Sustainable Technology Approach to Human Development

Dr Devendra Kumar


The freedom struggle produced many giants in our country, leaders of world class in their respective fields – politics, science, education, philosophy, the arts and social action. Together, they vanquished the colonial masters and created the basis for the beautiful dreams and fervent hopes of a new nation. But soon after independence, and with almost inexplicable suddenness, this breed of men and women seems largely to have disappeared, leaving the country to be taken over by the even more fearful enemies of mass poverty and massive environmental degradation.

One of the very few true giants who stayed to continue the fight was our revered colleague and treasured friend Dr. Devendra Kumar. As the father of appropriate technology in our country, he pioneered many science-based solutions to the day-to-day problems of our common people. The organisation he founded, the Centre of Science for Villages is one of the major institutions in this field. Throughout his very full 75 years, he lived the simple life of a true Gandhian, giving much and asking for very little.

Devendrabhai was all things to all people. With his extraordinary generosity, he found time for the highest in the land and, with even greater enthusiasm, for the lowest. No one who came to him for help went away disappointed.

Development Alternatives had a special relationship with Dr Devendra Kumar. Few gifts we have received over the life of our organisation are valued as much as the two he left with us: the sense of outrage at the inequities of our country and the commitment to self-reliance. These are excerpts from the speech he gave on receiving the Jamanalal Bajaj Award last year.

Ashok Khosla


 A holistic civilisation is one where human development potentialities are such that individuals are able to express their inner talents fully. In such a holistic development, the individuals help in the creation of a happy and peaceful community. At the same time, they bring about an ecologically prosperous natural environment which nurtures them. Hence, the interests of the individual and society and humans and nature become congruent.

Dr. Devendra Kumar delivering his Award lecture

Such an ideal civilisation could be developed on an economic system with technologies and modes of production which are more participatory, egalitarian and mutually cooperative in their economic, political and social milieu. However, what we have at present is a mode which goads us to a quantitative increase in consumption and convenience at the cost of the very quality of life and of balances in nature. The question which needs to be considered is how we could move in the right direction and what are the helpful signs that are evident today which could help us to do so.

The trend of development of human knowledge (science) and skills (technology) has been consistently in the direction of seeking more comforts, conveniences and control on the natural environment. As more and more human interference with the natural order took place, the divergence widened between the interests of nature and human beings. Effects of this interference have ultimately created a catastrophic situation for both of them.

Unfortunately, the ecological balances that govern the sustainability in nature’s economy were never given much consideration in human history. Even though there was evidence of civilisations fading when they overexploited the resources on which they depended, narrow self interests and a short range perspective continued to rule human aspirations. Consequently, the sustainability aspect remained subservient to profitability.

The results are glaringly evident. Take, for instance, the denudation of tree cover or the drying up of hydrological resources due to wrong and excessive use of fresh water resources. There are other signs too: soil erosion and the extinction of many species. Then there is the pollution of our oceans, earth and air, the destruction of the ozone layer and the increase in waste fuelled by excessive consumption. These disturbing trends have made the global community sit up and think about the direction our civilisation is going. However, all these imbalances have not yet led us to radically change the direction in which of development towards a more sustainable economy. The powerful commercial and political vested interests, who profit from the present system and the people who enjoy the luxuries, seem to favour its continuance.

This thinking nurtures the old attitude towards nature as an unlimited source to be exploited for human need and greed. The new awakening to move towards a more permanent and sustainable economy will, therefore, take some time to bring visible results.

In fact, nature has to be considered as the whole, of which human beings form one component. As a very important component, they are meant to serve nature rather than make it subservient to their own needs and wants. The human species, with all its attributes of intelligence, inventiveness and capacity of intervention, should have used these qualities in a positive manner to serve the whole of which they are a part. Instead of exploiting nature for their self interest, they should have acted as sentinels of nature and help maintain the multifarious delicate webs of the eco-systems that make it function in a sustainable manner. In the same vein, we could learn from the bees the manner to serve nature and get its sustenance simultaneously. The more honey it collects from flowers, the more it serves in the propagation of the plants by helping in their cross fertilisation. We could emulate the bees by fulfilling our needs through a similar symbiotic relationship with nature.

This is the challenge to human civilisation and must be met by changing attitudes and actions, particularly by the science and technology community. The science and technology field has a greater duty to help in changing the course of this self destructive or non-sustainable industrial commercial era.

As we review the present pattern of human settlements, we find a constant and rapid movement of population towards large cities, leaving less and less people living in small communities or villages. In this process, the process of sharing and proximity to nature are sacrificed at the altar of material conveniences. The ill effects of this concentration of populations away from nature and each other are evident. What needs to be realised is that the future lies not in the megalopolises but in small communities living in natural settings.

In order to achieve this, we need to hasten the process of decentralisation in production and supply of energy and fuel; food, clothing and shelter; transport and travel communication and culture; management of goods and governments; education, training, research and in all other conceivable dimensions of life. In this regard, India stands at a pivotal point in the history of human growth. Amongst the countries with a fair level of science and technology infrastructure, India alone has (unlike the highly industrialised and urbanised countries) almost two-thirds of its people living in villages and thus retains the option to manoeuvre a change from the present non-sustainable path to a more sustainable one.

Since science and technology are the engines which drive the economic life of a country and determine the direction of its social, cultural and political milieu, each new invention which helps in this change is welcome. The advent of computers and satellites, for example, is a welcome development. Likewise, various other new S & T inputs are now available to us which can take us to our cherished goal.

The dwindling mineral resources, especially fossil fuels, the search for renewable alternatives and the worldwide concern for environmental problems has encouraged attempts in the direction of decentralised low energy, low capital, sustainable and widely replicable technologies. The involvement of S&T (Science & Technology) institutions has been quite significant but not as much as its should be. Several points need to be kept in mind in the Indian scenario:

* Unless there is interaction between S & T experts with those working at the grassroots level and they learn to understand each other’s language, no real solution can be found.

* Any new technology for the villages requires the first generation of its users to adjust themselves to it as much as the technology has to be optimised to their needs progressively.

* The technique that is developed to provide livelihoods for the underprivileged requires, apart from the technological input, a management input to make it commercially viable. It is evident that enlightened commercial experts have not come forward to help in this task as much as desired.

* The techniques which households can use to improve their lives, (for instance, smokeless wood stoves, biogas plants and soakage pits for household effluents), can be introduced initially by government and non-government agencies, but their multiplication and maintenance requires that the technique is turned into a new trade which can generate livelihoods for people. Unfortunately, this has not happened so far.

* New artisanal trades need to be developed in the villages so that more people have full time employment. Artisans, ideally, should not need to employ labourers but have partners and disciples. If the employer-employee relationship is avoided, as far as possible, it will result in a non-exploitative economy and harmonious relationship.

* The old order of artisanal trades has to be upgraded in the light of higher level of technologies by the use of electricity and improved tools and new materials. This may require the development of an infrastructure not currently available in every village.

* The term decentralisation also needs to be interpreted scientifically. It is a term relative to the subject we are relating it with. The degree of decentralisation will vary with the latter. The principle of self sufficiency or Swadeshi is also related with decentralisation. Both are two sides of the same coin and the degree of decentralisation will determine its area of self sufficiency.

To conclude, I would say that the goal of holistic human development—by which I mean the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual dimensions added together—could be achieved by humanity through scientific methods which fulfil our physical needs from nature. This should be in a way that we are at peace with nature and also at peace with our emotional needs by maintaining peace between the individual and society. Also, we should strive for intellectual and spiritual peace.