The theory of imperfect beginnings will become evident when I describe the birth of the Honey Bee Network and the institutions and initiatives that it spawned. The articulation of natural, social, ethical and intellectual capital took place on a platform that precipitated the historical iniquity in the knowledge economy. Imperfect beginnings imply working with insufficient advance information. ‘Paralysis through Analysis’ is almost completely avoided in such an action-research approach to life and learning. One makes improvements in the strategy incrementally, without having to be sure in advance. This also means one accepts being vulnerable as a normal situation for a learner. It’s possible this vulnerability may also make one hungrier for even small insights, than would have been the case otherwise. In perceiving a potential for change, the hope for finding an innovation becomes more feasible—all because of imperfect beginnings. How do we really know whether we will find any innovation or not in advance of the shodhyatras? But the faith, or rather the hope, that there will be some people who will pass a vote of no confidence in the status quo of inertia, keeps us moving.
In 1980, while pursuing research in drought-prone Mahendragarh, I witnessed how the interplay between communication and power influenced the way farmers in the informal sector, and extension workers and scientists in the formal sector, communicated with each other. The matrix of one-way communication, two-way communication and no-way communication on one side, with one-way power, two-way power and no-way power shows the dilemma involved in this interface. As I became aware of how communication and power were enmeshed, the asymmetry of power between the formal and informal sectors of knowledge, technology and institutions also became more apparent to me.
Two-way communication, two-way power will mean farmers can correct scientists’ research agenda, and scientists can shape that of farmers.
One-way communication, one-way power is a highly authoritarian model in which those who rule decide what is communicated. The recipient has to receive the said communication passively. Two-way communication and one-way power could be a situation wherein a teacher may listen to the feedback of the students, but ultimately exercises his or her authority to decide which feedback to act upon and which to ignore. The possibility of someone having power and not asserting or communicating it is almost zero. If one has power, then it will flow through communication. On the other hand, one-way communication and two-way power is a possible situation in a democratic election in which the leaders may convey their agenda and the voters may show their power through voting.
Next, one-way communication with no power flow either way represents a tom-tom beater (an announcer on a railway station, or any public place) who announces messages without any power to influence the actual content or its interpretation. Another example of this dynamic is people who manage propaganda dissemination without having the power to influence the content.
Two-way communication and two-way power is perhaps the most sustainable, democratic arrangement. Mao Tse-tung called this the mass-line concept. The brigade was accountable to the commune and vice versa. The two-way power makes it democratic and two-way communication makes it humanitarian. The Honey Bee Network has tried to evolve into a social movement with such norms of horizontal and vertical accountability.
Gandhiji called a similar approach the gram swaraj in which the village community was expected to resolve a lot of common issues through collective will and mutual respect, without direction or interference from higher levels of authority.
In our context, two-way communication—two-way power will mean farmers, or industrial innovators at the grassroots level, will have the power to comment upon and correct, if need be, the research agendas designed by scientists, technologists and firms, and vice versa—that is, scientists and technologists will also have the power to shape the agenda of farmer-experimenters.
The lab-to-land initiative will become a land-to-lab and back to land movement. Mutual learning will become a crucial indicator of power on both sides, playing a key role in keeping bidirectional communication flowing. In 1986, during the valedictory function at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council, I had asked a question: Will R&D leaders monitor the number of experiments started, stopped or modified in the wake of feedback from small farmers and their families? This question is often not asked and thus two-way power is not allowed to manifest when concrete decisions are to be taken. Many leaders want a participative culture in their organisations, but don’t wish to share power with the grassroots level and thus, deny themselves the benefit that could come from the ideas of the people at the shop floor or community level.
Later, while conducting a study on matching farmers’ concerns with technologists’ objectives in 1984, I realised there was systematic bias in scientists’ perceptions about what they thought were the farmers’ needs. For instance, scientists tended to focus on the role played by a specific crop or its variety at a particular time, in isolation of its linkage with other enterprises of the farmers. Farmers, like most of us, looked at their portfolio.
A windmill improvised by villagers
Similarly, scientists paid less attention in the early years to both quantity and quality of fodder even in dry regions, whereas the farmers knew that their survival depended upon livestock, particularly in drought years. Therefore, it was not surprising that the farmers’ traditional varieties were much larger and with higher fodder content and quality than the modern crop varieties, in the case of millets and sorghum. There were many other disjunctions in the respective perceptions and responses to the environmental challenges noted in the economy. Some of the international centres of agricultural research eventually learnt these simple facts after spending millions of dollars and initiating largescale surveys over the years.
[...] I was invited to Bangladesh in 1985, by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI). This summons came through the International Commonwealth Conference on Land Use Planning that was organised at IIMA by Professor Gopinath in 1984. I had presented a paper on the socio-ecology of land use planning. One participant, Dr Motlabur Rehman, director of BARI, took that paper and shared it with Mr Anisuzzaman, secretary of agriculture of the government of Bangladesh. The secretary was well travelled within the country but had rarely travelled abroad. He read the paper and felt that I should be invited to reorient the agriculture research process in the country.
In Bangladesh, the interaction with the scientists, farmers, workers, tenants and policymakers taught me a lot about survival under high-risk conditions. With 60 per cent people being landless, the creativity I noticed in their practices was inspiring. For example, the secretary noticed that fresh tomatoes were being sold in the market during off season. Such a thing had never happened before. He sent a message to BARI to find out how the farmers had managed to accomplish this feat. A team was then sent to the villages from where tomatoes were being marketed. What they learnt was an interesting lesson in ingenuity.
The farmers had hung the uprooted tomato plants upside down, with unripe tomatoes, on a rope in a dark place. Anyone can do an experiment and see how by putting tomatoes upside down (stem side below), one can slow down their maturity. The flow of ethylene, which induces maturity and brings redness in the skin of tomatoes, is slowed when they are hung upside down. A very low-cost, frugal, scientific method had been developed to lengthen the maturity period of tomatoes and thus give the farmers the advantage of higher prices during off season.