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Adventures in Aipotu
By Sanat Mohanty
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Adventures in Aipotu: Episode 12, Part 2

"I see what you are saying", Damini said. "By observing a system, we change how the system behaves."

"Though there are some 'scientific systems' -- such as in the quantum regime -- that change when a student observes them, most 'mechanical' systems are not affected by the process of studying them. However societies and people are", Sophie pointed out. "Further, the human communities are not particularly given to be treated as machines --- you cannot break them into simpler pieces, study each piece and then put them all together. There are too many complex relationships between each of the pieces."

"So I understand that modern scientific methods are not given to studying societies though they are good for helping us gain knowledge about how things work", Damini said after a long pause.

"That is correct", Sophie said nodding her head vigorously. "And yet, we continue to use such methods to make decisions about how society must progress. For example, it is appropriate that we study how a windmill works, or how a dam works, or how anything else works by mechanistic approach. However, if we use mechanistic approach to acquire knowledge about how human society will interact with these things, then the knowledge we gain from such a study will be flawed if not incomplete. If we decide to base our policies – our ideas of how society should organize itself – with respect to this thing then we will be making a mistake."

"And you think that the younger folks in the Bishko community are making such a mistake?", Damini asked. "Yes", "So how do we gain knowledge about societies?", Damini queried.

"For one", Sophie replied, "when we claim that 'scientific' knowledge is the only way of acquiring knowledge, we ensure that other knowledge gained by traditional means is not valued. Thus, the importance of herbs and local medicines that has been understood over centuries of experience is pooh-poohed as superstition." "So does this mean that there is no superstition?", Damini asked, a little confused. "No", Sophie answered patiently. "Everything that folks claim to know on the basis of traditional knowledge is not valid. However, we can't throw the baby with the bath water. There is value in the traditional knowledge that we may disrespect but only at our own expense."

There was a pause. Damini was thinking over what Sophie had been saying, while Sophie wondered whether she was saying too many difficult things to this little girl. But it was necessary. She shook her head and continued, "Further, when these other forms of knowledge are said to be useless, one also makes the choices and decisions of the communities that value such knowledge as worthless."

At this point, they had come to a large intersection. On one corner of the intersection was an open mud-baked platform. There were a number of people sitting there talking animatedly. One woman who seemed to know Sophie waved her hands and called them over. Leaving the road, Sophie and Damini walked over to the gathering. There were three men sitting on chairs around a small table. From the clothes they wore and their demeanor, it was clear that these were folks from a big city; not from this two-store rural town. There were about fifty other men and women who sat on the floor around the table. The group seemed to be engaged in a heated discussion. As Sophie and Damini approached, some men and women came over from the discussion and hugged Sophie affectionately.

"The Block Development officials are here with some new hare-brained plan", one woman said. "We don't mind them pocketing money that is meant to come to us through various programs", another man said. "I just wish they would stop bothering us with their weird plans." "What is the new plan?", Sophie asked. "They keep calling it the FPCP", one man said. "It's the Forest-Pasture Coexistence Plan", another woman piped in. "It is a plan to conserve the forest and help optimize our pasture use." "Which forest do they want to conserve?" another voice asked and the whole group burst out laughing.

Sophie turned to Damini and said, "Despite the dryness of the region, this was an area of dry forests. It was a haven for foxes, small deer, rabbits and a number of small animals and birds. In the last eight years, there has been extensive cutting of trees for the paper mill. The forest is almost wiped out --- it has become a region of small bushes and bald hills. Only the maps show that this is supposed to be a forest."

"The new plan seems rather complex", one man said. "Oh, they keep using big words to look important", another woman replied. "All they are saying is that we will not have any more access to the forests that border our village. But, they say that they understand that it will cause us hardships. So they have another plan where they will work on constructing various earthen structures to conserve water and also help us get big, strong cows that give lots of milk from some place far away." "Pah", the man snorted. "Like with all their earlier plans, they will forget about this in two days. Or else this one will fail too." "No", another man responded, "they already have money allocated to this one."

Sophie, Damini and the rest of the group moved back towards the gathering that was still involved in their discussion.

"You don't understand", one of the city dwellers said. "These plans are based on scientific studies. It shows that by increasing the green cover around here, we could increase water retention by up to 400%. That would improve your pastures and your crop yields. A denser forest would also increase the diversity of the fauna in this area. Cost benefit analysis done by experts has shown that you will actually benefit from this policy."

"We understand that a thicker forest is useful to us", an older man answered. "You do not have to tell us about your science to convince us. We have been living happily with these forests for centuries and they lived happily with us till your modern scientists came from the cities to cut them down for your paper mills. While you make rules to prevent us from using the forests, these mills cut down acres of forests every day. How does that save your forests?"

Sophie jumped into this discussion too. "In fact, the relationship between our society and forests is not harmful to the forest. The community here largely uses fallen wood as a source for fuel. Removal of excess wood from the forest floor reduces the chance of forest fires. We also take honey from the forests as well as find medicinal use for certain plants and herbs. None of these activities destroys our forests. How has your cost benefit analysis accounted for these relationships between the forests and the human community?"

"Oh, don't worry about losing economically", another bespectacled man who seemed like the leader of the group said, waving off Sophie's arguments. "We are also offering to exchange all your starving cattle for high milk yielding, healthy cows. Our research shows that they will give you double the milk that your cows give and thus help you economically."

"Sir", Sophie began sarcastically. "Do you know what our cows eat? They live off the scrubland eating the little grass that is available. The cows you bring will give double the amount of milk only if we can feed them high quality fodder. Such fodder is neither easily available here nor can we afford that. As a result of your policy, we will have no cows. The cows that have adapted to this vegetation --- you will take them away. The cows you will get for us -- the high quality hybrid cows -- they will die. This is the result of your policies based on modern science. It would have done you good to have come and spoken with us about our experiences and our knowledge before you made your policies."

"Bah!", the big man from the city stood, looking very angry. "You village buffoons know little and cannot appreciate when good is being planned for you. I don't need to take your insults." With that he stormed out of the gathering, the other two men following him.

Sophie turned to Damini. "This is what I meant when I said that we have thrown out all knowledge that centuries of observation and living had given us. And you can see the implications. Now, this big man from the city is angry --- he will not listen to anything we said but will go and do exactly as he likes. We are idiots after all with no understanding of modern science. But he and his experts have developed their policies based on modern science but with little knowledge of how we live with the forests or the relationship between how voraciously our cows eat and how that affects our pastures or how much water is needed by the crops they say we should grow and how that affects our water table. Most importantly, the rural community have been declared idiots and their input is not necessary is deciding how they live --- even if they are part of a democracy. Weird, is it not?"

"When you said", Damini asked, after some thought, "that there were other methods of knowledge that mechanistic methods did not include, is this what you meant?"

"This was part of it", Sophie answered. "Broadly, when we want to understand societies, how we organize ourselves, and how we make rules for ourselves, we cannot do it well by mechanistic methods. We can understand them by using methods that assume that the observer is in fact related to what he or she is trying to learn. There is actually a whole spectrum of methods that fall in this category. But one principle that comes out of any methods that assumes connectedness between the student and the object, between various individuals and societies is that of non-violence."

At this point, they had come to an open doorway of a mud-baked single story building. Loud noises and shrieks were coming from inside. As the two stepped in, the rambunctious shouting made any further conversation impossible.

 

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By Sanat Mohanty
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