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Spirit of Co-operation

posted Oct 5, 2015, 5:32 PM by Prashant Pawar   [ updated Dec 5, 2015, 3:21 AM by Madhav Gadgil ]

Humans, a supremely social species is remarkable for relationships of reciprocation, of mutual aid that go beyond the ties of kinship. The resulting rich social networks have favored the development of powerful, open-ended human languages and elaboration of knowledge, a unique resource that does not deplete for anybody sharing it with others. This has permitted continual growth of knowledge whose pace accelerated as the scientific methodology rejected authoritarianism and created a democratic framework that welcomed the participation of all citizens, regardless of their class, wealth or educational background. Modern technological advances have taken this one step further with the development of the World-Wide-Web and the associated ‘Creative Commons’, a platform for people who wish their creations- texts, pictures, music to be freely, publicly available, not only to enjoy, but to change, augment, improve. This is a process of positive feedback, with creations and creativity growing from strength to strength. According to market devotees, Creative Commons, starved of the waters of private profit, should have forever remained barren. But over the years it has become a lush garden, tended lovingly by people who can see well beyond personal gain.

Wikipedia is the great Banyan tree, growing in this public garden. The initial free, public Encyclopedia, Nupedia, composed by experts, failed to take off. Experts are busy people, generally with a strong personal profit motive, and failed to take the lead in this public-spirited endeavour. It was then that the Wikipedia boldly decided that any lay person too would be welcome to contribute to an article on any topic, provided that the inputs are based on acceptable sources of information. People, especially experts, enjoy nothing more than pointing out other people’s mistakes, so an excellent way of arriving at valid information on the Internet is to begin by posting some, possibly erroneous information. Wikipedia invites all comers to scrutinize every piece of information in every article, eliminate errors and improve its quality. This stimulated experts who now participate enthusiastically in the inclusive, egalitarian enterprise of Wikipedia. In this new culture of the Commonwealth of Knowledge, experts have graduated from the earlier overpowering, monopolistic role to a very constructive one of collaboration and guidance. So, Wikipedia has become a standard source of information even for professional mathematicians, with the material, naturally enough, based on inputs from practicing mathematicians. The gratifying outcome is that the accuracy of information in Wikipedia, on par with that in commercial encyclopedias, has been maintained even as its quantity has grown a thousand fold that in commercial ones. Moreover, the information is very much up to date. Within hours of the Tsunami hitting the east coast of India, Wikipedia carried authentic pictures and information on the event. Happily, all major Indian languages, including Marathi, now have their own Wikipedias, and the Hindi, Tamil and Telugu Wikipedias carry more than half lakh articles each.

The Wikimedia Foundation supporting this collaborative knowledge enterprise has a number of projects including Wikimedia harbouring photographs, audio- and video-clips, Wikisource where original published works are voluntarily made freely available, and Wikibooks, collaboratively written by experts along with all knowledgeable, interested citizens. Using this website, I hope to enhance the access of the public to my scientific and popular writing as well as documents such as books that have gone out of print such as “Nurturing Biodiversity: An Indian Agenda”, manuals such as “People’s Biodiversity Register: a methodology Manual” and documents, for instance, the two volume reports of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel.

New knowledge, too, may be created very effectively in the same inclusive culture of collaboration, for common people know a great deal from their experience. I discovered a striking example of this in my field research on ecology and management of bamboos. The Foresters prescribed that the thorny covering at the base of bamboo clumps must be cleared to decongest the clumps and promote better growth of new culms. The villagers told me that this was a mistake; that clearing the thorns exposed new shoots to grazing by cattle as well as wild animals, adversely impacting the bamboo stocks. Three years of careful field studies revealed that the villagers were entirely right.  

So systematically recording such detailed location and society specific knowledge can be of immense value. The Australians, for instance, have a Citizens’ River Watch Programme (Waterwatch involving local residents who adopt nearby river stretches for keeping a watch over them. The Government arranges two day training programmes for all interested participants communicating simple techniques of assessing water flow and water quality. The water quality assessments are based on occurrence of animals like damselflies that occur only in clean water or chironomids that frequent highly polluted waters. Numerous volunteer observers upload such data employing user- friendly on-line data entry forms. This data is open to scrutiny and correction by all concerned. Such citizen scientist data has by now generated an excellent knowledge base of the state of rivers of Australia.

Such a rich data base could never have been created by experts acting by themselves; there are too few of them, they are expensive, and assigning a monopolistic role to them is dangerous. Moreover, involving all interested citizens in collecting and scrutinizing the data ensures that errors, including deliberate falsifications, are quickly noticed and eliminated. World over such citizen science projects are now taking root. It is such citizen science that Indians, especially denizens of the Western Ghats tract, could now pioneer. I propose that we begin with the stone quarries as the focus, for the official agencies have no proper database on these allegedly largely illegal, environmentally destructive and socially abusive activities. After all, it was in Kerala that scientists began to break the stranglehold of official agencies through an open, transparent exercise of conducting an environmental and techno-economic assessment of the Silent Valley Project. Now, in the new millennium, a cadre of volunteers can readily put together a quarries database since the easily available GPS instruments pinpoint geographical locations, and satellite images bring out patterns of land use- including quarrying, the watercourse that the quarries affect, the landslides that they trigger, the fields and plantations that they smother – incorporating textual and quantitative data as also images. Local residents can involve themselves by speedily collecting pertinent physical data, as well as detailed information on employment generated, other economic, social, health impacts and on matters like whether the concerned gramsabhas support or oppose the enterprises. What we need is a user-friendly Web based multi-lingual platform on which the pertinent data can be readily uploaded by the public. This website will attempt to develop and upload such a platform.

Of course development of such participatory, transparent databases ought to have been already under way. The Biological Diversity Act of 2002 mandates all Panchayat Bodies to develop People’ s Biodiversity Registers that would include many of the elements sketched above. Noting that first hand observations on environmental parameters would be an excellent educational tool, the Central Advisory Board on Education has strongly endorsed a porgramme of using student Environmental Education projects throughout the country to develop such databases as early as 2005, as did the Approach Paper for the Eleventh Five Year Plan. But these formal provisions have been of no avail for our rulers believe in what Tao-te-ching, the Chinese manual of Statecraft preached two thousand four hundred years ago: “The ancients who practiced the way did not enlighten people with it; they used it, rather to stupefy them; the people are hard to rule when they have too much knowledge. Therefore ruling a state through knowledge is to rock the state. Ruling a state through ignorance brings stability to the state.”

The citizens of the world are now ready to rock many of the thoroughly mismanaged boats of our nation-states. People taking charge of the knowledge enterprise should be one of the steps in such a revolution. So, let us pioneer the Citizen Science approach, focusing on a significant issue of the day- the stone quarries disfiguring the mountains of the charming hill chain of Western Ghats.