. He lit fire beneath the one that was empty. The gas inside the empty drum expanded and moved to the water-filled drum. Finding no space to escape, it lifted water instead. Tej Singh knew that the principle of gas expansion was at work.
In no time, he enlarged the scope of his experiment by scaling the size of drums to 500 litres capacity. Most of his savings were spent on the experiment. But for the capital investment for procuring drums, the running cost for lifting water was bare minimal. He found the technology ideal for farmers who were looking for diesel pumps for lifting water or those who were aiming to reduce their electricity bills for water-lifting in urban areas.
But it took several months of sustained efforts before Tej Singh could get some recognition for his work. Dr M S Swaminathan, then Director of General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) awarded him a short-term fellowship to work on his invention in 1977. But his experiments there failed to scale-up the innovation.
However, he did not give up. He continued his crusade against the system that did not recognize the talent of a common man. He found a peaceful technique of drawing attention by camping at Delhis historic Jantar Mantar. Expectedly, he made it into the column-inch of few newspapers. However, that was the last the media took note of him.
His is a simple innovation. All that is needed are the two metal drums of 500 litres capacity each that are linked to each other by a pipe. There has to be a water outlet point too. There is a valve contraption in the water outlet so that the lifted water does not return to the tank. The entire investment including, pipefitting rarely exceeds Rs. 15,000.
The Ministry of Non-conventional Energy Sources (MNES) has shown some interest in promoting the system. On its request, a working model was installed at the Government Polytechnic in Sundernagar, Himachal Pradesh. Clearly, Tej Singh needs more support than such one-time favours. It has been 30 years since Tej Singh came up with his invention and there are few takers to the idea that has potential of making substantive energy savings under diverse conditions.
Though a host of state-sponsored research institutions, universities and IIT's are engaged in appropriate technology development and dissemination, these haven't been held accountable to the society. Even the impact of investment hasn't been questioned to any appreciable degree. Is it because it concerns the poor and the underprivileged?
The appropriate technology programmes, be these on renewable energy or on related small-scale technology development, haven't stood any enquiry. Apparently, a majority of these programmes in the public-sector domain have reached a dead-end. If nothing else, these decades-old programmes are a drain on the development exchequer of the country.
From biogas to solar cooker dissemination; from improved cookstove to solar lantern development; and from agricultural tools to drudgery reducing technologies, most research and development investment in the sector hasn't been backed-up by appropriate market incentives to bring about desired impact. In contrast, hi-tech is totally market driven.
A host of government institutions have set-up mechanism to tap peoples' knowledge, notable being the ill famous National Research Development Corporation, the National Innovation Foundation, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and Technology Information Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC).
As an autonomous institution NRDC is mandated to support innovations in science & technology. In the process, the NRDC acknowledges innovation through its annual innovation awards. Earlier these awards were given out on Republic and Independence days but now the Technology Day (May 11) has been chosen for the annual awards. Though anyone can apply for these awards, majority of the awards are bagged by research institutions and private companies. Rarely, if ever grassroots innovators bag such awards. Part of the reason is that no mechanism is in place that the like of Tej Goyal from the 'informal' set-up can compete (in language & presentation) with the counterparts from the 'formal' institutional set-ups.
However, over the past decade or so the presence of 'grassroots' innovators has been acknowledged by the setting up of a National Innovation Foundation (NIF), an autonomous national innovation register that has been set-up under the auspices of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Although NIF has already registered over 11,000 innovations and awarded quite a few, there is no mechanism yet in place such that the 'informal' gets linked to 'formal', meaning that the grassroots innovations are value added by research at the formal institutions. Critics fear that this register will, in the long run, usurp the intellectual property rights of grassroots innovators.
Whether or not these programmes serve the individual inventors and benefit the poor at large has yet to be seen. And ultimately, the market determines what is made of these innovations that are developed out of sheer necessity by citizens are the grassroots. If developments thus far are any indication, the poor have yet to benefit any degree from such innovations.
The media has been driven by market interests, nurturing products that offer higher levels of incentives to the consumers. As products of appropriate technology are driven by public money and are short on incentives, these meet limited patronage from the media. Similar has been the fate of grassroots innovators who haven't been able to dent the market either.
Media's apathy towards the state of appropriate technology and the plight of grassroots innovators is evident. For the largely market-driven media, these are one-off stories that do not warrant serious attention. The contention being that neither do such stories elicit advertisement revenue nor enlarge the subscriber base.
By giving right exposure at the right time, the media can help the cause of such innovators in the national interest. In a rapidly globalised world, intellectual property is being targeted by corporations and vested interests. Media can rise to the occasion to safeguard the interests of the poor innovators. Not only will it help in getting patents on the innovations, press coverage will also help protect piracy of this valuable knowledge.
The beauty of smallness had spawned the appropriate technology movement. But in spite of its grassroots orientation, this movement has been largely dominated by tinkerers instead of entrepreneurs and mass marketers. The unfortunate result has been that hundreds of creative technologies that have simply not been marketed properly are now gathering dust.
There are several appropriate technologies that have proven their worth and yet such technologies do not win the hearts of the media and the minds of the politicians, because `planners and politicians prefer big buildings and large dams - things you can put a plaque on and hold an inauguration ceremony - that media can then cover as events.