This review draws from a field survey conducted under the community radio project, Alfaz-e-Mewat, an initiative of a rural development NGO, S M Sehgal Foundation. The objective of this investigation is to improve our understanding of rural perspectives related to science and technology in district Nuh (erstwhile Mewat), Haryana.
The relevance of such an inquiry is significant as humanity is struggling to overcome a global pandemic. The national and state governments are determined to mobilize the population on vaccine safety and its efficacy. A key factor is the perception of rural communities on the science behind the spread of the virus and the efficacy of vaccines.
A vision of developing scientific aptitude among Indians is shared by the National Education Policy 2020. Calling it a constitutional value, it is increasingly seen as synonymous with universal human values and a prerequisite for good citizens capable of rational thought and action. But what does it take to generate scientific awareness within rural communities?
To explore this theme pertaining to science and technology in everyday rural life, let us reference the purpose of fieldwork conducted in response to the call for inputs for the Science Technology and Innovation Policy (STIP 2020). Community radio stations across the country, including radio Alfaz-e-Mewat, conducted fieldwork (while adhering to all COVID safety norms) and interacted with participants through small group meetings and online exchanges. Our research indicates that while science is seen as a blessing in various spheres of life such as farming, travel, and online education, it is yet to fulfill unmet development needs at the grassroots. The villages continue to struggle with the basic necessities such as clean drinking water, electricity, and others. The participants in these interactions were of the view that STIP should focus primarily on agriculture, health, and education. Each respondent felt happy to share their inputs for the policy, but the context in which a villager places his/her expectations from science and technology continues to be an urgent question. We discuss such critical questions in the following sections.
Awareness of scientific principles and their role in everyday life
Rural communities seem to have a basic understanding of science principles which they observe in their daily lives. For instance, sunlight causes the water in clothes to become steam and evaporate, and that they need oxygen to breathe. Schoolchildren were able to answer correctly about the temperature at which water freezes and about which water boils. Most participants were of the view that God makes the wind blow, and a few students answered that it happens because of air pressure differences.
The participants seem to learn about abstract concepts such as the planets and the working of the universe from the perspective of their cultural and religious experiences. In focus group discussions, we observed a religious explanation of the existence of the universe through the concept of Tabaaks. Some participants included earth, hell (pataal), birds/mammal, and the moon in what constitutes the universe.
Women participants believed that God causes calamities such as earthquakes and tsunamis when there is an increase in atrocities by humans, or when daughters are not following their religion. Elderly people believe they are the result of humans’ bad deeds or not following the will of God.
The reason for scanty rainfall in Nuh district was attributed to trees ki kami (lack of trees), allah naraaz hai (Allah is annoyed with us), karm acche nahi hai (people do not do good deeds). When asked what causes night and day, many had the view: allah ki taraf se, din kaam ke liye aur raat sone ke liye (God has created day for us to work, and night to rest).
The notion the elderly carry about science is “science toh anumaan lagana hai” (science is what helps us make an estimate). Women participants said that when something new is discovered, it is called science. Some participants believe science and its various advancements to be a gift of Allah. They seemed willing to adopt modern technology in agriculture, but when it comes to personal opinions, they rely more on their religious teachings over scientific facts. They seem to agree to science if it doesn’t contradict their religion.
In general, the participants believe science to be a tool to make their life easier. They recognize electronic gadgets such as washing machines, milking machines, flour mills, sewing machines, computers, and airplanes, etc., as technological advancements to this effect. The most important technological innovation in the kitchen for them is LPG gas cylinder, as it saves time and is of great utility during rainy seasons.
A dedicated exercise was conducted to report admittedly incorrect myths that people continue to believe in. Some are more common than others, such as a cat crossing the street being considered a bad omen, as is taking a bath after returning from a funeral or after childbirth. Others include superstitions, such as illness is sometimes caused by an evil eye/ghaat lagna, or the scarcity of rainfall is because of killing animals and birds. Across all age groups, the participants believe in the existence of jinn (intelligent spirits) more than ghosts. In olden times people used to put angithi outside the room of the mother/newborn child; now they put a matchstick or knife beside or under the pillow of a newborn child to ward off evil.
The pandemic and preferences in seeking medical treatment
The participants’ understanding of what an epidemic is and how it spreads was included as a topic in the group discussions. For the elderly participants, an epidemic is only a type of illness, and they didn’t believe COVID-19 is any different. Youth and younger women seem to be more aware about the concept of an epidemic and listed COVID-19 and bird flu as epidemics. According to them, an epidemic is caused by unhygienic ways of living, lifestyle changes from the past, or changing food habits. A few participants believe it is also caused by God.
A majority of participants admitted they prefer allopathic treatment nowadays. However, the participants believed that desi treatments were better in the past, but now they don’t have the learned people in the village who can identify the cause of a problem simply by checking the pulse. According to some participants, allopathic care provides immediate relief, but does not address or cure the root cause of the illness/disease. Although desi treatments (home remedies) take longer, they work on the roots of the problem. Therefore, for some illnesses such as piliya (jaundice) and motijirra (typhoid), desi treatment is preferred.
We found an increase in the use of sanitary pads for menstrual health, and the taboo around periods is decreasing. Women now go out for work or to study during their menstrual cycle. The practice of giving colostrum at childbirth is increasing in frequency as more and more deliveries take place in government hospitals.
Culture: A common basis for understanding science
There is often a critical value-action gap or attitude-behavior gap among rural communities toward health and nutrition. Villagers may have the right knowledge and attitude toward maternal and child health, early marriages, smoking, and a balanced diet, but cultural factors, lack of motivation, and/or poor economic conditions may not allow their right attitudes to correlate to their actions. For example, the participants were aware that early marriage is not good for their children’s health and may also have legal implications. However, early marriage is practiced due to the fear that a female child may become more rebellious as she matures. Similarly, they were aware that a two-year gap between childbirths is good for mother and child health and the mother’s social status. However, cultural factors pressure mothers to have another child as soon as she delivers her first child.
Similarities in attitudes toward science were observed in participants across all generations. Third-generation participants are heavily involved with their customs and religion and less affected by the outside world. For them, science is fun and important if it is bringing them entertainment, making their life easier, and/or improving their economic conditions. However, science becomes a curse when it starts targeting their strong cultural and religious beliefs. Strong perceptions about God often overshadow participants’ ability to think or question things logically and scientifically. It’s easier for them to attribute the cause behind calamities or personal life difficulties/tragedies to God’s punishment.
This exploration that includes many anecdotal views is not limited to rural areas, as these have universal applicability. The degree may vary with societal, cultural, and religious differences, but the core ideologies tend to associate circumstances with God’s will. We often view science as based on facts and rationality, however everyday science learns from a cultural lens rather than solely from the lens of exploration and logic. In order to popularize science amongst rural communities it is essential to focus on finding common ground between scientific advancements and the community’s desire for improvements in their life, health, and economic conditions. Such an endeavor when coupled with an easy-to-understand communication strategy can go a long way in making future generations science ready.
(Arti is program lead, Outreach for Development, and Saurabh is social scientist, Rural Research and Development at S M Sehgal Foundation)