Task Force Report (TFR) of the 38th Indian Social Science Congress
29th March – 2nd April, 2015; Visakhapatnam, India.

Prepared by Dr. Claude Alvares, Dr. J.B.G. Tilak and Sumana Nandi

The Indian Academy of Social Sciences (ISSA) in association with Andhra University held the 38th Indian Social Science Congress on ‘Knowledge Systems, Scientific Temper and the Indian People’ between 29th March to 2nd April, 2015 at Visakhapatnam. The objectives of the Congress were to explore critically the status and relevance of the present educational system and the quality and nature of the knowledge produced in our universities and research institutions in the context of the democratic needs and aspirations of the peoples of India.

A serious effort was made to get the inputs of the young social scientists (who had registered) through separate sessions in this conference.

A separate seminar on People’s Art and Knowledge Systems was also held at the same venue as part of the Congress but for two days only. It hosted a separate set of speakers and presenters, including artists and dancers.

If one carefully studies the historical context of education in the country, then one can see its gradual decline coupled with the systematic destruction of the traditional value-based learning system. The freedom movement threw up ideas on education which were pro-public, rooted in Indian culture and pro-livelihood, but these were cast aside when the postcolonial/neocolonial government decided to continue instead with the Macaulay-inspired educational system. That is why the aspirations of the people were eventually discarded and never realised. Efforts were made after independence to bring a balance between the pre-independence ideas of education and the idea of inclusive education, that is, education that was free for all. These ideas came into circulation after 1950 but were never carried forward in the successive years.

In fact, these progressive ideas were submerged in the wave of liberalisation which splashed over the economy in 1992. The new thrust also introduced the idea that human beings should be seen as “human resources,” a peculiar invention of the modern era. People in need of education were now seen simply as instruments to be recruited, trained or otherwise prepared to serve the needs of the economy, corporations and of the state bureaucracy. This is also the time when the proposals to allow more Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects, including withinthe education sector, began to gain and get legitimacy. Thus, the goals of the pre-independence freedom movement were sought to be erased and these things were taken off the table without any discussions or consensus amongst the academic community. The only consensus that emerged was between the state and its machinery and the agendas of global, corporate and other international governmental and non-governmental bodies. Education was thus rendered into a commodity, completely defeating the purpose of what it stood for earlier.

Thus, the era of revolutionary thinking that was associated with Tagore, Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo and others, was in the 1990s replaced with the rank commercialisation of education and the virtual destruction of the existing educational system – reflected in the reduction of teachers and lecturers to the status of daily wage labourers.

The deliberations of the Vizag 2015 Conference eventually gravitated around the following four major areas of discussion and debate:

  1. The issues broadly connected with the nature of knowledge systems, their assumptions, the relationship of these with formal knowledge systems like science and folk or people’s knowledge and the future.
  2. The entire gamut of issues dealing with infrastructure required for education and research, including funding for good teaching and teachers, enhancing the competence of the teaching community, etc.
  3. Several papers attempted to focus on the alternative educational models available to deal with these issues including alternative paradigms for scientific research which took into account considerations of sustainability and environment.
  4. (The organisers of the People’s Art and Knowledge Systems seminar had promised to submit their report of the fourth broad issue, as it emerged from their discussions. However, till date despite several efforts on the part of Sumana Nandi, nothing has come from the group.)

1. Issues broadly connected with knowledge systems, their assumptions, the relationship of these with science and popular knowledge

Knowledge systems mean, historically and essentially speaking, socio-cultural processes that cumulatively build and nurture the creative and human potential of people in a multi-layered society. Humans owe their dominance over the earth and its living creatures to their ability to elaborate mental models of the working of the world, or knowledge, and to impose these on nature. Science, or knowledge that claims to approximate objective reality fairly well, underpins technologies that facilitate the manipulation of the world around more and more effectively.

Knowledge that was based largely on trial and error methods progressed far more slowly, albeit without the deadly effects associated with modern knowledge systems. For centuries before “modern” times, progress one’s knowledge of the material world was moderated by the insistence on accepting particular authorities, be they the Vedas, the Bible or even the teachings of Aristotle. Post medieval times, Europeans, desperate for sound knowledge to support their moving out of Europe where conditions had greatly deteriorated, fashioned the methodology of modern science that purportedly rejects all authority other than that of empirical fact and opens its doors to participation by all interested parties.

This new emphasis put knowledge on fast track and permitted the development of many powerful technologies. Armed with these, Europeans overwhelmed the rest of the world, including India. However, while progress in the sciences of simple physical and chemical systems has been rapid, equivalent scientific understanding of more complex systems such as ecosystems has remained limited. As a result, it is the experiential knowledge still intact with the common people that remains of value in understanding and managing such complex systems. Despite the limited scientific understanding of such complex systems, the British made totally unjustified claims of scientific management of natural resources, merely to appropriate and overuse such resources of their colonies in Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas.

Different perspectives on the nature of knowledge systems were presented during the Congress. One of the eminent scholars in his paper to the Congress, pointed out that natural and human history is primarily the history of energy conversion and our knowledge about how to do the conversion. Humans have the unique ability to create knowledge and the primary history-changing knowledge that they have continuously created since the time of proto humans is the knowledge of energy conversion. Using this knowledge, humans have drawn increasing amounts of energy from nature. However, these energy resources have been unevenly distributed.

Today – according to the same scholar’s presentation – human society faces two tilting points – environmental degradation and a highly unequal society – and two tipping points – peak oil and climate change. While the tilting points may cause serious gashes to the social fabric of human society, the tipping points could well cause civilizational regress or even collapse.

Therefore, we now have to ponder whether unbridled development of this knowledge has been good for human society and nature, and if not, whether we need to voluntarily reduce creating more knowledge that will increase entropy, and increase our efforts to create knowledge that will increase negative entropy instead, as for example, by encouraging biotic processes, like increasing the forest cover. This does not automatically mean going back to a bullock-cart age. Living systems are ambient-energy systems, but they are more complex than technologies that humans have invented so far. Encouraging biotic systems and products that decrease entropy does not merely mean increasing photosynthesis to increase forest cover. It also means shifting into technologies that rely far more on photosynthesis as an energy conversion process and on biotic processes rather than on abiotic energy conversion processes such as happens in the burning of fossil fuels. This is a serious issue relating to the present nature of knowledge.

A second speaker highlighted how knowledge systems are inextricably linked with culture which is why there are so many of them. Within the vast framework of India itself, there are multiple cultures, hence various knowledge systems, each valid in its own right, each with its own set of assumptions. Assumptions by definition are nothing more than assumptions. India’s cultures, its civilizations, have survived a period exceeding ten thousand years. By any yardstick, the processes on which this survival was based were sustainable; in fact, one could argue that they were successful in evolutionary terms.

For example, a major component of the knowledge system that enabled such long term survival of communities in India was the health care system based on Ayurveda, which developed following a separate, but credible, set of assumptions which are in many ways separate and distinct from the set of assumptions that have driven the development of Western medical science. And unlike the development of science in the West – which saw periods of serious disjunction or gaps – the development of knowledge systems in India (upto the colonial period) saw remarkable continuity.

Till the commencement of what the same same scholar called India’s own “dark age”, there had never been any serious doubt about the knowledge systems in play in the subcontinent, their validity and use. Examples abound: Rhinoplasties (and other cosmetic surgeries as well) were performed in India already in 1600 B.C; the practice of inoculation against small pox was known to Indians upto the 18th century; skills like the manufacture of textiles which many believed could not have developed in Europe without close study and imitation of Indian textile making procedures by English and European traders; maintenance of the biodiversity of the rice plant and other domesticated crops, and the elaboate water harvesting systems that have fascinated the environment-friendly researchers. It is therefore important to examine the assumptions on which they were based so that a fresh beginning could be made in these areas.

According to another speaker, despite the obvious optimality of such knowledge systems, Western capitalism with its nexus with the Church, successfully designed and imposed an education system on us with an apparent interest in science, which in reality was used against the very same people who were supposed to benefit from it and which thus became an instrument of counter revolution.

It designed a curriculum, in fact, that was based on an elaborate, capital-intensive economy highly wasteful of natural resources. This was possible because they had successfully accumulated large capital stocks through draining their colonies, and had access to huge stocks of natural resources of entire continents like North and South America and Australia which they had taken over by largely eliminating the indigenous people.

It was evident that on becoming politically independent, India did not enjoy similar kind of access to capital and natural resources, but had to ensure that it did justice to its huge bank of human resources. This called for prudent use of natural resources, best accomplished by empowering local communities to safeguard them, use of indigenous knowledge and creation of productive employment on a very large scale.

But India failed to do this, reneged from its constitutional goals, and its ruling class fashioned instead an economy of violence reflecting the Western model. The conference in this respect concluded that without a thorough-going re-examination of the assumptions on which present day economic and technological activity is based, problems will keep getting multiplied and amplified as we are circumscribed by a thought process that is not our own and based on assumptions which militate against sustainable development.

It may appear on the surface that our educational institutions are trying to address the immediate community needs of the Indian masses but in reality they are creating more problems than they solve! For example, our inherited educational institutions has maintained the gender divide by aping the patriarchal Western knowledge system.

One speaker criticised the above mentioned, colonially installed system of knowledge based on expertise as nothing more than a “reputalibility” system, in which experts have the power to define or interpret knowledge, and therefore begin to dominate the knowledge system. Science today is largely “authorised” science.

He referred to the hue and cry about some papers on aeronautics in ancient India which had caused a furore at the Indian Science Congress earlier this year and said scientific temper demanded a free and critical discussion of these papers, and not their suppression in any manner. The hue and cry was raised because this knowledge is not authorised. Authorisation today is done in secret with western assumptions and domination and without any democracy. The “falsifiability” criterion of Popper has been replaced by the “reputability” system enforced by Western experts.

The international community based movements by the ‘Wretched of the Earth’ such as Our Communities Deserve Better Campaign (OCDBC) which was initially started in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London in London, United Kingdom in 2014, seek to challenge the gross disrespect for non-European contributions to knowledge and civilisation which have in fact become institutionalised bthrough Eurocentrism and its white curriculum in both the Global North and Global South. It draws attention to the exacerbating academic racism permeating the entirety of the establishment academia throughout the Global North which, rather alarmingly, is being blindly replicated insidiously in India and other countries of the Global South. Hence its central message of highlighting the OCDBC demands for respect of the Global South peoples’ inalienable right to cognitive justice throughout the World.

Issues dealing with infrastructure required for education and research including funding, specific problems competence of the teaching community etc.

One of the grounds for the present sorry state of education, as identified by several speakers at the Congress, was the continuing poor infrastructure available for schooling, teaching and research.

Some of the papers highlighted the fact that over the last forty years, though the Government has set up several committees to deal with specific educational issues, these have been done in a perfunctory and (often) secretive manner. The concerned authorities have displayed total lack of attention and concern for these issues, demonstrating these are neither a priority of the central nor the state governments. Hence very serious issues that require urgent attention like educational infrastructure, improving the competence of the teaching community, adequate emoluments for teachers and researchers and related issues, are neglected with serious negative consequences.

The present system of education is also seriously impaired due to its composite nature and the distinction drawn between human values and vulgar utilitarian values sourced to the modern economy; this requires the school in the broader community context to come up with a new discipline of ethical knowledge. The current popular discipline of management is destroying the value-based earlier educational system.

State intervention is important to keep a check on the educational system and ensure that it addresses the goals and objectives of the system. For this, it is accountable to society. But there is a danger if the character of the state is otherwise. Democratic focus in the school system should therefore pressurise the government to build the character of the state in a meaningful way. This requires the academic community to enjoy their academic freedom so they can freely address the needs of the state as intertwined with the community needs of the peoples of India. State intervention and regulation is important in this process since the market can never do justice to social goals.

Neoliberal policies of the State have instead resulted in spiralling growth of private universities many of which contribute negatively to the character building of the students. The Public Private Partnership (PPP) model is seen as a model, though it is an exercise of privatisation in disguise. It can only lead to the commodification of education. The critique of the commodification of education is crucial to understand how knowledge is being produced and sold in the market as a finished good, or a one-tablet medical solution for all diseases of inequality in all circumstances.

Science, as was pointed out by another speaker at the Congress, could be conducted as a progressive democratic enterprise that ought to help India in working out an innovative Indian model of a symbiotic, rather than predatory development, on the Western pattern. However, Indian science has so far failed in facing up to this challenge. But modern developments in information and communication technologies are now rapidly eliminating inequalities in access to information. This promises to usher in an era of true empowerment of people that would bring prosperity to the natural resource-based, labour-intensive sector of the economy. This will confer dignity and provide satisfying livelihoods to the bulk of India’s population. The Indian scientific establishment must strive to assist in such a transformation.

Regrettably, to the contrary, throughout the country democratic processes and constitutional rights of the people are being brazenly violated, and scientific information is being suppressed or distorted, hand in hand with destruction of the environment. This is being done in furtherance of an extremely reductionist approach of pursuing economic growth at all costs. Such an approach militates against the wisdom of adopting a holistic, systems perspective in addressing the complex problem of charting the course of development of one of the world’s most multifaceted societies.

The present Euro-American model of education which is being replicated by the Global South educational institutions has systematically ignored the indigenous community-based knowledge systems.

Alternative models to deal with the above issues including alternative paradigms for scientific research took into account consideration sustainability and environment

It is in this context of the present miseducation system that several alternatives have been proposed for the greater democratisation of the present national system of education vis-à-vis the traditional systems of education. These have the potential of excavating the system from colonial Macaulay’s ghosts and taking seriously into account the community needs of the people.

Citizens of India, including, of course the scientists and technologists, must face up to this challenge, and there are many examples of positive initiatives. Important amongst these are contributions of the country’s leading people’s science movement, the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad. Following in KSSP’s footsteps, the River Research Centre’s independent, voluntary assessment of the proposed Athirappilly Hydro Electric project on the Chalakudy River, has shown that the project is clearly undesirable, not just on environmental, but on technical and economic grounds. As there is not enough water to generate power as claimed, it will adversely impact currently available irrigation resources and it will destroy tourism (and tourism jobs) by drying up a scenic waterfall. Furthermore, the project will destroy the last low elevation riverine forest of this region.

Creating People’s Universities is one of the ways to address this hoarding of knowledge by the corporate interest-led State. Direct engagement of peoples in the sphere of education through the People’s University drawing upon mainly from the traditional knowledge based systems – which addresses the need of the community from the perspectives of the community – would not only fill in the gaps in knowledge produced by such pro-corporate establishment educational institutions but also would eventually make these institutions irrelevant.

Another type of positive intervention comes from devising more information-intensive systems that reduce demands on material and energy resources. An excellent example is Seshagiri Rao’s development of an Indian style precision agriculture-animal husbandry-forestry system that, in the process of promoting economic efficiency, ends up dispensing with all use of chemical inputs and utilizing a wide diversity of herb, shrub and tree species.

The knowledge system must be oriented in the direction of processes that further and favour negative entropy; the education system needs to understand the harm it has done and is doing to the environment. It must aim to develop the consciousness to create an equitable and sustainable society by developing critical thinking. To address this, we need to connect to the struggles of the common people of India, the trade union movement along with the environmental movement to achieve the desired results of democratic participation in solving the problems of our communities, using knowledge.

Education needs to be creatively used to build human values to teach not only children or students but also the common people for broader environmental understanding. Ancient knowledge endowed literature, religion and spiritual practices are fuelling the scientific values. Therefore the interpretation made by science and technology needs to be taken to the common people through the curriculum taught in the educational institutions.

There is a serious need to re-think the frame-works that continue to rule, burden and cripple our intellectual work. Our “dark age” may only just be beginning, ever since our intellectual elites including our planners decided to ignore history and instead place this huge billion plus civilisation on the self-destructive development path chosen by the West by accepting most of the latter’s assumptions about knowledge and human interests.

One speaker highlighted the problems of the peasantry. The last two decades of globalisation have led to the deformation of agriculture with tremendous effects of the life of the peasantry. Global corporate demands, SEZs are putting pressure on agricultural land which is now shrinking. The peasants are being pushed out from their land. The speaker suggested the formations of the Peasants Cooperatives where the peasants work together, pool the resources of the collectives and reduce dependence on the transnational companies and their nexus with the State.

One of the eminent scholars even suggested that the state of education is so bad that all school and colleges should be shut down and an all India Jopadpatti school system should be established: all children should study in these new schools. Even boarding houses should be opened for the children of the elites to stay and experience life there.

Another suggestion made is for every educational institution to have local community engagement policies which would enable them to link up with the communities and their indigenous knowledge systems.

This Congress also brought out the existence of the vast resources of knowledge and its production – apart from those within the four walls of the global homogenous concrete jungle and its printed world kept alive in journals and books – reflected and sourced to various forms of the arts, i.e., dance, song and craft which have remained another form of knowledge for centuries.

The special symposium on People’s Art and Knowledge showcased through performing arts that even the movement of eyes in a dance can convey knowledge equivalent to thousands of pages in a printed book. However, we can still bring back these intrinsic parts of our knowledge system if we wake up from the slumber and drowsiness of the just begun “Dark Age”.

The 38th Indian Social Congress attempted to answer the questions which cross the mind, such as, if we are at the crossroads in the field of knowledge and its production, what are the strategies to be designed in response to the hundreds of committee reports set up by Governmental and Non Governmental bodies within and outside India to chalk out a way ahead for education which does not merely certifiy individuals to become stooges of corporate power and the state, and blindly copy what they have been taught, but instead develop critical thinking and scientific temper.

The intra, inter and multidisciplinary integrative approach of the Congress is envisaged to grow further in the near future, if all stakeholders including the common people in India and beyond get involved to democratically evaluate the education system and assert their demands to design a self-reliant development model based on the indigenous knowledge systems which have been in place for thousands of years.

The Indian Academy of Social Sciences (ISSA) is ready to facilitate this historic process of mobilising and initiating a dialogue between all stakeholders and acting as the nodal agency. There is immense hope and work-in-progress to realise such visions.