Techambattu?

Gautam Doshi, a friend of ours who works at Intel visited us last month for a few days. He wanted to “immersively” find technical solutions to rural problems; to see what solutions Intel may have to offer here…

It was good to have him over, to sample a different world-view (both parties). He brought along, among other gizmos, an Intel Classmate PC (laptop), which of course, immediately took Badri Baba’s fancy. This is the competition for the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child project).

We talked, night and day, with breaks to eat, sleep and walk. One idea that was thrown up was that of a resource centre with a computer and Internet connectivity. How will this help villagers? adults? women? children? Would it be used for Education? Access to Information? Storing and Sharing of indigenous knowledge? Income generation? Services? (e-ticketing, land transactions, certificates) Knowledge and Ideas exchange?

The possibilities are endless, but Sonati and I felt  that whatever is planned or implemented, the focus should be on something that will strengthen/rejuvenate the sense of community among the villagers. With increasing nuclearisation of families and migration, this sense of community is unravelling.

A generation ago, there was no road down to Salem from here, and many of the older villagers  have spoken of the time when they would go down to the shandy at Pappanaickenpatti, some 25 km from here, once in six months, with a sack of kadukkai (harda/shilekha/terminalia chebula) on their backs and return with enough salt and matches to last them six months. This was what they needed (on a regular basis) from the “outside world”; they were self-sufficient within the village community to an amazing extent. This self-sufficiency was not only with respect to physical things like food, but also, for example, with respect to things like property disputes which were resolved within the village itself. Now this self-sufficiency is on the wane.

What Sonati and I feel (and everyone feel free to comment) is that we cannot approach the issue with the blinkers of our urban, middle-class culture. Our needs are not the villagers’ needs. We need to be able to look at  the strengths of their culture and try to reinforce them, and not weaken them.  Many a time, doing nothing at all may be a better thing (from the standpoint of the village community), than “top-down” intervention, however well-intentioned.

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12 Responses to “Techambattu?”

  1. Poorvi Says:

    I agree that the focus should be on the needs of the villagers, and not on what we might perceive the needs to be.

    But I also think the ability to communicate with very different worlds, through, for example, the Internet, should not be outright rejected. From my personal viewpoint, there is intrinsic value in communication with those who are different– for any community, no matter how self-sufficient. Sure, it exposes the community to potential exploitation, dangers, etc. But it makes available avenues for creativity and knowledge generation; this does not mean that what they know or have, in terms of wealth of knowledge, does not have value. But I think a community can never know enough. For example, would it not be interesting to know about plants and animals that are not native there? To know about science? To view “weird” things, new things?

    I’m not saying I know how this can be done while simultaneously enhancing self-sufficiency. I think interconnectedness among equals is a valuable thing; but it is likely that the villagers would immediately be exploited in a world that became interconnected too quickly for them.

    And the final word would be theirs. Maybe knowledge and knowing about that which is different is not as valuable to them as it is to me.

  2. Sunny Says:

    Since one has been working with rural artisans since 1993 one realises the importance of networking and communications for exactly the problems of immigration to cities. 15 years ago we had to go ten kilometers away to a small town to make a phone call, then STD booths happened in the village,now there are many mobile towers.All this has helped the artisans we work with increase their business, create more job opportunities where they live. I am a great believer in the fact that one has to deconstruct the city. What does the city offer? Theatre,music,celebrating differences of character and individuals, running away from your caste,education and health services. Alice Walker the famous African-American novelist says that the rebellious among the tribes were sold as slaves!!We ourselves see the ruthlessness of caste heirarchy, horrible situation of widows,child marriage and repression of the woman in rural Rajasthan. I agree there are great things like a low carbon footprint lifestyle, 14 different occupational castes that fulfill most local needs but that is not enough to stimulate the young. The need to be explorers in mind and space has been infected across class. We have to create communities of imagination across languages as Poorvi says. Just the fact that Sunder and Sonati can share their home schooling experiences through the net.Letters could work but it doesn’t create a community around Thekambattu.Its like their TV channel.Internet has created revolution of communication by allowing us all to be independent broadcasters.The best prices for the farm produce,weather forecasts, are immediate needs. In the future sustainable and ecological society which all idealists wish for a networked community would help in planning production and distribution of all products across diverse geographies. India has almost 6 lac villages, one of the most diverse settlement patterns and huge railway and road systems among the longest in thw world. All villagers need to be able to book railway and bus tickets from wherever they are. The net can offer the world to you through You-tube kind of applications and the amazing translation services online is helpng our local language artisans do business across the world.
    I would help local communities in understanding the tool of the net, rest is upto them how they use it.We cannot be patriarchs only catalysts and co-explorers.The word is fellow travelers.

  3. Rahul Says:

    Sunder/Sonati

    As you probably know by now, I am not a votary of the ‘let the villagers remain in their pristine environment’ school of thought. That point of view hides much that is damaging to villagers and also damaging to others. To take your example, better roads and transport means that villagers have better and faster access to markets, health care, food, clothing and so on. These are genuine needs of any community.

    Why should they remain confined to their little island and have no scope of better nutrition and health care? Similarly even the internet, at least from what I see in newspapers, since I have no direct experience, can make a big difference. ITC’s e-choupal initiative is one such measure which allows farmers to go for the best available remunerative prices for their products. I also understand that this is quite successful.

    About my second point – the viewpoint that villages of India are some kind of Utopian society being destroyed by external influences is also incorrect. The fact that in some villages you can still be burnt alive for being suspected of being a witch or for taking water from an upper-caste well or for marrying someone from the wrong caste or religion (very often the panchayats hand down judgments which conform to the worst possible casteist and obscurantist attitudes) are the evils of Indian society which are far less prevalent in the cities that in the villages. Rural communities in India are not the shangri-la that they are made out to be.

    So most definitely ‘letting them be’ is not, IMHO, an acceptable attitude. Of course any change has be made acceptable and not forced down anyone’s throat (except for the evils I mentioned above which do need force to eradicate I am sorry to say).

  4. godfrey Says:

    There is an autonomy of choice in rural folk which steers their decisions. If the technology suits them they may take to it. If not they may use it till it breaks down by itself but they will do little to maintain it. Nobody’s persuading anyone at the edge of a sword. At worse it will be an incentive that is being offered. If the incentive or advantage is sustainably useful it will survive. Otherwise like the grain banks our institution built in Nandurbar, with much effort and expense, the thing will simply fall through.
    to restore a sense of community to the level we hear it said it was may not be achieved by blocking technology or new ideas but by maintaining relationships of equality and respect whatever be the programme in hand.

  5. Rajeev Says:

    Sunder and Sonati,
    I was pondering about a similar idea when I heard about the OLPC and also many times since and this post got be thinking again. Here is what I think.

    Why not try the simplest approach. Get a few people perhaps just one or two to learn how to use the PC/Laptop and educate them o how to use it and the internet/ email etc. Let them discover what it can do for them. A few ideas of how to kick start this.

    Take a group that represents a cross section of the village. A young boy or girl who is sharp enough to pick up new skills. One or two responsible adults who perhaps also have a curiosity about this new thing and want to find out what it can do. Teach them how to use the computer.
    Then as they learn and explore encourage them to find out what it can do. Have discussions with them and discuss the possibilities. Assistance and expertise can be drawn upon when necessary but I think that will happen down the line.

    You can of course play around with the basic idea but I don’t really know your village and its people and how much they are curious about this and willing to explore. So the best way I feel is to teach them how to use it and inform them about it and perhaps discuss on a regular basis how the experience of the villagers with the new technology and what they think of it.

  6. Chandra Says:

    Interesting to see all the comments and responses on ‘Techambattu’ – reflects the complexity of the matter at hand. Thought I’d share some questions –

    Technology as a tool and is not class neutral – what happens when this is introduced into what is most definitely not a ‘homogenous’ village?
    Often, to prevent it from being appropriated, it has to be arbitrated. Who will be the arbiter? This tool, like all other tools, cuts both ways. Who will supervise and mediate its use?

    Will the technology be sustained within the sphere of the villager – produced, maintained and recycled? Will it respond to the villager’s requirements and subsequently be determined by his feedback?
    In the relationship between the technology provider and user, where is the locus of control? Will the villager be a passive consumer?

    Often the perceived merits of new technology are more immediately apparent than the demerits. Firstly, regarding the technology itself but secondly, and more importantly, in regard to the multiplex proviso it brings along. Is a villager adequately armed to negotiate these?

    Are corporate ‘social initiative’ and ‘social responsibility’ just another guise for expanding their base and going beyond ‘picking the low hanging fruit’?

    The past 10 months have been spent exploring and examining these questions, in the course of making the rural tourism film. Many of the questions, opinions and debates are the same – only ‘tourism’ replaces ‘technology’. I’ll send you a copy of the film soon – so I can share what I have figured.

  7. Gautam Sen Says:

    Let me admit at the outset that I have no experience at all of the problem being discussed. But I would still like to make a comment from my experience as an educator.

    Discussion about using modern technology to change traditional societies nearly always seems to become polarized between letting them alone to stew in their narrow localisms, and destroying whatever is valuable in their particularities and distinctiveness through well-meaning attempts at forcing them into the modern world. I admire the attempts of some of the commenters to steer a middle way between these two poles.

    If one regards education as the process of becoming fit to participate actively in the three main domains of life – personal, public and working – then the questions of what technologies to introduce, how and when, depend on what kind of life one envisages for these societies in future. This future vision is not something that can be designed by someone living outside the community.

    It is very rare for tribal communities, dalits, poor peasants and other people living at the margins of Indian societies to be so isolated that they remain unaware of the changes that are hitting them from outside their localities. It is very likely that left to themselves, they will find a way of opening themselves out to the wider world. But this has to be in a way that is mutually respectful and beneficial.

    The wider world too may have something to learn from traditional understandings of nature and human beings and the interactions between them. Various spiritual and ecological and economic crises afflicting the so-called “modern” world indicate that in a very real sense, the need for so-called “traditional” systems of knowledge may be at least as much as the traditional societies’ need for modern knowledge. Perhaps modern industrial societies need to re-discover or at least re-evaluate some of the wisdom traditions which restrained the older societies in their use of natural resources, and which governed their relations with other human beings.

    There is also much in the traditional societies that need to be abandoned if they are to join the modern world. But the decision to do so is not for modern, urban folk to make. And the process of abandonment is not guaranteed to be painless, as we in modern urban societies surely realize as we are forced to change the ways in which we live to avoid catastrophe in the future.

  8. Sunny Says:

    The view that “traditional” societies were static is as much an illusion as the view that “modern” societies are creative. All societies are passive and active in different ways. The only way as Gautam says is through dialogue, not hurried but digested in rythms of the multiple actors involved. Nehru under advice of Verrier Elwyn wanted to leave tribal societies in their natural form in the North East. But how does one stop immigration without military intervention, how does one convince Nepalis looking for jobs, Bangladeshis looking for land to cultivate,Biharis for daily labour , Bengalis for government jobs and young among tribal societies looking to create their own modern independent enclaves.The point is that world does not give us the time to move at our own speeds.
    The large tank and water irrigation systems in South India needed cross village collaboration provided by local kings. If we were to imagine a bottom up system based on needs, by making or growing locally then moving outwards for needs like food security during famine, watershed planning, salt or clothing we need trade. Trade is as ancient as human society. If modern technology for health, satellite weather forecasting are few of the “amrit” of modern innovation one would need higher levels of cooperation beyond the control of one small community.
    With the financial meltdown people everywhere have been forced to think what are “real” needs and what creates “real” value.We live in times where the whole concept of what constitutes “progress” and “development” is open to question.The discussion we are having here is going to become mainstream soon. Wait for the “real” fireworks then.

  9. Ramsubbu Says:

    Very educative, this topic and the responses flowing in. Many dimensions are emerging. Let me add my bit!
    I would keep the “intellectual bit” out for a while and ask these questions first:
    1. A resource centre doesn’t end with a laptop and internet. Does it? Or does it require these at all to begin with?
    2. As a service centre: how many book train tickets in a month? Land transactions and certificates – probability of actually getting these done thru net is very bleak ( e-governance is still a joke.). What will be the language of these services? Tamil? Who will translate?
    3. Income generation: Reaching out to external markets before village sustainence will accelerate the class differences and doomed to be a disaster. Who will do the policing?
    4. Information: Villagers can know selling price of commodities – a popular argument for ICTs. selling price at which location? Can you get the selling price at Salem? Who from Salem will do this?
    5. Education: wonderful sites like ocw.mit.edu are there. But are they relevant to village student? language is a big problem here again. I dont know of many informative pages in Tamil. ( there is one called http://pm.tamil.net/pmfinish.html , a collection of Sangam literature and some recent books). On the other hand, internet can be quite useful to the teachers of the local schools. Will the teachers take that extra effort?
    6. Indigenous knowledge: Who will do this data collection? Who will verify? Let us not fool ourselves that traditional knowledge is always good. And who will use it?
    Finally, YOU are a resource centre already available there. Has anyone been using it from the village 🙂

  10. Peter Says:

    I’ve got no idea what to think about all this. On the one hand no culture can be static or else it would rot. Things have to move as people learn from the experiences of their lives. And I can’t help but want to share the technology that I enjoy.

    But the idea of a culture that only needs matches and salt once every six months is very appealing because I feel that even the cheese sandwich I had today has been put together, packaged, delivered and sold through a chain so complicated I can’t actually even begin to comprehend it. And don’t have enough time to try.

    I tried to teach my Grandad about the internet. But he has no use for it. I have already spent a larger proportion of my life watching skate boarding dogs on You Tube than I would have ever anticipated.

    I say to hell with the laptops. And I say it from my living room in rainy England to Sunder and Sonati in India through my wireless broadband connection that I set up with the help of a bloke in Bangalore down the phone.

  11. Sunny Says:

    Actually Ramsubbu is right on all points. If there is a village that can meet most of its needs locally for all its occupations and no one there desires the need to be connected to the outer world,and no one from the outer world desires to travel or trade with it (or occupy it as coal lies under its fields,or waters flood it because of a dam).It also needs no health inputs as no one really falls that sick.It also does not need electricity and canal water. If it is so naturally and culturally endowed and most of its denizens are Buddha like, its best to leave that heaven alone!

  12. Jayawanth, Bangalore Says:

    Dear Sunder,
    You are doing wonderful and relevant work. I had met you at Navadarshanam a few years back. I am also from IIT-B.
    India is a victim of British rule which wiped out most of the civilization and wisdom that had survived many onslaughts form outside due to heavy economic and ecological exploitation. For the skeptics, read Dharampal’s works (www.otherindiabookstore.com) and R C Dutts Eco. History of India (1901) and Roots of Underdevelopment, Kedia and Sinha. Most people would not have heard of these authors due to our ‘advanced’ western education.
    Laptops etc can arrive later if they are relevant. Non-interference from Govt. and politicians in our villages will go a long way in letting villagers decide and act based on their priorities.
    – Jayawanth

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