Merge indigenous knowledge systems with modern technology for a better planet

Traditional practices can help steer the way towards 'Aatmanirbhar Bharat'


It would be a sad day for India if it has to inherit the English scale and the English tastes so utterly unsuitable to the Indian environment.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Colonial influences have diluted the potency of a culturally bio-diverse nation such as India to the extent that people today credit Western technologies and knowledge systems as the reason for any manner of progressive development in India. It is therefore not surprising to note an excessive glorification of high-tech infrastructure and technologies in the name of modernisation when the reality, however, is the exact opposite. Recent studies render the global north responsible for 92 per cent of the prevailing climate breakdown since historical times while the contribution of the global south is a meagre 8 per cent. As per this, India alone (of the rest of the global south nations) harbours 34 per cent of the climate credit.

The concept of modernity is a construct of the human mind. There are several examples of self-sufficiency, resilience, and capacity building embedded within the social infrastructure of any nation; known to have withstood the trials of time. Ancient Indian societies were known to be far more advanced for their times; even prior to colonial infiltration. India is renowned globally for its array of diverse, regenerative, and restorative approaches to living and management of the local environment via local and contextualised native solutions. The biggest challenge associated with the utilisation of Western solutions in the global south context lies in their reduced efficiencies which stem from their biases towards the problems of the global north.

And this is where traditional and indigenous knowledge systems hold an edge.

As Christopher Alexander discusses in his book A Pattern Language, each society has its own distinct pattern language which although uniquely symbolises the essence of a potential solution to a recurrent problem within our environment; that may be utilised elsewhere without ever repeating the same way twice. Traditional and indigenous practices have been doing just that. These centuries-old practices have been evolving with time, in tune to the changing climate scenario. They symbolise a time when anthropogenic development was a perfect marriage of advancement and an innate empathy for nature.

The acknowledgment of the five elements of nature (a.k.a. Pancha bhutas) namely earth, water, fire, air, and space/ether in the cultural, economic, or spiritual wheel of life is proof of the intricate, holistic connection that Indian people share with nature. This clearly amplifies the need for a shift towards an indigenous developmental approach that coexists with nature rather than total dependence on foreign solutions to attain the same. Traditional and indigenous practices originated at a time in history when we were still deeply connected with nature. This is perhaps the biggest USP that sets them apart from Nature Based Solutions (Nbs) as the efficiency of the latter is on the efficiency with which biotic elements deliver ecosystem services. In fact, these practices are also viewed as a component of EbA (Ecosystem-Based Adaptation) like Nbs. Just like EbA and Nbs, traditional and indigenous knowledge systems too account for a cohort of benefits that are otherwise not observed in mainstream foreign technologies or conventional Nbs. Some of them include:

Fosters harmony within the community

The efficient working of practices such as Kuhls of Himachal Pradesh (gravity-based ingenious irrigation system) and Dong Bundhs of Assam (gravity-based seasonal river channelisation) can be credited to the presence of strong communal linkages and functioning in the region of implementation of these practices. Mutual understanding among the local community and a give-and-take policy ensured a successful conservation of the shared resource commons i.e. water in this scenario without compromising on anyone’s needs.

Encourage gender equality

This is mirrored in indigenous practices such as 'Akkadi Saalu' of Karnataka (rainfed intercropping system with a focus on biodiversity conservation and ecological pest management) and Sedentary Pastoralism across Kangayam grasslands. These practices not only promote gender equality and female leadership but also highlight the efficiency and productivity that may be attained when genders work in unison like a cog in the wheel.

Incorporate sustainable and localised infrastructure

The most remarkable advantage of indigenous practices is their increased dependence on native yet eco-friendly raw materials. This can be observed in the case of Meghalaya's bamboo drip irrigation system. The practice leverages the local potential of the ecosystem such as utilisation of abundantly available bamboo species, natural terrain, and gravity in order to successfully accommodate both domestic and agricultural demands. A significant outcome of this initiative includes the sustained conservation of the bamboo forests of India.

Increase in carbon sequestration and lowering of ecological footprints

One primary reason why wastewater bheris of east Kolkata wetlands offer ecological subsidies to the city of Kolkata is their ability to act as carbon sinks— locking over 60 per cent of carbon from the input wastewater. Likewise, the design of the surangams of Western Ghats (groundwater harvesting tunnels) is such that it is always low on carbon emissions for its lifetime. This is an outcome of the native vegetation with increased carbon sequestration abilities that grow overhead these tunnels.

Encourage capacity building

Collaboration and brainstorming among people have always led to the strengthening of existing approaches and the evolution of new practices. The ancient tradition of Halma, practiced by the Bhil tribes of Jhabua district, Madhya Pradesh, is an example of that. Systems like these become critical in the attempts to develop efficient and hybridised solutions with modern-day innovation. Likewise, they also enable people to take ownership of local issues and subsequently contribute to the process of planning and nation-building at their own level.

However, with rampant urbanisation and modern influence, these practices are on the verge of turning redundant while some are already redundant. This calls for an imperative need to promote and mainstream the knowledge associated with these practices to the general public. As India is set to celebrate its 77th year of Independence, indigenous and traditional practices can help steer the way towards a self-reliant or Aatmanirbhar Bharat” as quoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Efforts, therefore, need to be undertaken to equip our changemakers with resources, manpower, and information essential for mainstreaming these practices into the urban fabric of India.

The efficiency of modern-day westernised grey infrastructure is only up to the point of resolving the issue for which they were constituted. Indigenous and traditional knowledge systems, however, offer a cohort of holistic benefits; the most important of all being resilience which was clearly observed during the Covid-19 pandemic; amongst indigenous communities that still imbibe these practices. Climate change is an inevitable global phenomenon that does not harbour biases of any kind towards anyone individual or country. Collective efforts supported by cross-sectoral linkages, therefore, become extremely crucial to formulate sustainable and long-term solutions. Institutionally backed strategies, policies, and missions such as LiFE (Lifestyle For Environment), etc.; capable of imbibing these practices into the national framework formally need to be devised for strengthening and mainstreaming this knowledge.

Most importantly, understanding and deciphering the pattern established by these practices and their subsequent adaptation/replication in a different context is what we need to be looking at. One can only be enamoured by the wonders that may be achieved by the fusion of indigenous knowledge systems with modern technological advancements that are empathetic to the planet. Together we are not only moving towards (em)powering nature ecosystems to take their course but also conserving our tangible anthropogenic heritage for generations to come. Let us all, therefore, join hands towards reconnecting with our present by collaborating with our past in order to create a better future as a nation and planet.

Hitesh Vaidya is Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA). Vishnupriya Gaur is Young Professional and Manju Rajeev Kanchan is Research Associate at NIUA.

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