From where I sit - Pariah status for informal experts

January 22, 2009

He is a sprightly 77-year-old schoolteacher who has spent his life discovering ancient painted rock shelters in an area of central India called Narsinghgarh.

Yet few outside the small town where he lives know about Jitendra Dutt Tripathi or that his doctoral dissertation, written while he taught at the local school, is the only available study of the rock paintings to which he devotes his time.

Why is it important to draw attention to the work of Dr Tripathi and others like him in India? One reason is that, since 2005, a high-powered National Knowledge Commission has been preparing a blueprint that aims to harness India's brainpower and transform it into a "knowledge hub".

How can the frontiers of Indian research expand? Where are its "knowledge producers" sited and why is there a lack of communication among them? Is the absence of contact a result merely of a lack of the hardware or tools of contact, or are there deeper prejudices at work?

These are questions that the commission was expected to address, and it has opted for a technological solution. In its recently published book, Towards a Knowledge Society, a high-speed broadband network is identified as the way forward, linking existing research laboratories, universities and other institutions of higher education across the country.

This solution would work if all knowledge in India emanated from research institutions and universities. A great deal of it does, and surely a high-speed network should be established.

But knowledge also continues to be generated by people outside academia. I can speak about my own discipline, archaeology, with some confidence, but this is likely to be the situation in many others, too.

Dr Tripathi is not alone among the amateurs in small towns and villages who have expanded the frontiers of archaeology. East India has had a particularly robust group of such scholars, ranging from the late Manik Lal Sinha - another schoolteacher who used his holidays to make surveys of local archaeological sites - to Prasanta Kumara Mandal, a government bank official who built up a museum in Tamluk with his collection of antiquities.

Tamil Nadu, the southern-most state of India, is also home to antiquarian societies. One of these, Tamil Nadu Archaeological Society, publishes news of discoveries of sites, inscriptions and coins in Avanam, its vernacular journal.

It is the work of such societies and individuals that contributes in equal measure to creating Indian archaeology's weighty database.

Over the past few years, Anil Gupta, a professor at the elite Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad, has pioneered a nationwide network to identify and support the "informal sector" of grassroots innovators and innovations that don't depend on formal "knowledge" as the commission seems to define it.

Why such heroes remain unsung has little to do with the absence of a telecom maze. Instead, it is related to existing mindsets. Those who have a high academic visibility in India tend to suffer from a low exposure to, and interest in, committed amateurs and regional scholars.

They are also largely big-city, English-speaking scholars who continue to be uncomfortable with the Indian languages in which people from small towns and places publish.

If the commission intends to genuinely provide a road map for networking India's knowledge potential, it must find ways of integrating those outside the academy as well as those within it.

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