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Technology and tradition clash in India

7 January 1999 (Nature, Vol. 397, 1999)

[NEW DELHI] When India’s first waste incineration plant, designed to generate 4 MW of electricity by burning 300 tonnes of rubbish daily, was commissioned in New Delhi in 1988, officials billed it as the technological solution to the problem created by mountains of municipal waste.

Such plants were to be built nationwide. It was therefore a surprise when the plant closed down in 1992, after remaining idle for four years, and without having produced any electricity (see Nature 359, 763; 1992).

The reason was straightforward: neither the government nor the Danish contractor had considered Delhi’s 8,000 rag pickers, who systematically retrieve reusable items such as wood, plastics and cloth from municipal landfill sites. Once such combustible materials were removed, the remains mostly rotten vegetables and unburnable cooking wastes were insufficient to operate the plant.

"We have learnt that technology by itself cannot solve our society’s problems," says Valangiman Ramamurthi, secretary to the Department of Science and Technology (DST). "Science-based innovation has little role in development unless it is socially accepted and fits into the prevailing cultural system."

India’s social and cultural diversity also means that what is acceptable for one group may be resented by another. Piped water has been a boon to the people of Tamilnadu, but, according to Ramamurthi, young women in villages in Rajasthan found the water taps a threat to social freedom, and smashed them up.

Before the taps were installed, the girls fetched water from distant sources, and the long daily walks gave them a chance to socialize with men. The taps not only spoilt their love life but added to their drudgery at home because their mothers, finding that the girls had free time, made them do extra work.

Equally frustrating for Indian researchers has been their years of effort to improve the cycle rickshaw, the primary mode of transport for millions of Indians since its introduction in 1930. A motorized version introduced in the late 1970s never really caught on, as rickshaw pullers became concerned about the need to maintain the motor and the hassles of getting a driving licence.

A similar fate befell a cycle rickshaw fitted with a ‘regenerative’ braking system, in which the energy lost while braking was stored in a bank of springs and released when the vehicle was ready to move again. Amitabha Ghosh, the inventor of the device — and now director of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur says rickshaws fitted with this system "required 44 per cent less pedalling force during start-ups, besides reducing the energy expended by pullers by 38 per cent".

Despite this advantage, the design has failed to win converts. The main reason, says Ghosh, is that few pullers own the rickshaw — they rent them. "Owners have no motivation for spending $60 for retrofitting, and have no concern for the health of the pullers, as there is no shortage of poor people in search of an income."

The DST’s more recent effort to introduce another versatile design also met with resistance from cycle rickshaw owners in Agra who, fearing competition, smashed up the two vehicles sent for a demonstration. "We thought the new design would enthuse the owners to modify their old vehicles," says Ramamurthi. "It seems we were wrong."

‘Taraloom’, an improved hand loom developed with funding from the DST, is another example of how a science-based innovation, despite its advantages, can fail to make an impact on the economy unless it is affordable. The rugged steel loom with a flywheel attachment for high speed operation enables weavers to increase output by 60 per cent.

But the 15,000 rupees (US$354) price is outside the reach of millions of poor weavers who work from home using wooden hand looms handed down through generations. In the past eight years, only 20,000 Taralooms have been sold, mostly to cooperatives. "Cost is just one factor," admits Sanjay Sharma, inventor of Taraloom. "The important barrier is tradition."

‘Modernity’ is being put to the test at Agra, where the Taj Mahal’s white marble walls have turned yellowish due to sulphur dioxide pollution from the 170 coal-fired foundries nearby. "Twenty-five years ago we offered to replace their traditional furnaces with gas-fired ones but they refused," says P. Ramachandra Rao, director of the National Metallurgical Laboratory (NML) in Jamshedpur.

Now the foundries have been ordered to adopt NML technology by the supreme court which, alarmed by the threat to the Taj, has ordered the foundries to switch to clean gas or move out of Agra. "Closure of these units puts at stake survival of 30,000 families," says Deepak Bhatnagar of the DST, which funded the NML project. "But for the court order, the foundries would have never agreed to switch to gas."

Rao says that the $30,000 cost of a gas-fired cupola is the main reason for the foundries’ opposition. Ashok Kumar Goel, secretary of the Agra Iron Foundries Association, says that contributing factors have been the fear of gas, and doubts about NML technology.

But commercial sources admit that a major reason the foundries are resisting natural gas is because it is supplied by the government and metered. Production figures can be worked out on the basis of gas consumed, and tax levied. Foundries currently have scope for evading tax, as coal is available from many unorganized sources, and no account is kept of quantities used — a further example of the ‘realpolitik’ of science-based technology in India.

* Most Indians have a negative perception of modern technology, according to a study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research in New Delhi. The rate varies from 53 per cent in Bangalore, India’s science capital, and 65 per cent in New Delhi to 93 per cent in rural Bihar. The introduction of modern technology is seen as an effort to substitute machines for workers by 98 per cent of people in Bihar. And 63 per cent in Bangalore believe technology threatens jobs. The study was sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology.


K. S. Jayaraman

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