Upturning the Knowledge Hierarchy

Pathbreaking ideas come from a keen observation and engagement with the ground. So why are children and grassroots workers kept out of knowledge communities?

LILA: Please tell us about the Honey Bee Network and its genesis…

Anil Gupta: Honey Bee Network has essentially emerged out of a great degree of unease that I had with regard to the relationship between the formal sector (people like me, intellectuals, the academia) and the informal sector knowledge of the common people. It seemed that we were no different from the exploiters such as landlords from the land market, or traders from the commodity market. We were simply exploiters of the knowledge market. In no conference do you see someone taking notes from another person’s talk and becoming the author of that information. But academics tend to do that. They become the author of the ideas they collect from people, and just by weaving them into a narrative, they think they own it. There has been, and still is, a lot of such exploitation and asymmetrical relationship between the knowledge of the common people from the informal sector, and the knowledge of the formal sector. So this was the reason why the Honey Bee Network emerged in the late 1980s, using the metaphor of Honey Bee as cross-pollination. Because we connect ourselves globally, but we do not connect people from one place to another. We realise the value of cross-cultural communications and connections, but when it comes to people from whom we learn, we keep them hidden so that the other researchers don’t go there and mess up our own research. I think this is unethical, unprofessional, unfair, unjust, and absolutely not acceptable.

So, the people that we learn from became anonymous, while we became famous. Rarely would you find in ethno-botanical or ethno-zoological or ethno-biological literature, people interviewed being acknowledged by name and address. If they had any right over this knowledge – whether intellectual property, or copyright, or any other form – it was usurped.

The second reason that motivated the establishment of this network was that we never shared with them what we did with the knowledge they gave us. As a researcher, you are required to take the consent of the people whom you interview, but when it comes to villagers, you think you have a God-given right to interview them and take their knowledge. You will always take consent of professionals, because you know that they are your peers, so they can identify and sensor your unethical behaviour. But such people are supposed to be exploited, you know. So, you take their knowledge, don’t ever share your finding with them in their local knowledge, and they don’t gain from your research at all, none of which is fair.

Finally, if I get to present my talk somewhere and get some money out of it, did I get it because I am a great speaker or because of the content I presented? If the content is great, then it is not just my packaging that got me this money, but also the value of the content. But then what did these people get out of it?

All these asymmetries are what we have decided to overcome through the Honey Bee Network. And that is what we have tried to do.

LILA: What have your interactions with the innovators been like? You have also started shodhyatras to find such innovators across the country. Can you tell us more about that as well?

Anil Gupta: A lot of people have trusted us. We got so much more knowledge from people when they realised that they were getting acknowledgements, credit, and also other benefits that came along with it. And also, when they realised that we were spending from our pockets, but not gaining from that. Slowly word got around and people have started understanding and accepting us. They were watching us anyway; we were always in the public eye. So trust, or in other words, the social and ethical capital of the Network, started growing. We could go anywhere in the country, and by and large the people we met were kind – even those who had never heard of us. That is how we started doing shodyatras. In the summer we would go to places that were hot, and in winter, to places which were cold. So, if in summer you go to a place with temperatures like 47 degrees Celsius, at a time when even the locals don’t venture out, they realise that we are not picnic-goers; that we have come here for a purpose, and they deal with us fairly.

In this way, the Network also opened a lot of hearts, where people poured out their pain, and the process of overcoming their pain. We discovered that poor people are not poor in everything. They are not poor in the mind. So, through the quote I put in my book – “Minds on the margins are not marginal minds” – my argument was that poor people are not poor in everything. In fact, in spirit, hospitality, and ethics, they may be at the top of the pyramid.

Our language shapes the habit of thought, as linguists have always said. So, when we say BOP – Bottom of the Pyramid – I ask, are they at the bottom of the ethical pyramid? Are you implying that pyramids are only material pyramids? Will you only talk about the pyramid in which they are at the bottom, like the economic pyramid? What about the other pyramids? Somehow, this language is lapped up by the people. My contention is, if we focus on what poor people lack, we will always make them dependant, and this patron-client relationship will always be reinforced. But if we recognise the things at which they are strong – like how do we get more out of less? How do we cope with the climatic risks? There is so much uncertainty and so much risk, and yet they manage to break even, or at least survive – how? How do you get resilience? To survive against odds requires tremendous resilience, experimentation, and innovation. It became obvious that they had no choice but to experiment, create and innovate. So, lots of ideas started emerging. People had solved problems of pest control, people had solved problems of life stock management, decreasing milk production, keeping animals healthy, using bio-waste in a productive manner, using energy efficiently. For example, they will make a barbeque out of cow dung on a jute stick, so you can insert it when you need more fire, or take it out when you don’t. This is a very economic use of cow dung; very efficient design. But you wouldn’t design this if you didn’t have scarcity. They innovated because they had to deal with scarcity. And therefore, frugal innovations emerge in the environment of scarcity, and not abundance. The lesson is if you have abundance, create artificial scarcity for your mind to work. That is why, when we go on shodhyatras, we sleep on the ground and live with as little as possible, so that the gap between our life and theirs reduces for the time we are there. Our mind starts looking at things that otherwise we might miss.

LILA: You meet native artists during the yatras, but also work in a place that produces CEOs of corporate companies, how do you bridge these experiences?

Anil Gupta: I recently got back from a shodhyatra trip to Kullu, where I had taken my students. To sit for this course, they have to bid so many points and give up so many other courses, because there is a total of around 500 students a year, but I take only 25. And what do they get on joining this course? Suffering at my hands. I make them walk the mountains, sometimes without food, and they have to face the rain, leeches bite them. On top of that, they also bear the entire cost. They have to pay for everything from travel to food. So when I tell them, you know you are paying to suffer, they say they are also getting to learn so much. As long as that realisation is there, it is good.

The thing is these fellows will rule the company or wherever they go to work. That time somewhere this doubt should remain. At the end of the day, they should remember that these are the people who had taught them certain lessons of generosity, simplicity, frugality, conservation of nature. They see in the forests where we go, people using firewood, but we don’t see too many trees being cut. Instead they notice the villager using dead wood or something like that. The villagers could also grow rich by cutting the forest, but they restrain their needs because they conserve, and they love it this way. So somewhere or the other, they learn these kinds of lesson. There are four teachers from whom they are supposed to learn – teacher within, teacher in their peers, teacher in nature and teacher amongst common people. Who learns from whom and what is up to them.

LILA: While you observe such frugality in the field, where conservation is a strong driving force, most businesses disregard innovations that limit themselves, or cannot be scaled up. What are the possibilities of addressing this seeming dichotomy of scale vs need in the industry? Are there any ideas you can share with us, which will make it possible for your students to carry these insights into their professions?

Anil Gupta: The trade-off between things and thought is natural to grassroots innovators. When things occupy our mind, the space for thought is reduced. But the grassroots innovators have frugal means and resources. Because they live a frugal life, they intuitively know what circular economy is. They tend to use second-hand parts in their innovations. They can afford only those parts, so they make the most out of it. By carefully selecting parts that still have utility, they become both economic and environment-friendly.  If that is the case, then why don’t we develop regulatory policy around this practice? But no regulatory agency will approve devices made like that. So all of this remains legitimate but illegal, and the resultant innovations don’t get registered. They don’t get finance from the bank. They don’t get subsidy on machinery and material artefacts. So, there are lot of problems in this journey; a lot of things we haven’t been able to solve as yet.

LILA: Speaking of looking at things differently, many of the innovations Honey Bee Network has discovered come from young minds. Does this present a compelling case to re-understand our conception of a child and childhood? What could be the implications of this on child policies, education policies, etc.?

As we moved along, we have recognised that children can be very creative. In fact, all children are born creative. It is only with the passage of time that they learn to accept and adapt to constraints. One of my favourite beliefs is that children are not a sink for sermons, but a source of ideas. We, at the Honey Bee Network, have gotten children of class 4 onwards to do research! We have also organised children’s creativity workshops. In one such workshop, we asked the children to tell us the uses of cycle other than for transportation and carrying of goods, so the obvious answers were out. And in about 15 minutes, in front of my eyes, they came up with 20 different applications ranging from ploughing the land to charging the motor, pumping the water, etc. It was amazing to see the possibilities these children came up with in just half an hour. If they haven’t done this before, it is not because they lack the knowledge, but because they have never been provoked. We think they are children so we reduce our expectations. But they can and they have solved problems. Honey Bee Network has unequivocally and repeatedly proved this point.

Once a group of children had gone to a potter’s workshop to study how they make earthen pots. When they came back, they said, “Okay professor, we are going to ask you some questions now.” They often mimic the way I speak to them. I said alright. “Tell us one thing which should be improved in the potters’ cycle of work to improve their productivity.” I gave an answer related to the wheel, but they said “no.” I gave another answer related to the furnace, they still said “no.” After a few tries, I gave up. This was happening in front of all the children there; the professor was being taken to task. You know what the answer turned out to be – sieving of clay. That is what takes the potter the most time. And I tell you, I had never thought about it! They were right. From the physics point of view, all particles should be the same size, otherwise if there are bigger and smaller particles together, there will be air space and it’ll leak. They said if you could design a good sieve for soil, that’ll improve the potters’ productivity. How were they able to observe this? Why didn’t I observe it? That is the point.

Their mind is not cluttered. It could identify the problem exactly. Maybe I had observed this, but just didn’t pay attention because I was already prejudiced in thinking about the wheel, or other mechanical things. I didn’t pay attention to all the steps in the process, which they did, because they had no knowledge of how pots are made. So, their ignorance became their advantage.

Like this, I have met a large number of children who are tremendously creative, simply because they don’t know any other way. Now that we have observed this, why don’t we tap into it? Which is to say, why don’t we start the innovation ecosystem early? Not because you are trying to make them learn something, but because you want to make them a partner in the problem solving process. They will learn, that is there. But more than them, I am learning. Every such example teaches me a lot about what I did not think. Every innovation we have recognised so far with the children proves how much we don’t know. To that extent, our humility index goes up a little bit, and arrogance comes down.

Now, if you look at any textbook of CBSE or NCERT, how many lessons will you find about innovation? Why don’t we have them? For the last 30 years we have proved that people can solve problems on their own. All this while, why have educationists and planners not been able to include these stories of grassroots innovators in their curriculum, to show children the possibilities of innovation and creativity? 

LILA: The innovators engaged with Honey Bee Network are able to identify and respond to various problems they sense in their surroundings, no matter their degree of education or age. From your experience of working with such a diverse group of thinkers, producing solutions of wide-ranging complexities, can you share your observations about being innovative and how this can be encouraged and nurtured amongst individuals?

Anil Gupta: The Honey Bee Network has influenced policy. We created the District Innovation Fund, not that it worked very well. We also set up the National Innovation Foundation, out of the Honey Bee Network, which has worked well to a large extent. We created the first incubator, Gyaan, in 1997. SRISTI was set up in 1993. So we created a whole pathway for innovations to go forward without a template. To work without a model is what brings the best out of us. Models are the problem, particularly if you take them as a gospel truth. For instance, a scholar is not taken seriously unless they have at least ten citations in their write up. So essentially what we are teaching you is that you have to create a scaffolding of ideas and then climb on top of that scaffolding, only then will you become visible. If you stand on your feet without that scaffolding, nobody will notice you. But if you have a good idea that nobody has talked about before, what do you do? Where do you get references? If you don’t get a reference, should it be impossible to publish? It would seem so. The question we are thus dealing with is how do we promote originality? How do we promote people who make breakthroughs in life? Breakthroughs come partly from your inner and outer worlds being in sync. But only partly. There must always be a gap. A small schizophrenia is a good thing. If you are completely aligned, that means you have gained yourself. There is nothing nasty, mischievous or silly left in your life. How can that be? Thoughts and ideas often come to our mind, but we don’t always have control over them. That means there is a gap between what we think and what we want to say. That gap is good. It tells me that there is work to be done; that I need to reflect on something. Then, our imperfections become an asset. After all, even gold needs impurities to be able to hold a diamond in it. Our strength doesn’t lie in not having impurities or weaknesses, but in our ability to accept those impurities and still be able to create something beautiful.

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