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Knowledge as power

Common people, acting collaboratively, are a wonderful source of public good. Regretfully, experts, when assigned a monopolistic role, can abuse public interest

My ears perked up during a lively rendition of “the Lungi Dance” by my granddaughters, for the words ran: ‘ Gharpe jaake tum Google kar lo, mere baare me Wikipidia pe padhlo ! So, Wikipedia, which has become such a fantastic source of information and enjoyment for me over the last few years, is now a part of popular culture! This is incredible, because Wikipedia goes against all the tenets of the votaries of market economy who had confidently predicted fourteen years ago that this non-profit, voluntary experiment was bound to fail.

The Wiki software that permits building up of information in a collaborative fashion is a remarkable innovation, and its creator, Ward Cunningham, could have made lots of money by patenting it. Instead, he made it freely available, opening up enormous possibilities. Encyclopedias, centuries-old compendia of knowledge, have traditionally been expert-driven and commercially produced. But with the World-Wide-Web flowered concepts such as ‘Creative Commons’, a platform for people who wish their creations — texts, pictures, music — to be freely and publicly available, not only to enjoy, but to change, augment, improve. This is a process of positive feedback, with creations and creativity growing from strength to strength. According to market devotees, Creative Commons, starved of the waters of private profit, should have forever remained barren. But over the years it has become a lush garden, tended lovingly by people who can see well beyond personal gain.
Wikipedia is the great Banyan tree, growing in this public garden. The initial free, public Encyclopedia, Nupedia, composed by experts, failed to take off. Experts are busy people, generally with a strong personal profit motive, and initially failed to take the lead in this public-spirited endeavour. It was then that Wikipedia boldly decided that any lay person too would be welcome to contribute to an article on any topic, provided that the inputs are based on acceptable sources of information. People, especially experts, enjoy nothing more than pointing out other people’s mistakes, so an excellent way of arriving at valid information on the Internet is to begin by posting some, possibly erroneous information.
Rigorous scrutiny
Wikipedia invites all comers to scrutinise every piece of information in every article, eliminate errors and improve its quality. This stimulated experts who now participate enthusiastically in the inclusive, egalitarian enterprise of Wikipedia. In this new culture of the Commonwealth of Knowledge, experts have graduated from the earlier overpowering, monopolistic role to a very constructive one of collaboration and guidance. So, Wikipedia has become a standard source of information even for professional mathematicians, with the material, naturally enough, based on inputs from practising mathematicians. They have gone on to collaboratively develop outstanding mathematical text-books as Wikibooks.
The gratifying outcome is that the accuracy of information on Wikipedia, on a par with that in commercial encyclopedias, has been maintained even as its quantity has grown a thousand times over that of commercial ones. Moreover, the information is very much up to date. Within hours of the tsunami hitting the east coast of India, Wikipedia carried authentic pictures and information on the event. Happily, all major Indian languages now have their own Wikipedias, with more than half a lakh articles each in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.
Common people, acting collaboratively, are a wonderful source of public good. Regretfully, experts, when assigned a monopolistic role, can abuse public interest. Goa’s Mines and Geology Department is expected to regularly inspect mines, maintain proper data and ensure that mining operations do not impose undue environmental and social costs. Yet, the Shah Commission Report on Illegal Mining in Goa records that no inspection was carried out of iron ore mines as required under the Act, resulting in damage to the ecology, environment, agriculture, ground water, ponds, rivers, and biodiversity. The commission squarely puts the blame for such damage on many official experts. My own studies document that experts from private organisations have been guilty of deliberately falsifying information in the Environmental Impact Assessments of mines.
Creation of knowledge
Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, an exercise of compiling available knowledge. But new knowledge, too, may be created very effectively in the same inclusive culture of collaboration, for common people know a great deal from their experience. I discovered a striking example of this in my field research on ecology and management of bamboos. The Foresters prescribed that the thorny covering at the base of bamboo clumps must be cleared to decongest the clumps and promote better growth of new culms. The villagers told me that this was a mistake; that clearing the thorns exposed new shoots to grazing by cattle as well as wild animals, adversely impacting the bamboo stocks. Three years of careful field studies revealed that the villagers were entirely right.
So, systematically recording such detailed location and society specific knowledge can be of immense value. The Australians, for instance, have a Citizens’ River Watch Programme involving local residents who adopt nearby river stretches for keeping a watch over them. The government arranges two-day training programmes for all those interested, communicating simple techniques of assessing water flow and water quality. The water quality assessments are based on occurrence of animals like damselflies that occur only in clean water or chironomids that frequent highly polluted waters. Numerous volunteer observers upload such data employing user-friendly online data entry forms. This data is open to scrutiny and correction by all concerned. Such citizen scientist data has by now generated an excellent knowledge base of the state of rivers of Australia. Such a rich database could never have been created by experts acting by themselves; there are too few of them, they are expensive, and assigning a monopolistic role to them is dangerous. Moreover, involving all interested citizens in collecting and scrutinising the data ensures that errors, including deliberate falsifications, are quickly noticed and eliminated. The world over, such Citizen Science projects are now taking root. It is such Citizen Science that the people of Kerala should now pioneer, with the stone quarries as the focus, for the official agencies have no proper database on these allegedly largely illegal, environmentally-destructive and socially-abusive activities. After all, it was in Kerala that scientists began to break the stranglehold of official agencies through an open, transparent exercise of conducting an environmental and techno-economic assessment of the Silent Valley Project.
Now, in the new millennium, a cadre of volunteers can readily put together a quarries database since the easily available GPS instruments pinpoint geographical locations, and satellite images bring out patterns of land use — including quarrying, the watercourse that the quarries affect, the landslides that they trigger, the fields and plantations that they smother. Local residents can involve themselves by speedily collecting pertinent physical data, as well as detailed information on employment generated, other economic, social, health impacts and on matters like whether the concerned gram sabhas support or oppose the enterprises. If organisations like the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat and Vigyan Bharathi make such an effort their mission, a rich reliable information base can be put together in as short a time as a few weeks.
Of course, this ought to have been already under way. The Biological Diversity Act, 2002, mandates all Panchayat Bodies to develop People’s Biodiversity Registers that would include many of the elements sketched above. Noting that first-hand observations on environmental parameters would be an excellent educational tool, the Central Advisory Board on Education had strongly endorsed a programme of using student Environmental Education projects throughout the country to develop such databases as early as 2005, as did the Approach Paper for the Eleventh Five Year Plan. But these formal provisions have been of no avail for our rulers believe in what Tao Te Ching, the Chinese manual of Statecraft preached two thousand four hundred years ago: “The ancients who practised the way did not enlighten people with it; they used it, rather to stupefy them; the people are hard to rule when they have too much knowledge. Therefore, ruling a state through knowledge is to rock the state. Ruling a state through ignorance brings stability to the state.”
The citizens of the world are now ready to rock many of the thoroughly mismanaged boats of our nation-states. People’s taking charge of the knowledge enterprise should be one of the steps in such a revolution. So, let Kerala pioneer the Citizen Science approach, focusing on a significant issue of the day — the stone quarries disfiguring the mountains of God’s own country.
(The writer was chairman, Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel. Email: madhav.gadgil@gmail.com)
Common people, acting collaboratively, are a wonderful source of public good. Regretfully, experts, when assigned a monopolistic role, can abuse public interest

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