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How India's colonial past shapes its science today

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Today, India hosts some of the world's top doctors and scientists. But the focus on global science sometimes neglects local needs and expertise, says Indian science journalist Padma Tata Venkata, who goes by Padma TV.

Axios spoke with her about the impact of the English on research in her country as part of a series of interviews about a movement to decolonize science. Highlights from the interview conducted via email — and edited for length and clarity — are below.

What does decolonizing science mean to you?

Decolonizing science means acknowledging the scientific accomplishments of non-western ancient civilizations. Of course, all modern scientific theories and methods of observation, enquiry and validation hold and should continue to hold. But one should also be open to the existence of scientific knowledge in civilizations that preceded the present one in which the West dominates, and propagate the oft-repeated narrative that true scientific knowledge evolved only in the West.

India had advanced technology before colonization. Did that change?

In colonial India, the then rulers dismissed traditional knowledge systems and their contributions to science. Colonization also created arbitrary divisions of western scientific rationale, logic and technology versus eastern superstition and magic, which further devalued any genuine scientific knowledge present before the colonizers arrived.

An example from the Indian sub-continent is the ancient systems of medicine that existed before the introduction of the British system of medicine or allopathy. These include Ayurveda, Siddha systems, Unani from West Asia. These systems were slowly marginalized and de-recognized during colonial rule when only allopathy was recognized and only its practitioners were considered eligible for registration as doctors.

With imposition of English, additionally, other local languages started to get marginalized, which meant loss of valuable information available in local languages.

Does English colonization have an impact on science in India today?

By the time India became a free country in 1947, it was economically poor and, hence, had to struggle to balance its investments in a number of sectors such as agriculture, health, education and science. India and other newly free countries also ended up with low self-esteem, with systematic under-mining of their older scientific legacies and the fact they lost out on the 'Industrial Revolution' of the West. They felt the only way forward was to 'catch up' and obtain parity the West in science and technology, and overall development , and so they need to imitate the west.

Hence, an independent India adopted the Western model of speedy development, which meant some of its technological choices were also a result of global structures and global technology politics. A western- and techno-centric model of development also meant aligning its scientific priorities with prevailing western scientific trends and focus; and disregarding local priorities, needs. The heavy reliance on Western interpretation of technology and culture often disregards local knowledge systems, especially of local ecological and socio-economic conditions, which are not seen as 'technologically advanced'. This has also led to adoption of faulty technologies that led to severe ecological and environmental crisis.

How has this focus on Western scientific trends influenced the research that's done?

Grassroots innovations are examples of simple, frugal, niche-specific innovations which address a local need, and are often by people who have not studied science or are not PhDs and post-docs,. These innovations tailored to solve local problems and lack institutional support of elite scientific institutes whose research agenda is dictated, or at any rate, influenced by current research trends and priorities in advanced countries. The innovations are not mentioned in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Over 100,000 ideas, innovations and traditional knowledge practices from India and abroad are documented by Honey Bee Network, founded by Anil Gupta, professor emeritus at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. To cite a few examples: a power-generating pumping machine, tractor-mounted maize sheller, an 'amphibious' bicycle that helps you peddle in water, a compost aerator, natural convection drier for agricultural products.