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The dramatic scientific advances enjoyed by India's urban elite have passed the country's rural poor by, reports T. V. Padma.

Driving along a dusty, pot-holed highway in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh it would be easy to miss Bahadurpur Jais among the golden mustard fields that bloom there in winter.

The tiny village consists of a cluster of mud huts, a few buffaloes, some wells that are going dry, and tiny roadside stalls selling tea, biscuits, tyres, cement bags and the like. Continuous electricity, clean drinking water and basic sanitation are luxuries that few here can afford.

Daily struggles notwithstanding, Bahadurpur Jais had an air of festivity on a February afternoon this year. Two important guests were about to visit — India's science minister Kapil Sibal and local parliamentarian Rahul Gandhi, of the Nehru-Gandhi family that has produced three of India's prime ministers.

The villagers and many others from the surrounding area sat patiently under a colourful marquee, waiting for the VIPs. In the next marquee sat the reason for the visit — India's first rural technology fair, waiting to be formally opened by Gandhi and Sibal.

When Sibal arrived he got straight to the point. "Mahatma Gandhi said India lives in its villages," he told the villagers. But more than them, it is India's policymakers who need reminding. "The progress we should witness in villages is not seen. In villages farmers don't even get the basic needs. We have erred somewhere," Sibal said.

Refocusing on the rural

It was the second time this year that Sibal had voiced concern about the country's growing urban-rural divide. At the Indian science congress in Hyderabad in January, he urged Indian scientists to end their bias towards industrial and high-tech applications, and focus instead on researching technologies for the rural poor.

Also at the science congress, India's prime minister Manmohan Singh predicted that the "real architects and builders of modern India" would be those whose research addresses the needs for development and job creation in rural areas (see Indian government says science needs rural focus).

It is not that Indian scientists have not developed technologies for rural areas. Indeed, the three-day exhibition in Bahadurpur Jais included some 200 stalls showcasing technologies appropriate for rural needs. These included a smokeless clay stove, water purifiers, herbal medicines and technologies for storing or processing farm produce.

But what is missing, says one science ministry official, is a people-oriented approach for developing and delivering such technologies.

A forgotten people

With the exception of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, which tries to ensure that seeds for promising crop varieties reach farmers, few government departments bother to identify and deliver technologies to rural India.

"Sixty per cent of our rural people live in primitive conditions," says Anil Rajvanshi, director of the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute, a non-governmental organisation in Phaltan, Maharashtra.

"They use kerosene lanterns for light and cook with biomass stoves that have been used for thousands of years. Modern technology has not touched their lives," he says.

Mahatma Gandhi himself highlighted the need to harness science for rural areas in 1935 when he initiated a 'science for people' movement. But this and later efforts were swept away during the post-independence era, which focused on urban technologies, according to Amulya Reddy, a former scientist with the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore who later founded the non-governmental organisation International Energy Initiative.

The 1970s witnessed some attempts to redress the balance. In 1974, for instance, the Indian Institute of Science set up a unit for the Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas.

Now called the Centre for Sustainable Technologies, it adopted a bottom-up approach — first identifying the needs and then developing technologies, and not expecting the rural poor to articulate their needs through a formal market mechanism as they do not have the purchasing power.

The technological revolution taking
place in India's cities has largely
bypassed rural areas
Credit: IRD / Barbary

Government institutions also developed a small number of rural technologies but, according to Rajvanshi, the majority were unsuccessful because the scientists involved did not understand the realities of rural life. Also, he says, the institutions did not link up with the corporate world, so the technologies were not produced and distributed on a large scale.

More recently, there have been several efforts, such as the Honey Bee Network, which records and shares traditional knowledge. Set up in 1989 by Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, Honey Bee has documented more than 10,000 rural innovations. To turn some of these ideas into commercial ventures, Gupta founded the Gujarat Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN) in 1997.

Rural technology fairs

In 2000, India set up the National Innovation Foundation to help identify grassroots innovations and promote their wider use. Now, as part of the government's focus on rural development, the science ministry has initiated some of its own measures. One is to organise fairs-cum-exhibitions on rural technologies in various parts of India, beginning in Bahadurpur Jais.

The aim is to present rural communities with a range of technologies to help them choose a sustainable source of income, to bring producers and users of such technologies together, and to initiate a people-centred technology campaign in rural India, says the science ministry.

The products on display relate to newer irrigation techniques, safe drinking water, preventive medicine, animal health care, and materials for low-cost housing.

Indian children use cows to draw water from a well to irrigate fields
Credit: IRD / Carrière


The government hopes the exhibitions will go beyond stalls displaying posters and products, to live demonstrations, films showing technologies in use, interactive sessions, and the participation of banks giving loan advice to farmers.

At the Bahadurpur Jais exhibition, Sibal announced another new initiative — a one-million rupee (US$22,300) prize for scientists who develop technologies for rural areas, to be presented annually by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.

But for scientists vying for international patents and peer-reviewed journal honours, it remains to be seen how much of a lure this will be.

Back in January, at the science congress, Sibal said Indian scientists had lost track of the nation's priorities by competing with their Western counterparts.

He said that Indian scientists tend to focus on "whatever is urban, industrial, high-technology, capital-intensive, appropriate for temperate climates and marketed and exported …to the neglect of what is rural, agricultural, low-technology, labour-intensive, appropriate for tropical climates, retained by households and locally consumed."

Rajvanshi says another problem is that people who work in scientific and industrial establishments do not live in rural areas, so do not understand rural problems.

School's out

So can rural India produce its own scientists and innovators? Science teaching is a mammoth task in rural communities, despite people being interested in the subject and appreciative of its potential.

Take the case of the Shukul Bazaar region in the next district to Bahadurpur Jais. It needs 50 schools, but only has 21 — including some in makeshift warehouses and tin sheds. One school has 305 students taught by five teachers, including two parents who volunteered to help. Without a science teacher, the head teacher fills the role. 

"My village school has classes only up to age 13. The same teacher teaches all subjects in all classes, by turn," says student Malik Mohammad, one of the young people who visited the exhibition in the hope of finding avenues for jobs or developing entrepreneurial skills.

There are no science colleges in Shukul Bazaar, so some students have to travel 40 kilometres to study science in the town of Rae Bareily. But most opt out instead.

The first India Science Report, released in 2005 by the National Council of Applied Economic Research, says that although people in all sections of society want to study science, the poor and those living in the countryside miss out because it is too expensive and they lack the infrastructure, among other factors.

It was not only students who attended the Bahadurpur Jais science fair. Many curious families crowded in to visit too. Most of the men were keen to know about post-harvest technologies, new irrigation techniques and water purifiers, but were taken aback when I asked the veiled women about their views on the fair.

"We could not understand much of it," Ramadevi confided shyly. "But I liked the smokeless stove — it will make life much easier for us women." The men, uninterested in stoves and cooking, hustled the women out.

Towards the exit sat two representatives of a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation noting details in a register — people's names, addresses, what technology interested them, what financial loans they would need.

The register will be sent to Delhi for follow-up by the government. "I promise you we will come to you ourselves," Sibal told the gathering. The future will tell whether village India gets what has been promised.