May 30, 2020
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Knowledge As Weapon

Ordinary working people have the capacity to learn, to collect information, to look at it analytically, and eventually use it for bettering their own lives. This is, or should be, the central objective of "education". Instead, we have didactic instru

Knowledge As Weapon

It was some 30 years ago, in the mid-70s, that we got a glimpse of what the future might hold. We had just purchased 2 acres of land to build a workshop on, in the district of Shahdol in Madhya Pradesh. There had been some argument with the neighbouring owner about where exactly the boundary lay. So one day we dragged out the iron chain that surveyors use, and began measuring the land ourselves. A curious shepherd boy must have witnessed the proceedings, because next day a delegation of solemn farmers from the nearby village paid us a visit. They had heard that we were engineers, they explained, so could we teach them how to measure land? Why, we asked, whatever will you do with it? Well, they explained, the patwari (the government revenue functionary at the village) had been demarcating their lands and they were never sure whether he was doing it right. So we spent the next four hours demonstrating how the chain worked and how to calculate the area. In the process, of course, we began to learn that the chain was called a jareeb, the area was rakba, the khasra number referred to the record in the revenue department, their title was the patta, and the patwari presided over a khatauni in which all secrets were well documented. 

A week later, the same delegation was back, but looking less solemn and more brashly conspiratorial. Could they borrow our jareeb? We handed over the chain and then, not a little puzzled ourselves, we followed them at a discreet distance. In due course, we arrived at the village and a curious spectacle greeted us. On the farms of the village, the patwari was laying out his chain, and wherever he went, the farmers followed with their borrowed jareeb and laid it out in exactly the same manner. At every halt they would watch the patwari and when he began to enter figures in his notebook, they too would whip out a pencil and scribble on a piece of paper. Rarely had we seen a more harassed looking patwari! At the end of the day, the delegation was back again, beaming from ear to ear. Thank you for the hathiyaar (weapon), they told us, and handed back the jareeb. Can we, we asked them, see what you wrote? They took out their smudged piece of paper and showed it to us. It was covered with a series of numbers in meaningless disorder. But, they grinned, they had taken care not to show it to the patwari

This theme of knowledge as weapon has come back to us many times in the last three decades. In the mid-80s, a small party from the Palamau district of Bihar knocked on our door. Could we come to their village and see what the proposed dam on the Auranga river was going to do to their area? We said yes, but provided they were able to wrangle a copy of the DPR (Detailed Project Report) of the dam. Oh, no problem, they remarked, the irrigation department chaprasi (peon) was from their village. So, three weeks later, we were rambling across the farmlands of Palamau inspecting the river and its catchment and comparing it to what was written in the DPR. We were faced with a battery of questions. Look at that river, exclaimed the villagers, do you think it can carry as much water as to irrigate all the lands the department is claiming it will? And can you see the silt in it; how long will it take for the dam to fill up? The department says that this village will come under submergence, and that one will not, when we can clearly see that this village is higher than that one! How can we challenge their views? 

We took four days to instruct a batch of 20 young boys from the surrounding villages how to measure the flow in the river, the silt load that it carried, and the slope of the land. With that, they said, they would be able to take on the project’s claims of projected irrigation, the life of the dam, and the extent of submergence. On the last evening, as we were packing to leave the next morning, they eyed us suspiciously. Where, they asked, pointing to the "dumpy" (a kind of telescopic instrument that is used to measure levels), are you taking that? Well, we said, this is our instrument and we are taking it back; if you want one you will have to get it for yourselves. How much does it cost, they queried, and where is it available? The nearest place, we explained, would be Ranchi and it would cost about Rs 3000. And then we retired for the night. Only to be woken up by an exuberant hammering on the door very early the next morning. Here, they said, is Rs 3000 collected from donations by all the villagers, and you can go and buy the dumpy yourself; otherwise how will we fight a yuddh (war) without an astra (weapon)? 

That the yuddh was joined became clear to us when, four months later, a parcel arrived with the postman. It contained a sheaf of papers containing the records of three months of daily measurement. We went to work on the data and came up with some very interesting findings indeed. The river, for instance, carried only half as much water in the monsoon months as the DPR claimed it did. This water also bore a silt load one-and-a-half times that of the figure reported in the project proposal. 25 villages were actually coming into the submergence zone, demarcated by following the full reservoir contour, as compared to the 19 acknowledged by the project authorities. When all these were factored into the calculations the benefits actually came to less than the costs! This was going to be one very unviable dam indeed, we informed the people of Auranga. They, in turn, took the report and propagated it all over the area through posters and leaflets, while the English version was duly sent off to the governments, the media, the courts, and even the World Bank. Today, fifteen years later, the Auranga river remains unbound. 

In the mid-90s, we had another set of visitors, but this time from the high ranges of Kullu district in Himachal Pradesh. Their villages and hamlets were being threatened by the declaration of the Great Himalayan National Park. What exactly was this Park, they asked, and how could they protect their families? So, two months later, armed with the relevant documents and reports, we pitched camp in their village. A young bunch of grazers and farmers listened attentively as we explained how the government had commissioned a study in the 80s and how this study, conducted by a pair of specialists from the Pheasant Society in the UK and Canada, had come to the conclusion that only by declaring the Park as a protected area could the rare Western Himalayan Tragopan (a ground-dwelling bird) be saved. And then, as we presented the details of the study, the listeners grew restive. No, they protested, it is not possible for the Tragopan to be disturbed by our herds because it nests in late winter and our grazers go up only in late spring. Even that figure of 25,000 animals is wrong, they objected, our numbers rarely cross 12,000. And it is not us who destroy the herbs, but the Nepali labourers from the Terai, who are unfamiliar with alpine ecology and are hired by the traders in the plains. 

We suggested to them then that they should do their own study and compare their findings with what had been reported by the foreign experts. Very well, they responded immediately, tell us how to do the study. So, for the next two days, we demonstrated to them how to draw transects and conduct animal counts, how to document the diversity of grasses and shrubs, and how to systematically record their observations. As soon as the snows melted, six of them headed towards the alpine meadows, following the same route that the scientists had taken ten years earlier. Two porters who had been taken along to ferry the supplies to base camp (at heights of over 3000 metres, one does not run into the occasional tea shop or restaurant!), became so familiar with the routines of measurement that they eventually became part of the study team. Six weeks later they returned, armed with a range of documented observations. A detailed examination of their records showed that they had successfully challenged every one of the findings of the government-sponsored study. In addition, their measurements indicated what was the carrying capacity of the meadows, how ruminants were in fact controlling weed infestation, and how the herbs could be harvested within the boundaries of conservation. 

This much, then, is certain: people fight their struggles for survival based on what knowledge they can create. Each one of the reports and studies cited above (and numerous others that have not been documented in both rural and urban areas) indicates that ordinary working people have the capacity to learn, to collect information, to look at it analytically, and eventually use it for bettering their own lives. This is, or should be, the central objective of "education". And yet, these are simple (and yet very complex) tasks that are not undertaken by our educational institutions. Didactic instruction, memorising by rote, and vomiting out useless information for futile examinations constitute the fundamentals of what passes for education in our schools and colleges. Perhaps there is a purpose to it all. Perhaps another Macaulay is required to explain it to us in yet another Minute. And perhaps, in some not too distant future, a group of young labourers will learn to document their own lives to tear this farce to pieces.

A graduate (and post-graduate) from IIT Bombay, Dunu Roy heads Hazard Centre in New Delhi.

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