Social Values vs Technology: What Solves The Larger Problems?

Posted on November 16, 2011 in Specials

By Pranietha Mudliar:

The fact that most of my engineer friends still think that the social sciences is a subject not worth studying rankles me. They still think that technology can cater to all the problems of mankind. They don’t seem to understand that social dynamics are very complex and that there is no blueprint model that can work in all situations. This makes me think of them as supremely arrogant of their subject and their field. (I don’t think all engineers are like this though).

Realities in the field are much more different and cannot be comprehended by sitting in air-conditioned offices.

I will explain the importance of the social science with the example of watershed development in India.

Watershed development refers to the soil and water conservation and augmentation measures in a bid to improve rural livelihoods. The government took up watershed development in the late 1970s to tackle the increasing instances of water security facing the country. These programs were implemented by the government agencies and engineers in the drought prone areas of the country. Check dams, bunds, ponds, etc. were built but they did little to alleviate the situation of water scarcity. In fact most of these programs failed to fulfill their goal of providing water. Technology should have solved the problem here, shouldn’t it?

Gradually, research uncovered the fact that these programs were being implemented in a very technocratic, top-down and bureaucratic manner. The approach of the ‘government knows best’ was however, backfiring. There were no successful projects to boast of and all the investment was in vain. The reason for the failure of these programs is that the people for whom these watershed structures were being built did not figure anywhere in the planning, implementation, and monitoring processes.

Thus in the early 1990s the concept of participatory watershed development came about. Participation was touted as being the key factor to ensure success of these programs. The locals were involved in all the processes from identifying the type of structures required, the number of structures, the position and placement of the bunds, etc. Community based management of resources gained importance because they had their own source of traditional knowledge and expertise that could be tapped in the search to resolve problems of drought. There was collaboration with the government, NGOs and the villages now rather than relying on the ‘expert’ advice of the government agencies.

The villagers now play a pro-active role in helping to maintain the structures on their fields. They form their own watershed organizations and associations and make contributions to it. It is important to realize that the people of our country are a very important resource.

It would however be wrong to say that watershed development has been a huge success in India. It has its own set of problems related to land ownership, caste, class, gender, and politics. Watershed development has now come to be associated with poverty alleviation in India and there is constant research going on as to how to deliver outcomes that are pro-poor. Equity issues, suppression of the marginalized by the rich landowners, social isolation of members of lower castes are still rampant in many places of the country. This is because water has a lot of cultural and religious significance in the country. It is of course difficult to do away with this social psychology that has been conditioning us, but we need to continually find ways of framing policies that will help to break this mold. And in all this, I don’t see engineering solve the problem at all.

Problems are not resolved with claiming that a subject is superior to the other. It requires the technologist, scientist and the social scientist, and various stakeholders working together with the government to come to a resolution that is agreeable to all. Listening is more important than talking and understanding others’ viewpoints is more important than always stating your own.

I came across this blogpost reflecting the views of 3 engineers from one of our finest engineering schools in the country. Something to mull about and it is definitely humorous.

Pranietha Mudliar