Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Make innovation, not science, Kashmir’s focus

Let me begin with a small quote of Albert Einstein, which expressively summarizes the quintessence of this article here, ‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift’. This quote of Einstein no doubt finds universal acceptance, it fits more to our settings however. Kashmir, as many would claim is seen as a place where ingenuity, creativity and ingenious thinking forms an important ingredient of daily life, is but, slowly and subtly converted into an addled valley; high on rhetoric, low on creativity. We are told that universities, fundamental science and hard-core research alone will unleash ‘another’ industrial- revolution after Europe here and every boost to our ‘cold, anonymous and uncaring technicians’ will in return solve all global ills. Wearing white aprons’, attending regular lectures, we are made to believe our ‘scientists’ are busy creating a society bereft of all diseases and hospitals. To put it differently, formal mode of knowledge production is seen as a panacea for all our difficulties, an elixir to our economic and socio-woes.  Seldom, are we encouraged to question the relevance and social-reliability of this rote-learning, hardly ever we doubt the effectiveness of this science-churning graduate- machine. Wholeheartedly, we have embraced the dangerous part of it by overlooking the informal, local and indigenous knowledge systems.

This exercise of wittingly recognizing and rewarding ‘wrong heads and hands’ will not only take Kashmir back to the stone-age, but will in the long run devour its complete ‘existence’. It will not only dehumanize us, but will convert us all prosaic too.  No doubt knowledge is the future, ‘science’ is the solution, but the way we produce and ‘use’ it, certainly is not the correct way, it raises more questions and answers none.  Having said that, I am no way undervaluing the power of knowledge here, but how this ‘power’ could be efficiently realized, channeled and used is my contention here. Before explicating on the topic further, let me clear some more haze about the term ‘knowledge’ and ‘science’ first. My reference to science does not imply attributing a special status to it, because many of us even today would agree with Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's brilliant colleague, who spoke of science “as being nothing more than trained common sense”. For that matter, Nietzsche's claim that “science, with its reductionism and materialism, has deprived man of his special status” is still relevant in today’s context.  Science, no doubt is about ideas, is codified and in prescriptive form, is actually a small component of knowledge itself. Knowledge on the other hand includes both prescriptive and the propositional. To put it in a layman’s language, it includes both the science and everything else which is not included in the ambit of science. Without divulging much into this unsettled debate of what is science and what is not science?, I would rather like to couch my arguments on a famous Harvard University Professor’s research, Steven Shapin who in his seminal work ‘A Social History of Truth (1994)’ argued that “the gentlemanly constitution of scientific truth” in seventeenth –century England is explicitly grounded in an elite perspective.”  He contended that the birth of modern science occurred when gentlemen began to appropriate artisan’s knowledge and started to systematize it. Further, many historians, economists and sociologists have gathered strong and sufficient evidences, which prove that the much touted ‘industrial revolution’ in Europe owe little to basic science. Edmund Phelps, the 2006 Noble Prize economist would argue that the scientific advancements and headline innovations were not the real driving forces behind the explosion of economic knowledge in the 19th century. The economic paradigm shift was made possible through grassroots indigenous innovations with no or little scientific knowledge. Some notable examples in this regard include, James Watt, Richard Roberts and John Mercer. Without reading any science, they transformed whole Europe with their powerful innovations. Look for instance, this unlettered Richard Roberts who never studied science, went on inventing the self-acting mule in 1825, which automated the spinning machines invented in the 1770 and 1780s and became the backbone of the British cotton industry. Similarly, Lancashire’s most successful colorists and dye specialist John Mercer, was inducted into the Royal Society of England without cracking any science puzzle. To be precise, fundamental science alone cannot lead to any development.  

Now, let us come back to Kashmir. We have hundreds of local self-made inventors, unlettered and unsung who on daily basis with their creative ideas are trying subvert the formal rules, challenging the system and creating value out of trash. With no resources, no support, their innovations are creating diverse values ranging from social to environmental. At the same time, with huge resources our universities occupied in the paradigm of formal science seldom produce any substantial results. We have never come across any serious engagement between our universities and the surroundings in which they operate. Our apple, saffron, shawl, walnut, producing communities are rarely engaged by our universities. A big void is visible between our universities and the settings in which they operate. Regrettably, when we meet our ‘self-made inventors’ here, very few people are around to admire their ingenuity. They die, unheard and unsung. No doubt, of lately, some institutions, like EDC, GIAN, University of Kashmir has attempted to create a platform for our own Edison’s, but scaling up these innovators need a system support. Scaling up innovation is not one organization game; it needs actor-sector involvement. See, for example, Mushtaq Ahmad Dar, who is a serial innovator is struggling to commercialize his walnut cracking and pole climbing device. Rafiq Ahmad Ahanger, the genius innovator barely received any support from the state. So is the case with other hundreds of our Edison’s who hold the key for a new dawn are infrequently appreciated by the state. Instead of encouraging these innovators many of them ended up landing in various jails. In 1977, an innovator from Shalimar, Ghulam Mohammad Parry, was awarded patent for a period of 14 years vide patent no 146031 dated 26/03/1977 for an improved stove. Trying scale up his stove, he took a meagre amount of Rs.3000 as a seed money from the local Industries department. With no knowledge of the market and no support from the universities his innovation eventually failed to reach the market. With the result, he was unable to repay the ‘seed money’ and was sent to the Central Jail of Kashmir during the same time.  Much alike is the story of Ghulam Nabi Ahangar alias Naba Kamdi, who established a radio station at his home in Dialgam village Islamabad was harassed by state security agencies for creating out of the box solutions. 

If fighting poverty, diseases, inequality, unemployment forms the state agenda, ignoring informal sector innovators would be a great policy blunder. Local Science and Technology department whose role, mission and objectives we fail to understand thus needs a complete overhaul. In tandem with Kashmir University’s EDC and GIAN, they should take a lead role in exploring all the options to reach out to the local innovators. Banks, successful entrepreneurs, policy makers, lawyers and media be engaged for a long term collaboration. Innovations, let us be clear here, never happens in isolation. It needs an ecosystem of right institutions and a strong state patronage. 

Author is PhD researcher at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi and co-editor of ‘Informal Sector Innovations: Insights from the Global South’ a book published by Rutledge, Taylor and Francis UK. For any kind of assistance with regards to any innovation please contact 9906485399. 

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