The pace of technical change has been rapid in recent times, which is visible to all. What may not be widely recognised is the resulting breakdown of long cherished social values and its impact. These changes throw up some important questions – to what extent we should try to preserve and protect traditional knowledge and values? What is the importance of this effort? Is such an effort really needed?
The questions regarding the importance of protecting traditional knowledge relating to agriculture, seeds, soil, animal husbandry, handicrafts, forests, biodiversity, weather-patterns, water conservation and irrigation can be easily addressed. There is absolutely no doubt that the knowledge base which we have inherited from our ancestors relating to these traditional livelihoods is of great importance and should be carefully documented and well protected.
This knowledge base going back to thousands of years contains the accumulated wisdom of hundreds of generations. So many generations of farmers, pastoralists, artisans and gatherers of forest produce made careful observations and experiments regarding their livelihoods in their specific regional context and its environs. One generation inherited this wisdom, added to it, enriched it and then passed on this enriched legacy to the next generation. This knowledge base handed over to us from so many generations is invaluable and irreplaceable.
Discard what is harmful and disruptive
The importance of preserving traditional knowledge may appear to be obvious and irrefutable to many unbiased persons. Yet it needs to be re-emphasised, because in official policy making this has been frequently neglected, for which we have had to pay a very high price. For example, in agricultural policy a very conscious decision was taken to discard traditional crop varieties and bring in exotic varieties to replace them on a vast scale.This resulted in such huge loss of rich diversity of traditional seeds and varieties of various crops like rice that this has been called a genetic holocaust.
What is more, this was not just a loss of seeds but of the entire farming systems because the various practices which were related closely to traditional seeds had to be discarded along with these seeds as new exotic seeds demanded different practices and inputs and in fact these were propagated in a big way along with the new seeds as progressive farming while all the earlier practices and seeds were dismissed as backward.
Hence, along with traditional seeds various crop rotations and mixed farming systems which earlier generations had found most suitable, were also discarded in great haste with no consideration at all for the several generations of accumulated wisdom involving observations, experimentation and exchange of seeds and ideas of a very large number of farmers and farming communities. Just on the basis of a few centralised decisions taken by policy makers the entire farming systems embodying the accumulated wisdom of several generations of farmers were swept aside in the most thoughtless, unceremonious and ruthless way.
Going by such experience, the importance of preserving traditional knowledge relating to farming and related livelihoods and supporting systems needs to be re-emphasised as not just a peripheral issue, but as an issue of great importance and priority.
Certain forms of social change can be very rapid, pervasive and strong. So given their force and range sometimes it is said that there is not much we can we can do to check or change what appears inevitable. However, this is somewhat a defeatist attitude. If on the basis of existing knowledge and recent experience of various areas some forms of social change have been found to be very harmful, disruptive and invasive, why should we stop ourselves from making an effort to avoid at least the more harmful aspects of this change?
Another view often expressed is that we should try to take the good aspects of tradition and the good aspects of modernity so that a social system combining the two can be created.
Making the right choice
What appears convenient, attractive and fashionable, and called modern may not necessarily be the right choice. To make the correct choice we need to ask whether our basic value systems are in place or whether these have been badly violated and destroyed.
Many traditional societies may be regressive in some respects but they also show a higher regard for simplicity, honesty, contentment, and avoid conflicts caused by greed. These values also make room for more caring and less selfish social relationships at various levels. Rapid social changes increasingly have an adverse impact on these values and instead emphasise on consumerism, instant gratification, success and achievement with endless accumulation of material wealth and pursuit of sensual pleasures.
Supporting the foundation of our value systems is of crucial importance for meeting the most important and diverse challenges of our times, and it is fascinating to explore where we can learn from tradition and where modern influences can be more helpful.