Using technology to change lives

In these days of high technology, no one is paying much attention to some of the time-tested, efficient, low-cost methods and devices that are suited to a developing nation like ours. Indigenous technology is no longer fashionable. The latest technology the better appears to be the mantra not withstanding its cost and relevance to the Indian context. During the earlier years, when we had to depend upon our own resources, Appropriate Technology (AT) had a few enthusiastic supporters. This is a low-cost technology development that helps farmers, workmen and others in doing their jobs better and with lower manual inputs. Moreover, AT is low capital intensive which is a decided advantage in the third world with scarce resource. These devices are simple and need basic maintenance and repair, which could be done by the people themselves or those trained to handle such simple technology. Unfortunately, with globalisation, it has become easier to import technology, though it would mean an outgo in foreign exchange. That has dealt a severe blow to the development and application of appropriate technology in our nation.

Mega issues

The ubiquitous animal-drawn carts carry more goods than the recognised transportation like rail, road or air. Animal power is put to good use which means saving in fuel costs and it is pollution free. A mere change of wooden wheels with steel rims to rubber wheels has enabled a tremendous improvement in the goods carrying capacity of carts. More improvements in the design of the cart would definitely put less burden on the animal while improving further its carrying capacity. However, to convince the decision-makers that they should invest in such low technology, in preference to sophisticated IT industry for ushering in e-governance would be asking for too much. Our priorities are mega issues rather than micro issues that appear so low in technology but user-friendly. There is little money for developing or using simple but effective tools.

AT can be put to good use while improving the quality of life of the poor, especially in the rural areas. Separating grain from chaff is done through sieving and by making use of wind power. This operation could be accelerated through use of hand-driven fan. Instead of installing water-pumps that run on electricity or kerosene/diesel oil, it is possible to lift water from wells, in cases where the water is not too deep, through human or animal power through a small modification of the lift mechanism. Instead of costly steel or plastic pipes, use of bamboo pipes to channelise water for drip irrigation can be just the solution for cost-effectiveness.

Cost-effective solutions, pinpointed to the local needs, are possible if only some resources are spared to AT-driven solutions. For example, mud is a reasonable, strong and durable construction material. The Great Wall of China is mostly constructed with mud. Mud housing has the advantage that materials are mostly locally available, costs are small, saves energy, reduces noise and keeps the homes cool or warm depending on the weather conditions.

Environmentalists are happy that a few traditional dyes that are eco-friendly are finding use with the ban on certain hazardous chemicals. India’s wealth of natural flora and fauna gives the artist a rainbow of colours to choose from. Wood is still used as an energy source in villages. The much-neglected modified chulas could save fuel and lives by improving efficiency and reducing smoke that is so harmful to women and children indoors with poor ventilation. Availability of safe drinking water in the villages is still a problem. A simple solution like adding an iodine tablet could make the water fit for drinking and avoid the use of bottled or boiled water.

The time has come to find grassroots solutions to some of our apparently simple technical problems rather than copy western or eastern model. Much can be learnt from villagers and tribals who have been using AT solutions for their day-to-day problems facing them. However, research and development on AT to find better solutions could usher in large-scale use of AT solutions that are cost-effective, user and environmentally friendly.

That could be a pragmatic way of improving quality of life of the poor without spending too much money and time. Once we perfect such solutions, we can offer some of these AT models to developing countries for their benefit. This is the way we could combat global warming through use of  ‘green’ AT technologies.    

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