Posted to the Ethnos Project by on May 6th, 2012


This paper attempts to address the issue of virtualizability of lokavidya. Lokavidya has been conceptualized as the vidya (value-laden knowledge) possessed by the farmers, artisans, women and tribal societies the world over and as being inseparable from their world-view and value system. Lokavidya has also been described as inherently an unorganized form of knowledge in society. On the other hand, we have recently seen, in the virtual domain, a substantial increase in interest in “indigenous knowledge systems” which are defined as location and/or culture specific forms of knowledge that form the basis for survival and day-to-day activity and are predominantly rural, oral and not systematically documented. An increasing number of international NGOs and other agencies that have sprung to defend such knowledge from transnational corporations and to systematize it with the intention of “integrating it with modern science” and using it for “sustainable and participatory development”. Is this efflorescence of interest in “indigenous knowledge” to be celebrated by the proponents of lokavidya? Or is it yet another way in which people’s knowledge is being systematized for exploitation by the elites of the new Knowledge-based/virtual Economy? Can lokavidya exist on its own terms even as it is subsumed into the virtual domain? Or is it by its very nature non-organizable and therefore non-virtualizable? Using the examples of the “sustainable development” discourse and of intellectual property rights regimes, I argue that knowledge that has been generated for centuries within the lokavidya paradigm is being virtualized under the guise of indigenous knowledge and in the name of participatory and sustainable development, biodiversity conservation and protection of indigenous intellectual property rights. To put it bluntly and to provoke debate, this is the language of the new imperialism for the Gatesian Age.

About Amit Basole

NOTE: Normally, I include only a brief sketch of an author’s career or academic background, but Dr. Basole’s story is so interesting, I am quoting it in full from his website:

I am always looking for interesting new ideas and consider myself a student of humanity and nature (I use this Enlightenment dichotomy with some trepidation). I used to study the brain for a living but my interests have gradually shifted towards politics and social justice. I now spend more time thinking about what it means for civilizations to “progress” and “develop”. I consider the modern, industrial-consumerist lifestyle violent and unsustainable and would like to try and live more simply.

My childhood and teen years were earned in Bombay’s suburbs, first Borivali (until the age of ten) and then Andheri. I played cricket in the gullies (stumps drawn with red brick on the wall, money contributed for shattered glass windows, irate aunties refusing to hand the ball back and suchlike), visited my maternal grandparents in Nagpur during the long, hot summer vacations, celebrated Happy Birthdays with cake and wafers (a.k.a potato chips for those who have left their Indian childhood for American freeways) and read Hardy Boys, the Panchatantra, the S.Chand series of abridged European classics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in translation and later the potboiler biographies of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein along with the popular science of Stephen Hawking and John Gribbin. Apart from the school syllabus I read in no other language but English, a fact that I rue and remedy today.

My first step in the larger world, so to speak, was when I finished my Bachelor’s degree in Microbiology and by a small miracle ended up being admitted to the Masters by research program offered by the Molecular Biology Unit (now Department of Biological Sciences) of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Thereafter smitten by the biology research bug I decided to do a PhD in Neurobiology with the full intention of finishing up somewhere as a Professor of Neuroscience or something like that. But unbeknownst to me larger forces were at work and nature sneaked up behind me with a bit of lead piping, as Bertie Wooster might have said. By the time I finished a dissertation on the neurophysiology of the mammalian visual system, I had moved on to a place (in my thinking) that made it impossible for me to continue on in the field.

“He who has seen only India, has not India seen.”

There is an Indian aphorism, “he who has seen only India, has not India seen”. At the age of 23 when I first left India, I had seen nothing but India. Like many middle-class, city bred Indians, as I grew up I had become inured and insensitive to its problems. I came to America to become a scientist, to pursue a childhood dream. Being here for the past six years I have learnt much about India and about myself. While I started my PhD thinking that I would do research in Neuroscience as a career, most likely in the US, I am now certain that I would eventually like to work in India in a more socially conscious capacity.

Despite being involved in basic research for nearly eight years (see ‘academic background’ below), I have been increasingly interested in social causes. About three years ago I began volunteering in my spare time with the Association for India’s Development, a US-based non-profit that supports developmental projects carried out by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in India. My volunteer experience with AID included coordinating two projects, one supporting an education program for underprivileged children in government-run remand homes in Maharashtra and the other project supporting the activities of a union of landless agricultural laborers in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southern India. Through this experience I have understood better (but only slightly) the inextricably intertwined processes of “modernization” and “development”. My decision to quit Neuroscience and start afresh in Economics stems from a desire to acquire a more systematic knowledge of the economics, the history and philosophy behind such massive changes that affect millions of people the world over. A fortuitous combination of events landed me in the Economics department at the University of Massachusetts, where I am currently in the middle of yet another PhD.

Academic background

I received my undergraduate degree in Microbiology from Bhavan’s College, Bombay University. After this I went on to do research in Molecular Biology at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bombay. I worked in the laboratory of Prof. K.S. Krishnan in the Department of Biological Sciences. My research focused on understanding the process of synaptic transmission (how neurons communicate with each other in the brain) at the molecular level using the fruit fly as a model system. My work has also become part of two peer-reviewed papers in scholarly journals (Sanyal et al 1999 and Sanyal et al 2004, see my CV for full citations). My doctoral research (advised by Prof. David Fitzpatrick at the Department of Neurobiology, Duke University) focused on how animal brains process sensory information. My work has expanded (but only slightly!) our understanding of how different types of visual features are integrated in the electrical activity of visual cortical neurons. These results were published in the journal, Nature (Basole et al 2003). A second chapter of my dissertation was published in Progress in Brain Research in the year 2007. You can find a more detailed description of my Neuroscience research at this link.

Please visit Dr. Basole’s website.

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