Indigenous wisdom isn’t always readily accepted by so-called educated experts
Within the last few days, I have heard of the passing of someone who made a big impression on me when I was working with Oxfam, based in New Delhi. On one of my first field trips in 1972 or 1973, while visiting organizations which had applied to Oxfam for financial assistance, I visited the Lakshmi Ashram in Kausani in Uttarakhand, high in the Himalayan foothills at about 1,900 metres above sea level.
The ashram had been set up in 1946 by Sarla Behn, one of Mahatma Gandhi’s “two English daughters,” the other being Mira Behn. While I was there, Sarla Behn told me of an environmental campaign that had just started, led by women who were trying to stop the forests being cut down and the role being played by one Sunderlal Bahuguna, who passed away recently from Covid-19 at the age of 94. This was the beginning of the “Chipko Andolan” (“tree-hugging movement”) where women hugged trees thereby preventing them from being cut down.
Soon after my trip to Kausani, the door of my one-room Oxfam office on the first floor of our Defense Colony residence in New Delhi burst open and a bearded man in white khadi clothes and a white sort of bandana on his head entered, saying in quite a loud voice: “Good Morning, I am Sunderlal, the Himalayan Highlander.”
He told me that he had heard from Sarla Behn of a young English agriculturalist who had worked at Samanvaya Ashram, Bodh Gaya in Bihar with the Harijans, and with Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, and he had been interested to meet me. We had a fascinating conversation in which we talked about the Gandhian approach to development, and we also discussed if it is possible that foreign funding may weaken indigenous social justice initiatives, and so we explored the possibility of other indirect ways of supporting the Chipko Andolan movement.
In our discussion, I learned that Sunderlalji, who was a Brahmin, had worked a lot with and for the untouchable castes, the section of the population with which I had worked in Bihar.
As he was getting ready to leave, Sunderlalji noticed that my office assistant was using a new-looking typewriter and after asking a lot about its performance and price, he asked: “Where’s the old one? I can give it a Himalayan home, much more pleasant than this hot concrete place in Delhi.”
And so he went away with the old typewriter, some carbon paper, and some foolscap paper. A great example of support in kind.
Over the years that I was in Delhi for Oxfam, I was occasionally in touch with Sunderlalji and followed the success of the Chipko movement and his opposition to the enormous Tehri Dam. I will, also, always remember the amazing 4,800km Kashmir to Kohima “padayatra” (foot march) in the early 1980s that Sunderlalji undertook to raise the environmental issues facing the Himalayan foothills.
Along with many others, I have also been inspired by one of the well-known disciples of Sunderlalji, Vandana Shiva, who has continued to remind us of the connection between forests, livelihoods, gender inequalities, and the so-called “development” that has stolen trees, soil, and water away from villagers to benefit city-dwellers.
Looking back on over 50 years of so-called development work in South Asia, mostly in Bangladesh, I always say that my biggest failure has been to not being able to get the highly educated experts to accept the in-depth knowledge of local people, often uneducated.
When I told Sunderlalji of my frustration, he said that most people get ideas, often good ones, and proceed to put them into practice, and many of them fail. He told me that good ideas have to be accepted by one’s heart first, and with the strength and commitment gathered from the heart, the hand will successfully implement anything.
And reflecting on indigenous wisdom, I recall that 30 years ago in Bangladesh, when I was working with the Canadian organization CUSO, we obtained Canadian government funds for cyclone rehabilitation activities in Kutubdia and Chakoria after the 1991 cyclone. At that time, CUSO was supporting Gonoshasthaya Kendra’s rehabilitation program, and after listening to the local wisdom, Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury proposed a mangrove replanting rehabilitation program for future protection from tidal surges and cyclones.
The local government officials were not in agreement. And yet, there is a glimmer of positivity, because I have just read that now, in 2021, mangrove protection has been and is being implemented to protect Bhasan Char, where some Rohingya refugees are being re-housed. It has taken 30 years for a good idea to be accepted!
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh Citizenship. Julian has also been honoured with the award of the OBE for services to development in Bangladesh.