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Research Scholar Ishita Sinha On Importance Of Documenting Our Indigenous Resources

  • IWB Post
  •  November 26, 2019

“Forgetting our indigenous knowledge base has cost us deeply – both socially and ecologically. It’s a good thing that we have begun to realize our mistakes,” says Ishita, topper and research scholar at TERI School of Advanced Studies.

In the present context, we well aware about the acute problems associated with practices that aren’t sustainable. But what about the solutions?

Ishita highlights how documentation is the best way to begin learning from our traditional knowledge base. “Our indigenous knowledge base is so enormous that it could easily be a discipline in its own if documented properly,” she says.

During her time at TERI, Ishita collaborated on two now published papers on marginalized communities’ access to water and displacement-induced loss of indigenous knowledge as well as on a project pertaining to gender in the Indian context. As a full-grant researcher with the UN financial agency, the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), Ishita worked on a livelihood project in Uttarakhand, aimed at addressing women’s well-being.

In an engaging conversation with IWB, Ishita Sinha outlines what needs to be done and how individuals can actively contribute to the idea of sustainable development.

Excerpts,

Tell us a bit about how you ventured into studying sustainable development after pursuing a course in psychology. Why this shift?

I didn’t really see myself working in the traditional psychology setup. But I was quite interested in social science and research – a part of the course. I was a volunteer in an organization called ‘Shrishti’, where I was working on the computer literacy program and the YP Foundation. There  I was involved in teaching slum kids – instilling in them an awareness about issues such as gender violence, equality, etc. This entire experience of working in communities made me realize that I wanted to head in this direction – to have a more rigorous understanding of the frameworks and systems that impact social change. To broaden my understanding of the subject and the developmental issues at hand, I enrolled in the Sustainable Practice Program at TERI.

Talking about developmental issues, terms like ‘sustainable development, ‘circular economy’ are quite prevalent. But these terms are often misunderstood by people and deliberately abused by big companies. Can you highlight the ways in which the common man can be better informed and encouraged to lead a more sustainable lifestyle?

I feel the term ‘sustainable development’ is redundant and a misnomer. Development should always be sustainable. The fact that it is a testimony to our inefficient ways – what we are doing so far hasn’t really worked out in the best interests of everyone. I believe following the same module with certain tweaks is not going to provide a solution to the nightmarish situation that we have created. Also, preaching or admonishing people will never work. Even though people are now aware of the harmful effects of a certain product or practice, educating them on ways to transition towards a more sustainable lifestyle is what we are missing out on. We need to provide people with better alternatives instead of placing a ban on a certain product. Once people are aware of the alternatives and have an easy access to them, they can easily transition to a more sustainable way of living.

You wrote a research paper on the effects of development induced displacement on the indigenous tribes. How do you think we can incorporate the indigenous resources to achieve sustainable development?

I think today, a number of policy makers have begun to look at the bigger picture and are engaging in productive dialogue over development. Even though the traditional knowledge base has existed for centuries, there was a time, probably around 1800’s when terms like ‘rationality’ and ‘national sciences’ took over; making us completely forget about our indigenous knowledge base. Based on all the research I have done in the Indian context, the first step that we need to take is to document all our indigenous resources – providing us with solutions in the process. We also need to uproot the notion that adopting indigenous food grain varieties and food storage systems signifies backwardness. We could learn from the module adopted by ‘Anganwadis’ in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. The farmers are encouraged to grow indigenous food grains, employing local women to turn these into nutrition bars which are then bought by the government and sold in collaboration with Anganwadis. We need not romanticize indigenous practices, adopting the best and leaving behind what doesn’t work is the way forward.

Another paper of yours talked about the challenges faced by Dalit women in accessing water. How can we deal with the rampant discrimination against Dalit women?

The challenge or issue of ‘water’ isn’t just about its availability but also about its accessibility and people need to understand that. A national resource problem cannot be solved only by addressing its availability – the usage, the distribution and most importantly how its access affects certain sections of the society need to be taken into account as well. Even though practicing untouchability is a crime in our constitution, the fact that it is a lived reality for some people in this day and age is hard-hitting. Despite these issues being brought to the fore, the focus has shifted to the developmental challenges that a certain community faces. In order to deal with social evils, we need to have an understanding of the violence associated with accessibility of water and act on the problematic areas.

Can you tell us how communities impact the development module in their towns/cities? In what ways can people identify the issues in their city and be a part of the sustainable development process?

First and foremost, we must understand that not everyone will be willing to participate or should be forced to participate for that matter. There is a lot of misinformation around us and we must develop our ability to question the narratives that we are exposed to. The key is to find something that resonates with you, which aligns with your set of values and engage with people who are equally frustrated with a problem. I believe, mobilizing a community in a non-agitated way is the best tool to ensure that the voices are heard by the policy makers. We can only make practical, realistic suggestions once we understand how the systems and structures work. This can be achieved by trying to be involved with government programs and internships that address issues of development.

Speaking about your academic achievements, what does it take to be a topper? What is your recipe for academic success?

I think with academic success, it really comes down to the fact that you cannot cheat yourself. This field was something that matched with my skill set. Let’s say I was seeking the field I am currently pursuing. For me, there was never an excuse to not do my best or do what was required of me. I believe you can never do justice to a profession if you don’t identify with it. It is a challenging field of study. Once you know why you are doing it, it becomes a lot easier. I have had a great time doing what I am doing.

What are your plans now?

For now, I am taking a breather. I have done some incredibly demanding projects and attended a couple of conferences around the world in the past few months. I am looking forward to becoming better at my research and exploring policy making.

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