Printed on July 9, 1998

By Winin Pereira & Subhash Sule

Centre for Holistic Studies

79, Carter Road, Bandra, Mumbai 400 050.



People’s Knowledge…..2

Lokavidya is Not Static…..4

The Case of Acacia auriculaeformis…..5

The Case of a Green Manure Plant…..6

The Case of Tapioca…..6

The Case of Herbal Medicines…..6

Characteristics of People’s Technologies…..6

The Technology…..7

The Researchers…..8

The Methods of Research…..11

Constraints on Experimentation by Theories…..13

The Knowledge…..16

The Dissemination of Knowledge…..17

Knowledge is free…..17


The Community and Culture…..19

Socially Appropriate & Sustainable…..20

Looking Backwards…..22

The Destruction of the Traditional System…..23

Recording People’s Technologies…..25




The ‘success’ of Western science and technology in probing the depths of the universe and providing a wide range of human comforts is counter-balanced by the social and environmental harm that inevitably accompanies its achievements.

The uncontrolled proliferation of its technology has mainly been used, not for the betterment of the world, but for an increase in the power and profits of individuals and the State. This has led to a number of potential crises which could be globally ruinous. These crises result from the direct use of products of Western technology which ultimately is derived from Western science. Any one of these and many others could, either singly or synergistically, lead to serious loss of life.

The values, efficiency and economic viability – indeed the whole rationale – of a technology that ‘improves’ lives by increasing the rate of cancer, genetic malformations and brain damage as a by-product of the attendant pollution, merits urgent and intensive questioning. Western science should be held responsible for the 70,000 or so chemicals, many of which are irreversibly poisoning the environment. It is also answerable for the production of nuclear weapons – an outstanding example of the technology issuing from Western science – which are capable of destroying all life on earth. The Western scientists involved in the preparation of Hitler’s gas chambers, the Hiroshima bomb and all the high-technology atrocities that are still being committed today, ought to make intensive efforts to correct the damage they have done and prevent such developments in future.

Instead of questioning this technology, the West propagates what is possibly the most dangerous superstition in vogue today: the belief that Western science can solve all the problems its technologies have created. Further, the overweening arrogance which it induces in those who claim to understand the physical basis of the universe makes them believe that they can dominate and exploit nature. The purely materialistic society that it encourages weakens human bonds with the rest of the creation. Above all, it claims to be the sole holder of rational knowledge, a claim which needs to be questioned, given that that science makes possible – and perhaps imminent – major extinction of earthly life.

What is being questioned here is not the truth – or near truth – of Western science, but only its application as technology. The truth of the science from which technologies are derived does not ensure that such technologies are good. It may be, however, that rejection of the science itself is necessary, because of the malign technologies based on it.

There is, therefore, an urgent need for an alternative knowledge system to that of the West. It need not provide ‘true’ theories of the origin of the universe nor even a religion which is totally devoid of superstition. The promotion of technologies which ensure the safety of the environment and encourage social justice would be sufficient.

One system which fulfils this criterion is that of people’s knowledge – in India known as Lokavidya – the traditional knowledge passed on from generation to generation by indigenous groups practically all over the globe, providing the rules which determine the activities of people who have survived for millennia in often fragile environments.

Comparisons of people’s knowledge and people’s technology with Western science and technology are often based on the tacit assumption that the latter are solely and universally valid. It is then ‘demonstrated’ that ancient and indigenous knowledge is inferior to the celebrated superior understanding of the West.  Vigorous attempts are made to discredit the former, usually by calling its practitioners ignorant, superstitious, backward and so on. Or it may be claimed that the development of people’s knowledge was arrested in some dateless antiquity and cannot, therefore, be used to solve modern problems.

The actual position is quite different, at least in India, and probably in other countries, where indigenous systems survive, despite the onslaught of the ‘wonders’ of Western mainstream technology.

  • Note: The terms ‘Western science’ and ‘Western technology’, as used here, apply to what has been developed in the West as well as in other countries which have emulated or are trying to copy the Western method. The term ‘Western scientist’, however, does not apply to those, in the West or here, who are already aware of these problems of Western technology and are trying to correct them. The terms people’s technology, traditional technology, people’s science and lokavidya, have been used interchangeably here.

People’s Knowledge

People’s knowledge is usually holistic, taking into account the effects of the technology on every part of the environment as well the effects of the environment on the technology.

This basic manner of seeing and doing things is so profoundly rooted in many indigenous technologists that it is often carried out unconsciously and automatically. Thinking and acting are indivisible, and reflect, in practice, a respect for life – all forms of life. And because living beings are totally dependent on the purity of the non-living surroundings which sustain them, this commands a respect for non-life, too. This means a respect for the environment in its totality.

But the most important feature is its orientation towards life. This is the core from which all the other features spring forth. Life is the constant point of reference in people’s knowledge.  The superiority of people’s knowledge and people’s technology to the Western versions, arises solely from this reverential response. At a deeper level also, life becomes the guiding factor. The environment and resources are venerated, not merely because they are useful, but because of a profound understanding which compels the individual to perceive all life as an extension of himself or herself – as fellow-beings.

Research in people’s technology usually responds to an immediate need which is the necessity for survival, the urgency of supporting life. The awareness of our interdependence on other forms of life makes our approach to solutions eco-friendly; resources are used with restraint, pollution is minimised.  Basically this is an acknowledgement of our awareness of the need to be frugal and sparing in our use of materials and resources which are necessary for our survival. Because of this life-oriented approach, people’s knowledge shows concern for far-reaching consequences, and adopts a cautious and conserving approach in the way it expresses itself.

Other important distinguishing features are its community-oriented approach to ownership and dissemination of knowledge, which ensure that it remains just, while its continuously evolving research makes it a creative and living process.

Thus, when a simple farmer engages in some agricultural experiment, all the three levels may be operative. It is not like a case of a scientist who applies himself with his scientific knowledge-base; here is a person who dedicates himself with his total being. For him, the exercise unites him with nature, with life itself!

In contrast, Western science, with its tendency to compartmentalize and overemphasize micro-specialization, views things, problems and phenomena in an isolated manner. The inability to perceive or take into account, interconnections, side-effects and long-term implications leads to dangerous and damaging fragmentings.

People’s knowledge provides a complete foundation for living, including dimensions of universal social justice and, therefore, sustainability. Such a system has been enriched by our traditions which have maintained a civilisation for thousands of years, against the mere two to three hundred since the industrial revolution of the West. Much of this knowledge has, unfortunately, been lost, or fallen into abeyance, consigned to the museums of mankind. However, in some societies, notably those of the Adivasis, people’s knowledge is still vibrant.

An emancipatory people’s technology should be able to provide the basic material necessities for all human beings for an indefinite period. It should enable human beings to decide their own destiny within the constraints imposed by justice and the environment.

In the sustainable use of technology, all environmental and social effects, whether obvious or totally unpredictable, should be taken into consideration before the technology is applied. The only way in which this could be done was – and is – by acting on the assumption that only minimal interference in the environment is permissible. In such a system all life and non-life has intrinsic value, not merely utilitarian value, even less market value, as in the Western system.. Whether this belief has a religious foundation or a purely secular basis is immaterial – the effect of an individual’s activity on the environment is the same. The deep purpose is the prevention of harmful consequences of human interaction with the environment, rather than making desperate – and often futile – attempts to correct them after they occur. This has been, and remains, the essential foundation of people’s knowledge in India and in most other regions where such knowledge is flourishing.

Given the nature of the present crises, it has become extremely urgent that knowledge, now mainly monopolised by the West, be used by people for their own liberation.

A few of the characteristics that distinguish people’s technology from its Western counterpart are discussed here. These mostly relate to the production and use of essential goods.

Lokavidya is Not Static


While it is well known that numberless technological practices have been developed by ‘ordinary’ people over the centuries in India, such knowledge is either believed to have died out because of the onslaught of Western technology and science, or considered to be composed merely of techniques handed down – unchanged and unquestioned – from generation to generation. Their allegedly immemorial unchangeability is usually cited against them, falsely, for they are living practices. These technologies are still widely employed in rural as well as urban areas, extensively in the fields of agriculture and herbal medicine, and fairly widely in most other areas.

Moreover, it is the people’s methods of research, development, dissemination and use that are relevant – all are part of a dynamic organic process. All the technologies in use today, and those which have been lost, must have been researched at some time or other in the past. It is difficult to fix dates since the researchers made no claims to their originality by attaching their names, and in any case, the processes evolve through time.  Most of the origins are obscure, not identified with celebrated individuals; the early manuscripts merely indicate the time when details of the technology were written down.

However, some limits can be placed on the earliest date at which such technologies could have been researched. For instance, the use of a particular exotic plant from South America for medicinal or other purposes, could clearly have been researched only after its introduction into India. We therefore have limits for all the foreign plants brought in by the Portuguese and other colonisers.  These uses – particularly medical ones – could have been brought in along with the plant, but this is unlikely since at least some of those plants do not appear to have been used for identical purposes in their country of origin.

More certain is our knowledge about the plants introduced very recently, most of which have medicinal uses now. Many of these were introduced within the last few decades, after the intensive and extensive assaults of the Western system on people’s knowledge.

The examples given below show that research is still being continuously and widely carried out, often in advance of, or at the same time as formal, institutional research. They also help reveal the characteristic differences between institutional and people’s traditional methods of research.

In describing the characteristics of people’s technology we shall examine only a few items of the technology that uses plants and animals to provide the essentials for the survival of the people: food, health and so on. The characteristics will be evoked and their contribution to a just and sustainable society will become clear.


The Case of Acacia auriculaeformis

Since 1987, Warli Adivasis have been catching fish in small streams by stupefying them with the seeds of dandavan, Acacia auriculaeformis. The seeds of this Australian tree were first introduced into the Warli area around 1985. It takes about two years to flower and fruit, so the Adivasis’ research has been carried out very quickly indeed.

Warlis already use several plants for this purpose, so the research may have been done purely out of scientific curiosity or because the plants used earlier are no longer conveniently available, since the mixed natural forests have been replaced with monocultures of dandavan. The experimental substance was tested in the natural environment on the fish which the Adivasis catch for food.

The knowledge of this use of dandavan became so widely diffused within a few years that it has not been possible to trace precisely who did the research. The need for recognition as ‘researchers’ or ‘discoverers’ did not arise, since what the innovative Warlis did was nothing extraordinary – it was simply what many of them normally do, and reflects what their culture expects and encourages them to do. Those who carried out the research merely exercised their creativity, and in doing so, enhanced their own self-esteem as well as that of their community. The Warlis’ research may not be cited in any ‘learned’ journal but their knowledge has already benefited many. The cost of research and development is negligible, since the researchers carry it out in their spare time, at their own cost, in the field.

A paper on the effects of extracts of the same plant on fish was published in ‘Environment & Ecology’ in 1988.[1] The research required two species of ‘experimental’ fish confined to aquaria, two ‘qualified’ scientists who carried out the research, and almost certainly, required submission of project reports and budgets, a well-equipped laboratory, guides, supporting staff from clerks to cleaners and accountants to administrators. A sizable budget was surely involved and much employment generated for all those concerned in the ‘project’.

Such formal institutional research is carried out for its citation and commercial values, and for the degrees, qualifications and other benefits it provides scientists. For such scientists, the ‘outside’ world exists merely as a source of raw materials for research – it is rarely perceived as possessing intrinsic value or needs of its own. Even in the extremely unlikely case of the published paper – in English – having been read and understood by Warlis, the information would be worthless to them, since the plants and the fish are identified by their botanical and zoological names only, and those particular fish species do not occur in the Warli area anyway.  Even though the theme of the research of the institutional scientists was basically relevant to the people, the research methods of Western science and the institutional structures make the results inaccessible to them. In order to be put to practical use, the laboratory experiments would need to be repeated for the numerous different fish species all over the country with the local plants of each area. The results would then have to be communicated to millions of people more directly than in one paper published in a scientific journal. This is how Western science often remains hieratical, remote, awaiting the day when the market or commerce will call it into specific use, usually at a great profit for the owners and disseminators of knowledge that may vitally affect the lives of countless people. 

The Case of a Green Manure Plant

In another instance, Warlis use a wild, fast-growing nitrogen-fixing plant, Sesbania bispinosa, as a manure for paddy. They sow its seeds in paddy fields at the first rains and plough the plants in within three weeks, shortly before the paddy seedlings are transplanted into the field. It provides sufficient nitrogen for a good crop. Unfortunately, this method is falling into disuse, because of the loss of the pasture commons on which the wild sesbania species grew, and whereby the grassland soil was fertilised at the same time.

A similar method has been recently discovered by ‘highly qualified’ scientists at the vast establishment of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.  They used an African species, Sesbania rostrata, which required irrigation for six months before being ploughed in.

The Case of Tapioca

Tapioca (Manihot esculenta) produces a large quantity of food per hectare and grows easily on even infertile soils. For these reasons it is cultivated on a large scale in Kerala. It has one major problem, though, since it contains toxic cyanides which have to be removed by arduous processing before it can be consumed.

Farmers have chosen varieties which have less cyanide in them and continue to select better varieties continuously.[2]

The Case of Herbal Medicines

Numerous examples are available of the recent use of plant parts for medicinal use. Some of these are discussed in the section on Methods of Research below.

Characteristics of People’s Technologies

From a study of the above as well as a large number of other cases of people’s technologies, we may make some generalisations about the characteristics of popular technology. The chief features relate to the technology, the researchers, the methods of research, the knowledge systems and the interaction with the community and the culture in which they are embedded. These characteristics will be looked at in greater detail below. Not all the technologies possess every characteristic, but those suggested here are widespread.

The Technology

The technology researched is of immediate relevance to the people, being used mainly for satisfying essential needs. It is through such research that rural people produce the crops that feed the nation, look after cattle without the veterinary services of ‘experts’, build huts without civil engineers or make the thousands of varieties of handicrafts which are appreciated all over the world without the intervention of grandiose Institutes of Design.

Those who develop such practices are often – but not necessarily – those who use the products themselves. The technologies are rarely – if at all – developed merely for the sake of the knowledge gained or the technology itself. Women may research a cure for a particular disease because the disease has appeared in their family, farmers may develop a botanical insecticide because a pest has attacked their crops, or artisans may develop a new plant-derived dye for the cloth they weave.

However, researchers may also make far-reaching and long-term predictions which govern their immediate as well as future actions. One instance of this is the use of synthetic fertilisers. Warli farmers tried them out but soon abandoned them They said that the fertilisers damaged the soil and that larger amounts were required each year. In consequence, they use very little, and then not every year.

The medicinal uses of plants are often assumed to have been discovered by random testing of the plants on patients with diseases. Whatever the truth of this, it represents untold hours of patient labour, and the results constitute a precious resource. Each experiment done by an individual researcher-in-the-field may be small in itself, but the total amount of research carried out has been very large indeed.

If we multiply the number of species of common plants in a limited region accessible to the experimenter (say, a thousand), by the number of parts of a plant (the tender leaves, mature leaves, flowers, buds, fruits, seeds, stem bark, roots, root bark and their extracts) that are used, by the number of common diseases and other health uses for which each of these were supposedly tested (say a hundred, ranging from headaches to fertility control) and by the methods of preparation and dosages possible, we begin to gain some insight into the stupendous amount of systematic, directed, conscious research and development that have been undertaken by millions of ordinary people over millennia. If one takes into account the possible synergistic combinations of herbs, this is increased by several orders of magnitude.

This would be the case only if the research was carried out at random, but researchers usually find good reasons for selecting only a few more likely plants to experiment with, which reduces their burden. Even so, thousands of plant species are being used for multiple purposes.

The value of traditional research can be determined by asking whether the research carried out over time could have been conducted in formal institutions, and if so, what its cost would be, and who would actually benefit from it.

People’s technologies are mostly based on the use of local, low cost materials, including sources of energy. These materials are usually renewable, making their use sustainable. Non-renewable raw materials – such as steel for axes and sickles – are used but only where these cannot be replaced by renewable substances. They are employed usually in a form that makes them long-lasting and recyclable. Some are also made of reused mainstream materials: sickles, for instance, are now made from the discarded leaf springs of trucks. This is also being done in Australia.[3]

There are natural constraints on excessive use of raw materials.  Artisans would not be tempted to overuse a particular local resource, since this would destroy their livelihood.

The fact that renewable materials are limited to what is obtained from plants and animals is seen by the Westernised as a major defect of traditional systems, even though this is the only possible basis for a truly sustainable society. It must be emphasized that even those who actively contribute to global unsustainability today, have been and are dependent on plants and animals, not only for food but for the oxygen they breathe, for the regulation of the weather and many other essentials to life.  They also depend on plant and animal-derived substances for non-essential industrial consumer products whose mass production is resulting in the destruction of forests and a reduction in biodiversity and in ecodiversity. The dependency of the industrialised world on nature, overlooked by the thoughtless consumer, is becoming more obvious and increasingly fragile as fossil resources start running out. Strangely, those who disparaged such use earlier, are now desperately turning to these practices for clues to the development of, for instance, new pharmaceutical drugs.

The Researchers

Technologies are being continuously researched and developed by ‘ordinary’ people, not by ‘scientists’ in institutions.

Gandhi had said: “Every man must be his own scientist and every village a science academy”.[4] Anyone has the right – and everyone needs to exercise the right – to be a ‘scientist’ or ‘technologist’, to question the origin of phenomena, to develop new theories and technologies or to modify old ones. There should be no separate class of people who do only or mainly such work.  This still occurs, at least among people not stupefied by Western science and technology.

In one study, people’s researchers ranged from a sheep herder with TB to a practising bhagat, from old women to young men.[5] Much of the activity in this study was carried out by Adivasis.

There are few specialist boundaries. The same farmers may develop botanical pesticides, herbal treatments for their bulls, methods of catching fish, a novel musical instrument and many other techniques for carrying out traditional functions. They conduct research while carrying on their normal occupations, in their fields and homes, and in the main they rely on locally available resources. The researchers do not require formal recognition for their work. This makes it difficult – usually impossible – to say definitely who originally carried it out. It is for this reason that it cannot be determined whether women or men were the main discoverers. Women may not have been researchers but are certainly practitioners, transmitters of knowledge and are often considered experts by men. To give just one example of the latter, there is an old woman in Maharashtra who is considered an expert – even by bhagats – in setting bone fractures.

There are, even today, evidently many more traditional ‘scientists’ working outside the formal systems than those within institutional laboratories. The former still have an essential holistic role to play, now that damaging global climatic changes require the selection of new species of food and other plants, and/or produce epidemics of new diseases which require herbal treatment.

There is every likelihood that much research on the use of herbs was done by individuals without professional training, while others have been carried out later by institutionalised specialists.[6] There may be a tendency today for the indigenous health institutions to displace the individual, often in emulation of their Western counterparts.

That such research is not restricted to a few specially ‘gifted’ persons or professionals from whom it could have spread to the whole country, is confirmed by the use of the same plant for differing medical purposes in neighbouring areas. It is also demonstrated by the existence of complex technologies in remote places which were not employed elsewhere. A few examples of the latter are given here.

Though the Andamanese are considered one of the most ‘primitive’ tribes in existence, they, too, carry out research. A certain plant (species not specified to protect it from exploitation by outsiders) is being used only by the Onges of the Andamans to treat malaria.[7]

A rare species of herb, Trichopus zeylanicus, is peculiar to the southernmost tip of the Western Ghats. It is used only by the Kani tribe in Kerala to combat fatigue.[8]

Finally, the Santals use the plant, Yucca gloriosa, a native of Central America, for treating rheumatism, oedema, sores and ulcers, dysentery, and other diseases.[9] Such use is not common among non-tribals.

Over 9500 wild plant species have been recorded as used by tribals for various requirements, of which over 7500 are used for medicinal purposes.[10] Since many of these Adivasis have had little contact with others, it is clear that they must have undertaken significant research.

Of course, different groups of people will pursue research relevant to their own needs. In the case of herbal medicines, cures will be researched only for the specific diseases which occur in the locality. The popular scientist cannot test out herbs in the absence of patients requiring treatment. Secondly, the scientist is most likely to use the plants which grow in the vicinity. Only if these fail will s/he look further afield. This could explain the different species used by even neighbouring communities for the same disease. On the other hand there are some herbs which are used across the country – and a few also in distant countries as a common remedy. These could either have been developed independently, or may have spread from a single source or a number of sources: this suggests that it may not be communication which poses the greatest obstacle to the spread of knowledge.

Simple scientific curiosity – not urgent need – may be the driving force in some cases. We have an example where a recently introduced plant, Acacia auriculaeformis, was used for curing headaches. The juice of the leaves (phyllodes) is placed in the nose for three days.[11] This research was carried out, not in some remote inaccessible hamlet in the deep forests, but near a large town in an area where there are numerous public health centres, charitable clinics and several private allopathic doctors and bhagats.

One is, therefore, compelled to acknowledge that much research has been and is today carried out by ‘ordinary’ people – whether women or men is immaterial – on plants growing in the area.

Similar research must have been carried out on plants used for food, manures, pest control, fodder, timber and other housing material, oil for cooking and lighting, resins for water-proofing, cosmetics, dyes, tans, fibres, fuel, material for mats, baskets, ornaments, and many other purposes.

Attempts to collect this information systematically were made by the British towards the end of the last century. One – rather incomplete – result was George Watt’s “A Dictionary of the Economic Products of India”, published in 1897, which ran to ten volumes. Much of their contents is concerned with the medicinal uses of plants, but the rest covered other uses, not only of plants, but also of animals and minerals. Many references are made to the use of the plant by ‘natives’, though several list as their source, ayurvedic, unani or Westernised physicians, who probably carried out ‘their’ research while putting into practice the ‘native’ knowledge.

These Adivasis have been called ignorant, even by those who appropriate their knowledge under the guise of ethno-sciences.  Such appropriation, in fact, confirms the validity of people’s knowledge systems – if further proof is required.

Western scientists also say that people’s researchers experiment on human beings, whereas they restrict their research to in vitro tests and to tests on animals. They. of course. assume that human beings have the right to experiment on the ‘lower’ animals in their search for cures that will benefit only human beings. Most people’s researchers, however, believe that human beings, ‘lower’ animals and all other living creatures have equal rights. As mentioned below, Maruti Jadhav, tests all his new discoveries for toxicity on himself.[12] In any case, the whole of humanity are guinea-pigs for the experimental research of a Western system, which has yet to discover quite what effects its toxins will have upon the human gene-pool, the immune-system and the human metabolism. No doubt there will be few Western scientific notables waiting to claim the credit for such damaging futures as may await us.


The Methods of Research

Research has been continuously carried out since the earliest times as is evident from the Sushruta Samhita.[13] The Samhita was written at least two centuries before the birth of Buddha and its recommendations are still valid and practised. Although Sushruta claims that all that he has written about medicinal plants was inspired by Dhanvantari, that may well have been a ruse to gain popular acceptance for it, since it must surely have been researched by people.

It is highly probable that the earliest use of plants for medicine arose from observation of animals which used them when obviously ill and were seen to be cured. There is a verse in the Rigveda which shows that animals were the teachers of humans in matters of selecting plants for food and medicines. Individual experiences in these fields were collected and codified, and thus formed the basis of the present ayurvedic system.[14]

Direct research by human beings on plants for medicinal use arose later but still began millennia ago. As mentioned earlier, there must be methods of choosing some plants *for experimentation, rather than *random *selection. Traditional research appears to be empirical, but investigation shows that most usages are based on some logical premise. The continuation of such research today permits us to examine more closely the methods used for research.  Among these are the use of observation, basic theories, trials, and many others.

An Adivasi bhagat, Guru Maruti Jadhav, learnt his profession from an uncle, also a practising bhagat. In his area there are no formal training institutions for bhagats. Jadhav uses several methods for selecting plants and other substances for research.

He also gives examples of the reasoning processes of ordinary people.[15]

Not all of the examples appear rational to the Westernised. They appear to use leaps of logic which occur naturally to those steeped in traditional Indian culture. And they have produced remarkable results, at times confirmed by similar use elsewhere.  Here are some representative examples.

An example of the observation of animals has been given by Jadhav. A goat, attacked by a wagh (leopard), survived a deep wound in its throat, but the goat was soon cured. To find out if the bleeding had been stopped by consuming some particular species of herbs, Jadhav collected all those leaves on which the goat was grazing. Jadhav tested all these for their wound-healing properties and found that a plant – unknown to Jadhav – was the best, which Jadhav named as ‘waghdhari’. (This also is an example of how some plants are named.)

The use of ‘signatures’ is illustrated in another case. Jadhav, when just 15 years old, noticed a weak Adivasi shepherd eating a dark red tuber. When Jadhav asked him as to why he was doing this, he replied that he had been diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis but he could not afford the allopathic treatment. He had been told by the doctor that he did not have sufficient blood. “So I thought of eating this tuber to see if it increases the amount of blood in my body, since it has the colour of blood”. To those who are aware of how blood is produced in the body and who know that not every substance with the same colour has the same properties, the ‘signature’ reasoning of the Adivasi patient is obviously wrong. Jadhav met the same Adivasi after about three months, and to his surprise he was fit and healthy.  Jadhav asked the Adivasi what treatment he had taken. The Adivasi told him that it was the same tuber he dug up daily in the forest which he continued to consume. Jadhav then tested this tuber on a few other TB patients, and found that it cured the disease. He also uses this tuber in the treatment of anaemia and ‘impurities’ in the blood.

At times, the reasoning is irrelevant to the use, it being merely a coincidence that the cure works, but this can serve as a clue to other plants that may be useful. There is a saying in Marathi “Katya ne kata nighato” (You can remove a thorn which has pierced you with another thorn). Jadhav decided to use this principle for neutralising the effect of stings. Kuili (Mucuna prurita) pods are covered with bristly hair causing intense itching and burning sensations on contact with skin. Jadhav thought that if the hair of the pod is so vicious then its seeds should also be possessing some such similar property. When a boy was bitten by a scorpion, Jadhav cut a kuili seed into two, rubbed one half of it on a stone and placed it on the site of the bite. The boy found immediate relief and Jadhav has repeatedly used this treatment.  According to him a tamarind seed has a similar effect. It is probable that many absorbent plant parts (and other materials, too) soak up the toxins of the sting.

Though not connected with the previous case, the principle on which the following works may be the same. In Sinnar, an industrialising district about 300 km from Mumbai, cardboard train tickets are ground down to a paste and applied to scorpion stings. This must be effective, for people who are above all, supremely practical, would not otherwise use it.[16] It probably works because the paste absorbs the poison, or perhaps the tickets contain some chemical which counteracts the poison.  Whatever the reason, this shows in the clearest possible manner the experimental and innovative attitude of our people. Only those with the most inquiring mind would think of using train tickets as a remedy for scorpion stings!

Myths also provided Jadhav with pointers. In the manuscript ‘Kashi Khand’ there is a story of Shiva and Parvati which suggests that the woman who eats the seed of the shivlingi plant will give birth to a boy. Jadhav identified the plant as Diplocyclos palmatus, whose seeds are of the shape of a shivling and whose local name is shivlingi. Jadhav himself had four daughters and so he gave his wife the seeds. His wife had a miscarriage but it was a baby boy. This encouraged him to persevere with the treatment and today he has two sons. He has given the seeds to women who have not had children in 15 years of marriage and the seeds have worked. They are, however, ineffective where the basic deficiency is in the husband.

A similar use of the same plant occurs in other distant places.  The powdered seeds are taken by childless Madhya Pradesh adivasi women to help conception.[17] This may be all that it does.  Jadhav speculates that the seeds work at a psychological level, giving the woman so much confidence that she is going to have a baby boy that this brings about changes in her reproductive physiology, which result in the conception of a male.

Jadhav also has recourse to theory to help him select plants. He classifies plants for medicinal use according to their taste. The possible uses of that plant part are arrived at, based on the understanding of the disease, and the plant’s physiology. Through experience he finds interconnections between those factors which lead him to test a particular plant, or its specific part, as a remedy for a particular disease.

Jadhav uses combinations of drugs for deriving a more powerful mixture. He adds herbs having the same medicinal properties, but varying potencies. The herb which is most potent is considered to be the base ingredient and those less potent are subordinate components.

Before prescribing it to others, Jadhav also checks the toxicity of every new plant intended for oral consumption by taking it himself. If he feels drowsy or uneasy, he assumes that it is toxic and recommends it with caution or not at all.

As in the case of Diplocyclos, there seems to be much duplication of research. In another case, Jadhav went to considerable trouble to discover the cure an old woman used for toothache. He finally traced it, by following her to a particular patch of herbs, to the plant ringni (Solanum surattense). The smoke from burning seeds or dry fruits is said to remove ‘worms from the teeth’, by adivasis of Talasari district, more than 400 km away from Pune.[18]

Constraints on Experimentation by Theories

Western scientists claim that what is being done by people is not true science because of the absence of an elaborate theoretical foundation.[19] But are such foundations helpful in any way to lokavidya?

If people’s scientists had restricted their experiments to those based on Western-type theories, it is likely that most of the investigations would not have been carried out at all and that India’s vast accumulation of people’s technologies would never have developed.

Take, for instance, the use of rui (Calotropis gigantea) leaves as a manure. The leaves have very small percentages of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, and if it had been explained to farmers that manures are good because of the quantities of these chemicals in them, they would not have used rui at all. But they use it widely and it is evidently effective in improving crop productivity – because of its pesticidal and nematicidal effects.  Several other plants were listed as ‘green manure’ plants by the British, merely because they were incorporated in the soil, but their main purpose seems to have been pest control. Oil cakes with pesticidal properties were among the favourite manures of farmers all over India. Chief among those used were Azadirachta indica (neem) and Pongamia pinnata (karanj). Western theory would have discouraged any attempt to use them.

Another example: In the spice gardens of Vasai, to the north of Mumbai, castor cake has for centuries been successfully used as a manure. Castor cake is more expensive and has a lower manurial value than safflower cake which is also readily available. But castor cake is preferred, because, again, while it is a reasonable manure, it also acts as a pesticide, killing grubs and borers.

People’s agriculture was a complex system of interacting practices which must be looked at as a whole, while the Western reductionist approach to agriculture examines only the parts in terms of its divisions of fertilisation, pest control, and so on.  People’s agricultural practices cannot be so categorised since a single practice often served diverse purposes. Trying to verify traditional practices by the use of Western theories would most likely prove to be an unrewarding, meaningless activity.

The system of composting and using manure by the spice growers of the Kanara district of Karnataka at the end of the last century was a complex one. It reveals that they made the best use of resources available.[20] Such a system could not have been developed from theory alone or within a short space of time, since it required prolonged and diligent research.

Fresh leaves were collected from selected species of trees, particularly those which were fleshy and decayed quickly. Some were preferred by the farmers, certain species being considered superior to others. British agriculturists examined these preferences, and analysed the leaves of the species for nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Those considered by the farmers to be particularly good did not have higher levels of nutrients than those considered inferior. In fact, many had lower levels, which apparently confirmed British prejudice that the farmers were ignorant and superstitious.

However, on being questioned by the British on this point, the farmers said that the manure from superior species also killed insects and other pests. The farmers, it is evident, chose species which also had pesticidal properties, something which Western ‘scientific’ mulching or composting does not take into account.

Further, most British officials suggested that, to prevent damage to forest trees, dry leaves from the forest floor be used for composting instead of fresh leaves from trees. However, J Mollison, the Deputy Director of Agriculture, Bombay, seeing things from the farmers’ point of view, disagreed with official opinion. He showed that besides being available mainly when the deciduous trees shed their leaves, dried leaves had less nutrients and other organic compounds.

To increase the manurial value, farmers made their cattle trample on the collected leaves before putting them into compost pits.  This, in addition to breaking the leaves and so making them rot more quickly, allowed the urine and solid excreta of the cattle to be absorbed. Further, the cattle were fed with selected oil cakes in order to give their excreta greater manurial value.

When thoroughly composted, the manure was applied as a mulch, on the surface, around pepper vines, for instance. This system was designed to suit the particular climatic conditions of the region. The mulch was covered by twigs and branches which broke the force of heavy rains and prevented the mulch from being washed off. At the same time the twigs permitted some rain water to pass through, and slowly leach out the mulch nutrients, allowing them to percolate into the soil to the plant roots.  There was no need for mixing the soil and the manure, which would probably disturb the roots of the crops, and which would, in any case, require much more labour.

Analysis of the untreated soils showed that they would be classified as agriculturally poor. But it did not matter much whether the soil was naturally fertile or not, because the yield of crops was mostly governed by the quality and quantity of the manure used. The soil, however, had to be of such a consistency that it withstood erosion by flood waters, and was retentive of moisture, so that little or no irrigation was required in the dry season.

The trees used for providing leaves were pollarded (the tops of the trees were cut off) so that fresh branches would grow at low levels, placing the leaves within easy reach. This saved the farmers energy and time. Because the manure yielded its nutrients slowly and regularly (samples of the manure were analysed and were found to contain nutrients even after 14 months in the field), the leaves were lopped every second year only, further reducing the farmers’ labour. Though pollarding and lopping reduced the life of the trees, the farmers took care to plant replacements well in advance of requirements, so that the new trees grew sufficiently before pollarding started. Pollarding also reduced the timber value, but several of the trees which gave the most useful leaves and branches for manure were those which did not have provide particularly valuable timber.

Once more, concentrating on an isolated detail, a British officer suggested that the leaf sheaths of Areca catechu (supari nut) be used instead of twigs, since he saw the former as farm ‘waste’.  But the farmers, with their appreciation of the whole economy, replied that the leaf sheaths were all required for other purposes in the farm, and in any case the manure did not need a waterproof covering.

The good results achieved by the use of traditional Indian farming methods have been recorded by many, including Mollison:

“There is no doubt that the present system of manuring in the Kanara gardens is successful in practice, provided the gardeners are allowed to use in sufficient quantity the kinds of forest produce which they prefer”. However, this integrated and balanced agricultural system was damaged by the British, who enclosed the forests, thereby preventing the farmers from collecting the leaves they required.

Returning to the topic of theory, the utility of the theoretical basis used by formal scientists is also doubtful. No doubt, the two scientists referred to earlier were familiar with the exact structure of the saponins found in Acacia auriculaeformis and the physiological processes by which they stupefy fish, and they were no doubt aware that this knowledge could be used to identify other species which could also serve to catch fish. But people’s knowledge already covers hundreds of such species, growing in every corner of each country in the Two Thirds World. The point is that this search for theories is itself a purely Western construct, the consequence of an obsessive impulse for dominance through particular ways of knowing. It does not matter at all for research in people’s technology whether there are theories or not.

Creativity involves breaking fixed rules or patterns of thought, or finding new rules, or pointing out contradictions in old ones.  Has this enormous traditional creativity been based on the fact there are few if any traditional science rules at all?

A theoretical basis for investigation may also require the institutionalisation of a particular formulation of knowledge.  For instance, the indigenous ayurvedic health system has a firm theoretical basis, in which its members are trained and certified. Members of such institutions, though accepted as part of the traditional system, either charge for their services or expect to be recompensed in some way. They have come to resemble the allopathic mainstream. The institutionalised ayurvedic system has become distant from the people, while the home herbal treatment system has remained a people’s technology.

The Knowledge

People’s knowledge often includes not only the immediate technology they use in their daily life, but also ideas about ecological relations, and the social impacts of their own activities and those of their neighbours. The former include the innumerable skills required for weaving, dyeing and making handicrafts, as well as the skills of general artisans. All these are contained within a framework which holds them together without internal contradictions.

An important corollary to development by people is that the technology is invented and tested in the field, where all environmental and social interactions, in particular its effect on other life forms, known and unknown, are allowed to play their part. This makes such knowledge holistic, and avoids the disastrous errors and pitfalls when technologies are applied on the basis of incomplete or inadequate theories.

Holistic theories require minimal interference by human beings in their environment. In consequence there is no need to assess whether or not damage actually occurs in each case of action.

Theories based on the constraints imposed by holistic thinking may be considered speculation or dogma, because proof of its validity can only come from the continuing survival of a system based on these principles. On the other hand, proof of the ecological invalidity of Western science is increasing daily, as its inherent unsustainability appears with ever greater clarity.  Western science does not and cannot predict all the environmental consequences of its reductionist practices. It cannot predict because the consequences of the introduction of a technology into an environment, which itself cannot be fully described, cannot therefore possibly be comprehensively anticipated. Final definitive proof of its irrationality can only come when it destroys all of us.

The Dissemination of Knowledge

If it is to be useful, knowledge of new popular technologies must be diffused as widely as possible. It usually spreads spontaneously by traditional means – by demonstration and by oral communication. It is disseminated without ‘extension experts’ and ‘modern’ methods of communication.

A particular technology may spread only as far as a few neighbours, or it may reach far and wide across whole regions. It may have been developed for the particular ecological conditions where it originated, or it may have been inspired by an artisan in an industry which is widespread. On the other hand, technologies which do not work satisfactorily may not spread at all, or will quickly fall into disuse as soon as their shortcomings appear.

This spread of knowledge is also an assurance that the practice has been tested by replication, an essential characteristic of traditional technology. This feature is often claimed by Western technology as its own.


Knowledge is free

One of the important characteristics of most traditional cultures is that knowledge is available to everyone without cost. This is a truly just practice. This does not mean that such cultures do not value their knowledge. On the contrary, unlike the market system through which Western technology expresses itself, they place its value beyond price, as may be seen in the case of the use of Acacia auriculaeformis for curing headaches.[21]

The traditional practice of providing knowledge free is of great antiquity. There is no reference, for instance, in Kautilya’s Arthashastra (written about 300 BC), to privileges like patents and copyrights. Any invention or discovery which advanced the welfare of the masses was common property of all.[22] Knowledge was not enclosed, and others were free to use and improve upon it.

New popular knowledge gained by research is not seen as the possession of an individual discoverer or inventor. It belongs to the community, and hence the question of an individual’s intellectual property rights does not arise. The good of the community as a whole comes before the profit of the individual.

The originators are happy to see the use of their inventions disseminated without expectations of any financial recompense or other rewards for their efforts. There is not even a compulsion to seek formal recognition by society at large. The satisfaction that these scientists get from discovering or inventing something new that serves to improve their lives, as well as the community’s appreciation that goes with it, appears to be reward enough.

The free dissemination of knowledge is also profoundly altruistic behaviour, since familiarity with the use of Acacia auriculaeformis, for instance, could reduce the quantity of fish caught by the individual who discovered it: for others could be using the technology in the same region, in the same ponds and streams.

The traditional system, which recognises knowledge as the heritage of all humankind, is infinitely more just, civilized and sustainable than the Western system. Such systems cannot be easily used for domination, since researchers do not achieve positions of power or authority because of their discoveries or inventions. This reduces the possibility that individuals and communities will be manipulated by others.

There are abuses of the free dissemination system, particularly when sub-systems are institutionalised, such as when bhagats claim secrecy for their knowledge. The ayurvedic, unani and sidha practitioners have also institutionalised the knowledge commons.

On the other hand, it is being widely suggested that those who possess such traditional knowledge – particularly tribals – be granted intellectual property rights (IPRs) so that they can benefit economically from its commercialisation. NGOs are seeking IPRs for traditional holders of knowledge as well as current innovators. However, by the very process of fighting for IPRs, we accept the Western system as the standard, which is equally to admit the defeat of traditional justice.

The institution of IPRs would almost certainly jeopardize the traditional systems, since it would require that knowledge be enclosed. As a consequence, the system of discovery could be considerably damaged, if not destroyed completely, since discoverers would tend to conceal their work until they were assured of financial recompense.

There are also practical difficulties in attempting to assign IPRs to particular persons or groups. Traditional researchers are not easily visible because the scientists do not claim priority of invention or discovery. In addition, there are hundreds of plants in use, all over India and even in neighbouring countries.  Some have similar uses in Vietnam and China, too. To whom then would the benefits of IPRs go?


The danger lies not really in patents or other official ‘rights’, be they held by foreign or local persons. At a seminar where an NGO proposed the patenting of Adivasi knowledge, Maruti Jadhav said that acquiring patents for tribals was like looking after their wives. “We tribals don’t need outsiders to look after our wives. Instead give us permits to venture into forest areas known to us tribals to enable us to use the forest area for collection of medicinal material”.[23]

It is the commercial use of plants that endangers species and leads to their scarcity or loss. This could result in a reduction in the availability of herbal medicines for local people, consequent damage to their health and even to the loss of knowledge.

Commercialisation has already had disastrous effects on our genetic resources. Sarpagandha (Rauvolfia serpentina) has been used here for thousands of years for treating cardiac and mental diseases, and over time there has been little significant depletion of the plants. But a few decades ago, foreign allopathic pharmaceutical firms began using it to produce the drug reserpine – the first ‘allopathic’ tranquilizer. Though not patented, this formerly common plant has been collected in such large quantities that it is now rarely found. As has been the case with most of the plants used by the West to produce drugs, it is feared that its earlier species diversity has been lost.[24]

In the case of Trichopus zeylanicus, commercial interests have encouraged the tribals to collect the plant in such large quantities that, without cultivation, the species may become extinct.[25]

The case of neem is too well known to be repeated here. Its ‘progress’ from traditional to current commercial use could be the fate of all the plants that provide herbal medicines, pesticides or manures used in India.

Attempts are also being made to reward indigenous groups for parting with their knowledge to Westernised commercial interests.  In Kerala many of those known to be wise in the use of herbal medicines are being tempted to part with their knowledge by ethnobotanists and pharmaceutical companies. The local people have, however, learnt to give false information. This may be occurring in other regions, too, but it is, perhaps, not the best way of resisting this form of theft. It is essential that the local cultures be strengthened, not only to resist commercialisation of their resources, but also to protect and to promote further innovation.

The freedom from possessiveness, which led to the widespread use of people’s technologies such as herbal medicines, is unfortunately gradually declining – possibly as a result of the influence of the values of the mainstream. Discoveries of new herbal uses tend to be kept secret and used only for the discoverer’s private gain, or to enhance his or her reputation.  To prevent this requires the revitalisation of the culture that earlier supported it.

The Community and Culture

Traditional researchers are actively supported by the culture of the community. The system encourages self-reliance, allowing people the space to exercise their creativity to solve their own problems and those of the wider collective group.

The Adivasi systems of knowledge are well known but the support given to innovation by their culture is not so visible. The informal recognition by the community appears to be innate in the culture which promotes traditional technology. Adivasis are normally looked down upon by non-Adivasis in their villages. The latter particularly go out of their way to ridicule any Adivasi who attempts to improve his/her farming or other traditional practices. Adivasis, therefore, rarely tell anyone outside their community of the experiments they undertake. This makes outsiders believe that they lack initiative and imagination as well as scientific curiosity. It is only when they gain confidence in the outsider from her or his genuine desire to learn from them, that they will discuss their experiments. It then becomes evident that the community support for experimentation, and the community appreciation for what they do, has been strong enough to counter the negative forces projected by the mainstream.

An important means of support is the encouragement of researchers even after particular experiments fail. Such support gives traditional researchers the strength to attempt more imaginative or implausible experiments, a strength which is not conspicuous in the majority of institutionalised researchers.

Socially Appropriate & Sustainable

Most traditional technologies are inherently more appropriate than their Western counterparts, particularly when these are subjected to the criteria of social justice and sustainability.  Social justice requires that all the peoples of the earth have equal rights and access to the resources of the earth; sustainability requires that all future generations – an indefinite number of them – have the same rights, too. Both depend on minimum interference in the environment.

People’s technologies use only renewable resources, or small quantities of non-renewable ones, in a manner which makes them recyclable. They require a minimum of energy for their production and use, and all that energy comes from renewable sources, mainly wood fuel and human or other animal power. They create employment rather than reduce it by increasing the ‘efficiency’ of mechanised production. The pollution *they produce, *if any, does not accumulate in organisms or the environment. It is possible that pressure from the local community limits developments to those technologies which are socially and environmentally appropriate.

Sustainability requires that there is no unnecessary processing of raw materials; that in the methods of such processing there is no waste, or if there are remnants of primary raw materials unused for the basic need, they be used for other essential purposes; that the minimum quantity of raw materials be used; that objects have multiple uses; and so on. Examples are the use of wood resistant to termites for house construction, such as teak, thus eliminating the need to use harmful pesticides.  Similarly, timber resistant to the attacks of teredos in water in the building of boats avoids the need for coating the wood with highly poisonous chemicals like tributyltin.[26] The boat will also have a longer life. The use of banana leaves as dinner plates makes washing up unnecessary and the ‘plates’ themselves serve as food for cows, which in turn produce milk. Where banana plants do not grow, plates made of leaves of several other trees [e.g. banyan (Ficus bengalensis) or breadfruit (Artocarpus communis)] or even wooden cups and plates (eg, of gainti, Boehmeria rugulosa) have been used.

The supporting culture sees no value in the possession of an increasing quantity of material products or in a lifestyle that stresses comfort at the cost of the environment and justice.  Those possessing more wealth than others are expected to distribute their excess among the rest of their community.

People’s systems normally have intrinsic social and environmental feedback. It could be that the ‘failure’ to develop labour-displacing textile machinery in ancient India was due to precisely such social considerations. Most people who live in a region from which they could or would not normally emigrate, are extremely careful to avoid damaging their environment or disemploying people by ‘improving’ technology, to the point of unsustainability. When interventions are made in such an environment, any deterioration is usually quickly monitored and checked.

Social conditions could and did produce much injustice with, for instance, the ‘lower castes’ subjected to and exploited by the ‘upper castes’. Moreover, artisans taught a particular family craft were compelled to stick to their trade and were denied the possibility of moving to another field, even if they felt that it suited their talents better.

Traditional tools and machines, however, are usually low in cost, making them affordable by village artisans and farmers. This liberates them from dependency on others (capitalists or ‘higher’ castes), and the attendant risk of being dominated by them.

Some apparently irrational practices have sound foundations. The constant use of religious rituals in everyday life sometimes appears to outsiders as superstition. However, rituals often play an important role in maintaining a healthy environment. For instance, during the monsoon, there is a considerable rise in water borne diseases such as diarrhoea and dysentery, due to drinking water sources – open wells and streams – becoming contaminated by * polluted surface water *flowing into them. It is important that farmers stay healthy so that they can plough, sow and weed their land for the monsoon crop. People had discovered a number of plants which acted to augment the body’s resistance to these diseases. In order to ensure their regular supply and use, *consumption *of these plants has, in certain cases, been ritualised. This appears to have been the case with the use of Chlorophytum species, which come up with the first rains. Warlis say that if they do not consume it, their health and crops will suffer. To ensure its sustained use, they collect it once a year only *and its consumption is preceded by a puja in their fields as well as in their homes.

OR: To ensure its sustained use, they collect it once a year only. Its consumption is preceded by a puja in their fields as well as in their homes.

No doubt, there were aberrations brought about by local exploitation and some traditional technologies could have long-term harmful effects. Much misunderstanding results from the view that traditional cultures are or should be static archeological museum pieces; a perception perpetuated by a tourist industry which freezes artisanal skills in archaic market-driven forms, for the benefit of casual visitors.

People’s technologies are ultimately based on this recognition by all human societies that depend on the natural resource-base for their survival: that they must live within the limits of their specific surroundings. The cosmic basis on which the system is founded need not be true or provable, indeed, it cannot be so – but as long as it provides a firm foundation for a sustainable and just society, the ‘truth’ of its belief-system is irrelevant.

Traditional general ecological theories exist, such as that of the Panch Mahabhutas. This theory deals with the relations of the elements in reality, from which, therefore, ethical behavioral principles can be derived, and *which also serves as a theoretical base for keeping the technology within the bounds of sustainability. It provides guidance in the relations of living entities towards each other and towards non-living entities.

Death, decay and reconstitution of organisms is essential to a sustainable system. Every woman or man is or may become a part of anyone else or any other creature on earth. The inanimate elements resulting from death and decay today are incarnated, made into flesh, tomorrow, and what is incarnated in one living being becomes re-incarnated in a number of others. These processes mock those who seek limits to temporary human identities of caste, nation or race. Today’s rulers have in them the elements of yesterday’s most abject outcasts.

This is the basis on which so much of the earth’s resources become renewable, not only plants and animals but also the common pool of our human flesh and blood. Such a system of belief could also form the foundation for the construction of a more just society.

The principle of advocating least interference can also be derived from the evidence of resource degradation and environmental pollution. But this principle is rejected by the Western system, not with any rational justification, but on the grounds of impracticality, since it cannot provide the high levels of consumption for people who are assumed to be inherently greedy. The Western system claims part of its legitimacy from its assertion that it alone truly knows how to cope with a human nature that is essentially selfish, competitive and self-interested. It promotes its system as a rational and necessary projection of these fundamental ‘universal’ truths about human behaviour. In this sense, the Western system declares that pollution and resource depletion and ultimately the destruction of all life, are eminently ‘practical’ and inevitable.

Looking Backwards

It is often alleged that using traditional technologies rather than ‘modern’ Western ones is ‘looking backwards’. This is considered a regressive activity, if not morally wrong, certainly hopelessly mired in nostalgia and irrecoverability. However, if by looking to tradition, we find more sustainable ways of living, then we need to look backwards in order to discover pathways to a more hopeful future.

Paradoxically, when technologists are forced to look back, as a result of the failure of the modern paradigm, to do so is considered progress. For instance, Western pest controllers are being compelled to look back to botanical pesticides, intercropping, etc. In the field of medicine, the malaria parasite has become resistant to nearly all allopathic drugs, and the last resort appears to be the use of the ancient drug from the Artemisia plant. This sort of resistance to antibiotics – the ‘miracle’ drugs – is spreading so rapidly that allopathic medicine is now trying to emphasize the strengthening of the body’s immune system, a process *on which indigenous health systems focussed  centuries ago.

It sometimes seems that the Western system must destroy all such forms of traditional knowledge, in order to rediscover them later, and to transform them into commodities from which they will subsequently make great profits. This actually represents a highly sophisticated appropriation of traditional wisdom, which must be devalued in order that it may become the source of future boundless business opportunity for the market system.

The Destruction of the Traditional System

There are a number of factors which contribute to the destruction of traditional technological systems. The most important is the devastation of whole knowledge systems either by genocide of the people holding them or by ‘absorbing’ them into the mainstream.

There are fundamental differences in world view between the West and indigenous visions. Western culture and the Western system of development are inherently unsustainable and unjust, while traditional systems are generally sustainable, if not always just. Western culture includes the educational, health and other Westernised sub-systems, all of which demean and devalue traditional systems. It is very noticeable that most of those Adivasis who have been through the formal educational system do not know the uses of plants, and often cannot even recognise common species. It does not seem possible that the formal education system can replace the traditional transfer of knowledge from parents to children as well as between siblings, which is based on continuous observation and practice in the field. The oral transmission of culture has been until now the surest guarantor of its survival. This has now been systematically interrupted by the global communications media, which have other messages to tell the people of the world, a far cry from traditional story of the symbiosis of humanity with the earth and the rest of creation.

Trying to combine the two systems is futile since the values promoted are different, often opposing and incompatible.  Competition and cooperation cannot be fostered together, neither can individualism and the selflessness which is essential for the proper functioning of a community. The requirements and aims of traditional and institutionalised researchers differ fundamentally because they serve different cultures.  Specifically, the Westernised system primarily emphasizes benefits to the individual, while the people’s system emphasizes the community good. The point is that if institutional scientists do further research on a traditional innovation, their results will remain within the framework of the institution, which as we have seen, need not promote the users’ interests. Attempts to do so usually result in the loss of beneficial traditional values.

The difficulty of cooperation between people and Westernised scientists may be seen in the example of firewood. Western reports today claim that most of the air pollution occurs in the homes of millions of people in the Two Thirds World using wood as fuel for cooking. “Perhaps 80 percent of global exposure to particulate air pollution occurs indoors in developing countries, where the smoke from primitive stoves is heavily laden with carcinogenic benzopyrene and other dangerous hydrocarbons. A disproportionate share of this burden is borne, moreover, by women (who do the cooking) and small children (who are indoors with their mothers)”.[27]

The solutions offered are the use of smokeless stoves or less polluting fuels like kerosene or Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), both of these latter being unsustainable. Few think of asking the women what they would like to do. The women lament the fact that the species of trees in natural mixed forests which supplied nearly smokeless fuel have been destroyed. An example is Adhatoda zeylanica which provides a very good fuel giving a quick, intense, long-lasting, clean cooking fire. It burns with little or no smoke, odour or sparks.[28]

Those who say that the ‘expertise’ of scientific foresters or agroforesters can be called upon, do not take such factors into account. Moreover there is a real danger that the women’s knowledge will be lost, since children cannot be taught to recognise the smokeless species which no longer exist in many localities.

Adhatoda was a common hedge plant but is no longer so, showing that it is not only forests that need to be renewed and protected by the community but also all types of ecodiverse areas, no matter how small.

With the expansionist pressures of Western culture on all other cultures, an urgent need is to minimise its interference with traditional cultures, so that these may be allowed to develop in their own way. It is often said by the Westernised elite that they have no right to deny indigenous peoples’ entrance into the mainstream. A telling answer is provided by the Warlis who live in the Borivali National Park within the city of Mumbai (Bombay), probably the most Westernised city in India. They do not want to enter the mainstream; all they ask is to be left alone – which of course, the mainstream, in its generosity to share its technological ‘comforts’, will not do. The mainstream has no right to the arrogant claim that they must bear the burden of directing other cultures. On the other hand, the mainstream does have the duty to ensure space for other cultures to conserve themselves, and to evolve and develop according to their own needs and requirements.*

The fact that Western culture has spread and is spreading so far and wide is often taken to be a sign of its superiority. But its success in overcoming other cultures is not necessarily a sign of excellence in other areas than dominance, just as the ability of a cancerous tumour to spread is not seen to be a boon to the body in which *it grows. Western culture has been diffused by the economic and political power that the West obtained from its science and technology. The West mistakes its power for truth, its military might for providential destiny, its ideological rationalisations for universal values.

Every indication leads to the conclusion that institutional technology tends to displace people’s technology wherever it reaches. This is not because it is superior in practice but because the educational, agricultural, economic and political sub-systems present the latter as old-fashioned, superstitious and useless, and Western science and technology as modern, rational and capable of solving all problems. While there are always exceptions to this, the overall pressures to abandon people’s technology are very strong and not easily resistible.

Another factor that plays a major part in the loss of people’s knowledge is the destruction, degradation or appropriation of the commons. Knowledge can be lost when the base for its practice degenerates, for instance, when deforestation destroys the plants from which medicines and other products are obtained. The forest and other commons are essential to the preservation of traditional technological knowledge, since so much is dependent on the actual use of natural plant and animal resources. In this way, the loss of material commons (forests, etc) and the loss of non-material commons (people’s knowledge) are inseparably linked.

There are other practices which could contribute to the destruction of the traditional systems. One is – paradoxically – its destruction by promotion. The use of people’s technologies by the West requires the use of the same resources, but on a very large scale. The commercialisation of the latter is a sure method of their destruction, as seen earlier.

The persistence of people’s technology and its contemporary revival is a response to the inability of the Westernised system to solve the problems faced by individual farmers, health workers or artisans, since its so-called solutions are too expensive, produce unemployment and cause further injustice. Moreover, with increasing evidence that the products of the Western system are highly destructive of the environment and of life itself, people are becoming aware of the need for revitalising more just and sustainable technologies. People also realise that the Westernised system is not interested in reaching them, except for the purpose of further exploitation, and that it is in fact dropping them out of the industrial employment system; this has intensified since the implementation of the IMF-enforced liberalisation process. These are the people who need technologies that will allow them to survive with dignity and this is where people’s technologies play an essential role.

It is necessary to ensure that the people’s technologies that replace the Western ones are more sustainable and just than the latter. There is also a vital need for people to support traditional practitioners, by making use of their products in preference to those produced by unsustainable methods. Their existence will be vital to our survival when – not if – the non-sustainable Western system reaches its unavoidable limits.

Some of the Indian knowledge is appearing in unexpected places. A person is making knives of steel by a process similar to that used to make wootz – in Australia![29]

Recording People’s Technologies

There is increasing discussion and action today on the collection of information on and preservation of people’s technologies still extant, on the revival of those that have fallen into disuse, and on the present day relevance of people’s technologies compared to those of the West.

Because of the fast erosion of people’s knowledge, it is necessary to record as much as possible before it dies out. It is equally important that others should be aware that people’s research is still vibrant and being actively pursued today, and that they can innovate, too. The collected data urgently requires dissemination.

Publishing such data, however, makes it more accessible to those who wish to commercialise it. Westernised scientists learn about people’s technologies in our publications, make slight modifications and then patent them, which may even prevent the originators of the technology from using it themselves.

The collection of knowledge itself had and does have many uses.  It has shown the extent and variety of knowledge systems, it can be used for studying how knowledge has been generated, and whether there are theories which may help the research or not, and so on. But all these uses are seen to be required only by the Westernised analytical minds studying indigenous knowledge systems.


The direction in which the Western world is developing is not one which all must inevitably follow. People do have a choice between accepting the rationally ‘correct’ Western system, with its heavy freight of self-destruction and injustice, or fostering holistic knowledge systems and practices which are sustainable and more equitable; and even though they cannot claim any monopoly of truth, they certainly have a greater component of wisdom. Common sense dictates that the survival of all is more important than scientifically threatened life on earth.

The state of the world is driving us to look to people’s systems for help in technology, as well as in terms of values and other aspects of knowledge. Lokavidya is not merely capable of filling in the gaps produced by Western society’s failures, but can also provide an entire system of sustainable technology, just values, and so on.

Indications suggest that traditional people’s technologies are still widely used and thriving. There is a need to preserve what is left and to restore what is lost. This also requires the preservation or revival of the culture that promoted the free dissemination of knowledge, encouraged research, helped in the preservation and maintenance of natural biodiversity and ecodiversity. This cultural reclamation will encourage the use of such technologies, as well as the spirit of research which made them available in the first place. Preserving culture and habitats is not easy, but is a prerequisite for the nurturing of traditional technology.

The immediate need, therefore, is to support and develop knowledge systems which do not have the limitations of Western technologies. Every effort should be made to replace Western technology by liberative systems based on – but not necessarily identical with – present people’s technologies, since these also approach most nearly to meeting the requirements of justice.

The principles of such knowledge systems can be the common heritage of all people, who have been and can be, not merely passive recipients of the products of questionable ‘experts’, but creators of knowledge themselves. Research, which Westernised technologists have attempted to monopolise for the last few hundred years, needs to be revitalised in order to restore to millions the power that has been appropriated from them.

There must be peoples’ technologies – subsets of knowledge – since each region will have its own specific requirements, though they may be linked together at other levels. Such a system needs to be studied and practised by everybody.

A radical change in values is required in order to bring about an improvement in justice as well as the preservation of the environment. All should have free access to the knowledge that has been accumulated over centuries as well as to new knowledge, provided they use that right responsibly.

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  3. Allen, Chris, pers. comm., February 1998.
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  15. Jadhav, Maruti, ibid.
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