At the second Rural Science Congress held in Wardha (Maharashtra), on March 11 and 12, 2005, the participants were clear on how the villagers need to combat the onslaught of liberalisation and globalisation - Start using their brains again!

Organisations working in the field of rural development say that village communities are finding it difficult to keep pace with the break-neck speed of globalisation. The opening up of the country's markets to foreign investment has led to the import of capital-intensive and environmentally invasive technologies which are damaging the fragile balance of village economies. At the Congress, participants felt that besides actively promoting low-cost indigenous technologies, communities have to now start lobbying with the government for more pro-people policies.

The Congress was organised by the Magan Sangrahalaya Samiti (MSS) in Wardha (also known as the National Museum of Rural Technology, started by Mahatma Gandhi in 1938) and jointly sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology and the Council for Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology. Dr Vibha Gupta, Chairperson of MSS, said the Congress aimed to be a platform for groups working on alternative science and technologies.

The first day of the Congress was reserved for group discussions and presentations on topics like organic farming, alternative energy, alternative housing, conservation and forest development. Various groups came up with common suggestions - like the need for the rural masses to "use their brains again" instead of blindly adopting new technologies imposed from outside and adopting a subsistence-oriented approach rather than a market-dependent approach.

One common point that emerged during every discussion was that the village today is a virtual 'slave' of the city. It depends on it for power, water, markets, transport and educational and employment opportunities. The entire legal, economic, educational, marketing and transport system of the city is out to crush the village's self-sufficiency. Alternative and sustainable technologies are present in the villages, but the lack of policy support is the biggest hurdle in their path. The need of the hour is protection against competition from expensive capital-centric technologies, said some of the speakers.

Narendra Dube, who spoke on behalf of the alternative energy group, said that the eco-friendly small scale power-generation potential of the rural sector was greater than that of all the big dams in the country put together. The 'bullock technology', for instance, can be used to generate power to run computers, he said. Dube felt that energy sources like biogas, solar, wind and micro hydel energy are in need of protection at the policy level. But sadly, the entire legal, marketing and transport systems are against these sources of energy.

Energy saving household gadgets like solar cookers, manual mixer-grinders and washing machines, and a large variety of innovative stoves have been around for years, but have hardly found a foothold in the market.
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Chandrakant Pathak, Pune-based retired mechanical engineer, stunned the audience by displaying his power-generating innovations. Using a pair of bulls, pulleys and transformers connected to a device, Pathak claimed he could generate energy for computers and sound systems, sprinkler irrigation systems, oil and flour mills and recharging batteries. "A single phase 240 Volt air conditioner can be run by two bullocks," claimed Pathak. A bull can also be used to generate enough electricity to keep eight-10 streetlights running for most of the night.

Innovator David said that most of the low-cost inventions did not make it to the market because of fear of duplication, as the patent process did not provide sufficient protection. Manufacturers preferred to invest in costly but more 'visible' imported technology than experiment with indigenous innovations, he felt. "Energy saving household gadgets like solar cookers, manual mixer-grinders and washing machines and a large variety of innovative stoves have been around for years, but have hardly found a foothold in the market. The agriculture sector is facing the same problem with tractors and other huge machines pushing out the smaller, low cost machinery," he said.

All the presentations stressed the need for use of technologies which are cheap, simple and involve local resource utilisation. A demand was also raised for an alternative marketing system in place of the government-dependent one now in force.

On the second day of the Congress, Suman Sahai, President, Gene Campaign, an organisation creating awareness on the impact of genetic modification, said that the rights of the rural and tribal communities were being destroyed by global agencies bent upon turning the country's biodiversity into an economic resource. She said that while the Plant Varieties Protection and Farmers' Rights Act (the only legislation of its kind in the world) is not being implemented, the government has introduced the Draft Seed Bill, which seeks to heavily dilute the farmer-friendly clauses of the former.

Sahai also spoke against the government's move to promote genetically modified (GM) crops, while the country already had so much agro-biodiversity. Sahai said that it's a myth that GM crops will solve the country's food problem. Most of the GM crops cultivated in India - BT cotton, canola and soyabean - are either not edible or hardly have a place in our food culture. "How can these crops boost our food security?" she asked.

Dr Mira Shiva, Director of Delhi-based Voluntary Health Association of India, said at the Congress that privatisation of the health sector was breaking down the country's public health system. The approach of private companies was purely curative, not preventive. Given the fact that tropical areas were more prone to epidemics, this approach, which did not include vital preventive measures like compulsory and free or subsidised vaccination, could result in massive epidemic outbreaks in future.

Shiva said privatisation had also raised the cost of health care alarmingly, making medical care the second greatest cause of rural indebtedness. In the absence of clear patent laws, private companies were patenting products of indigenous knowledge, thereby delegitimising its original practitioners. Pharmaceuticals dominating the health sector has resulted in the loss of our indigenous food culture. "Health workers know all about dosages and nutritional supplements" she said, "but not about nutritious food." (Women's Feature Service)