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Twenty-five years of web and the Honey Bee Network

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The cross-cultural exchange of knowledge before the invention of world wide web by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 took place slowly but perhaps more attentively. The surfing culture of television channels and social media had not emerged. The learners not only read books but also wrote letters, often in long hand but also typed with early version of Wordstar and Netscape. I bought first desktop computer in 1985-86. When I taught an online course on sustainable agriculture as a part of a doctoral research of a student at Cornell University in early 90’s, the files had to be uploaded on a server in US from where the students had to download by using FTP. The participants from various parts of the world and of all ages enriched the discussions. Today, online courses have become an everyday experience. The development of open source databases to trigger the cross-pollination of ideas which market actors on their own may have no incentives to diffuse was still a new idea then. Democratizing knowledge through the use of internet is yet to catch up in India even after 25 years. The language is one major constraint and lack of willingness to experiment on non-chemical alternatives in agriculture or livestock is another. The miniscule share of organic agriculture confirms the limited demand for such innovations and knowledge systems. The public policy in support of such knowledge exchange is also very limited. With the decline in the number of young farmers in years to come, the situation may become less optimistic. However, the mechanics and the artisans may have much higher interest in cross-cultural learning but their fabrication is often is restricted to the consumers-specific demand. The number of examples where one innovator has adapted and diffused innovations of other innovators is very few. This is an area where much more action research is needed.

Unfortunately, when we review the last 25 years of web and Honey Bee Network (www.honeybee.org) , it is sad to say that ours is still the largest database of its kind available now in many languages for spreading the seeds of sustainable, democratic, open thoughts. Ideally, there should have been a large number of organisations, academic and otherwise, to have encouraged sharing of knowledge, of course with prior informed consent of the knowledge providers. Millions of dollars have been spent by regional and international financial and development institutions on so-called participatory technology development projects since 1993. And yet, not many NGOs and individuals have developed open source people’s knowledge databases. Even the public research institutions have not gone very far with this idea.

If one looks at the time public broadcasting media allocates for the dissemination of people’s own creativity, one can get a clear idea how much importance any nation attaches to this cause.

One reason for starting Honey Bee Network was that academics and companies used to benefit from the knowledge of people without acknowledging them or sharing benefits with them. The anonymity of knowledge producers and providers was [and is] a major handicap in pursuing ethical and a fair exchange. IIMA has provided a very generous and hospitable sanctuary for the Network newsletter all these years. For the first four years, it was published as an IIMA publication but later, colleagues felt that its publication should be done by an independent agency. The reservation was that there were many claims in the magazine about farmers’ practices, which may not have been confirmed by the experimental scientists. This was true. That is why SRISTI had to be set up on the advice of Policy Perspectives Committee, IIMA. The editorial office has, however, continued in my office. Whatever institutional and policy impact has been made by the Network, the role of IIMA’s support cannot be under estimated. The academic institutions can and do provide enormous opportunity for academics to pursue research and action to address unmet social needs and bring the dynamic understanding to the classroom. The web makes it possible for making connections more easily now.

But in early 90’s, the ease of web was not around though emails were available. The Honey Bee database of open source knowledge of farmers’ innovations for sustainable agriculture was gaining recognition. University of Colorado had a Centre for Sustainable Future [CSF] and our first website was uploaded at csf.colorado.edu/sristi [not active any more but can be found in archives of mails of that time]. My elder son, Abhas Abhinav had made the first web site of SRISTI ( http://www.sristi.org) and Honey Bee Network some time in 1993-94 when he was in tenth class. The content at the site was cited in opposition filed at USPTO against patents in 1996-97. A proposal was made to USPTO to use such prior art to prevent patents on people’s prior knowledge. In 1997, thanks to the opposition by CSIR, the turmeric patent issued to two Indians in 1995 was revoked. The TKDL was a natural consequence of such contestations. The relationship between sharing knowledge and availability of a platform for the purpose spurred many changes in the way knowledge was managed.

Today, the discourse on open, frugal and green grassroots innovations has included a large number of actors around the world. Shodhyatras, however, still help us cross-pollinate ideas in the regions where internet has not reached so far or if has reached through mobile phones, it doesn’t often provide the knowledge that people can use to experiment, innovate and validate the ideas. But things are changing and soon mobile communities might emerge to discuss experiments in the fields and firms, among workers and employers, among activists and their adversaries to create even more open and democratic culture of dialogue. I also hope that in the next few years we will not use mobile phones only to communicate and listen to music or see films but also use them for processing information about diagnosis of diseases, monitoring health, environment, water quality, plant and animal health, etc. Very soon, we will have extremely affordable devices powered by phones and using their information processing capacity to find answers to everyday problems. Whether these devices will come up through open and democratic processes to facilitate roadside assembly and repair, as used to happen in the 50s and 60s for radios and transistors depends on public policy and institutional environment. I hope when we write about golden jubilee of web and Honey Bee Network, we would have far more content in Indian and other languages on the web than we have today. Language shapes the habit of thought, as many linguists have observed. Thoughts fertilise the culture, the diverse thoughts fertilise even more.

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