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Musings Part 1

September 24, 2009

Into blind darkness enter they who worship ignorance;
Into darkness greater than that enter they who delight in knowledge.”

I found these lines which have continued to irk me the last few days. What does it mean? What darkness enter we who worship knowledge? And why this disdain for the world of knowledge?

While I do not know how to analyse or interpret the lines themselves, and nor to I wish to get into where they are from and the mysterious metaphysics of it, I have been wandering in the realm of knowledge- who has it, who does not, and where we all fit into it.

All the happy simplicity of the last week in Rajasthan have taken on a turn for the serious- perhaps it is simply the fact of entering Ahmedabad that has sobered me down to think of the tragedy that ensued after 2002 which has festered like a wound in body politic of the city itself, and perhaps a week of solitude has allowed for some reflection on the nature of our work with greater depth.

Scholars Without Borders is a fluid space. Our initiative allows us to be inclusive and allows us to work fundamentally as a space of shared knowledge, where we hope to consolidate a rich database for those who wish to access it. However, it is also limited by the no-profit-no-loss-model. We as a group cannot sustain without the commercial wing of the project- we need to sell books.

Publishing is a large and complex industry with a whole lot of agendas and motivations; this we are not interested in. What we are interested in is to make all that scholarship known and felt and read and accessed. What we wish to create is a space that can enable people to think and reflect and learn. And why should this knowledge be limited? Knowledge we know to be power. Those who can access knowledge can produce knowledge and for this process to become something of an equitable ground we need to see that everybody can get their hands on knowledge-in one form or the other.

The paradox of our work, then, lies in the assumption that knowledge as we know it is books. Of course, knowledge does lie in books. We don’t doubt that. But being from a society of diverse learning systems, we also know that knowledge does not always involve books, and so much knowledge in fact never gets written or rendered textually. And to that vast majority of our population to whom language and literacy itself is as inaccessible as the sky, what good will a textbook of four hundred rupees do? Leaving aside the whole debate on oral traditions, what do we do to make material accessibly, without being driven by market forces?

This is a question that I have begun to ask more seriously after meeting S. Srinivas and Renu Khanna from SAHAJ, Society for Health Alternatives- a small organisation in Vadodara which works to provide alternatives in health, education and development. I had the chance to have a look at their bookshop, Shishu Milap, which has been involved with children from poorer communities to facilitate educational and recreational facilities for them. Shishu Milap produces low cost books and toys- translated classics, science education, and projects on women’s health and women’s rights as well as gender and health. Drawing inspiration from Eklavya’s Science Teaching Programme, Shishu Milap has also developed a programme that develops and introduces low cost and alternative science text books, in addition to disseminating these books to regional and national networks to ensure these educational alternatives reach poorer children from bastis and slums.

In this context, it is interesting to take note of Arvind Gupta, whose philosophy is encapsulated on his website as:

“And somewhere there are engineers
Helping others fly faster than sound.
But, where are the engineers
Helping those who must live on the ground?”

A man whose has made it his work to see to the dissemination of books, he has written many books on toy making, published by the Eklavya educational society, the National Book Trust, and others. Shishu Milap is also inspired by Arvind Gupta’s interactive science learning programmes which work around the philosophy of:

The whole world is a garbage pit
Collect some junk and make a kit.

Questions are askingly asked of not just the writing of books but the manner of their distribution. Price, says he, must be no deterrent to learning, and has therefore compiled and consolidated educational material often by buying copyrights and cataloguing them. Arvind Gupta has designed teaching aids and toys out of waste material, documenting them in low cost books, and he has translated over 100 books on education, environment science, peace, maths into Hindi, all made available at low costs. “For children, the whole world is a laboratory. We have forgotten the task of bringing children closer to nature. If you can show them that scientific principles such as laws of motion, or the principles of geometry exist in familiar daily-use objects around them, then they internalise science better and can relate it to their daily lives.”

Talking of low cost books, accessibility, and common and shared knowledge- as you must know (and if you don’t, then go here) Scholars does its little bit for acting as a gateway into the world of open access journals. In this context, one met with folks at the Foundation for Ecological Security, a few kilometres off the town of Anand (Milk Capital, Amul, Agricultural University- sound familiar?). Anand is, interestingly enough, one of the most tree-diverse regions of the country. Alcoves of tall neem trees line the oontlari-ridden roads which led me to FES office in Jahangir Pura, which, unfortunately, reeks of neem pesticide!

Like mentioned earlier, we hope to collaborate to discuss the Commons Initiative, at the conference on the Study of Commons in 2011. FES works on the restoration and conservation of land and water commons which are increasingly degraded and marginalised in the country- setting in place methods of governance which involve the coordinated effort of local communities and instutions.
The conversation took on interesting dimensions, ranging from the need for a database on Common Property Resources as a milestone for the conference, to discussions on the nature of commons themselves. As part of this project we hope to work to allow the exchange of knowledge in an interdisciplinary manner within the structure of our website itself, apart from collecting and compiling a database on commons research and publications.

Tomorrow, on Bhasha: they deserve a whole page to themselves!

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