What are appropriate technologies for Smallholders?

By Ashish GuptaonNov. 07, 2019in Perspectives

Traditional Water mill – Himachal Pradesh

For over 3 years now when we began a process of revival at one of the village projects in the Himalayas, one (aspect) of the work was to discover what constitutes as appropriate technology positively impacting livelihood of the farmers.

The main challenge were the constraints (or first principles!) –

  • It should be community based and owned
  • It should address climate change – i.e. from the process of design to delivery (and end of life) it should be as close to net carbon neutral as possible
  • It should be close to zero input cost for the smallholders
  • It should use natural material available within the domain of smallholders – say 5km radius
  • Skill and craft should be localized – and the process should enhance traditional knowledge and technology

After may ordeals and trials for over 3 years villagers at one of our project areas in Himachal Pradesh, India have managed to setup a Traditional Water Mill – using little less than 10% of the total materials purchased from the market – specifically 2 bags of cement (which in hind-site could have been avoided too!!), one reused electrical pole as a pipe, steel sheet for creating a Venturi, funnel and rotor – and I think that is about it. These mills have been around in various parts of the Himalayas for over a century and at that time even these were not available. I leave you with a question though – most blacksmiths in the Himalayas used to get ore from the mountains to craft tools for agriculture but access to mines is banned for smallholders in today’s time – so how do they still get metal to create all the tools if they are unable to purchase from the markets?

Stone Masons used local river side rocks, clay (soil around paddy field), Locally designed grind stones, mostly used wood and local craft to complete this water mill (called Gharat/घराट). Slow ground flour – or slow food if you will – is considered most nutritious since it takes time for the grindstones to rotate. In the village too it is known as Cold Flour (Thanda Atta/ठंडा आटा) and keeps intact the fiber, nutrients. A lever and gear system allows for changing the gap between the grind stones to either grind course or fine for various kinds of grains, pseudo-cereals and spice.

Experienced Masons build such systems from scratch, they engineer all aspects of this using natural material from the spindle, which is actually a stone which has to be found on the river bed (so imagine your luck that one is eventually found and used at all!! – in other words your Gharat relies on you finding the right rocks among millions of them) – then crafting it to right proportion – to eventually rest on a base rock which too must be found on river beds around the villages.

All crafted with care at the hands of the master mason, who all the while being illiterate, at times, are able to create unparalleled precision in functioning of such devices. It is said most traditional crafts-person do not have 2 hands, they have 4 – for in traditional craft all parts of the body are considered a tool and device to use, with the economy of space available in reduced entropy to conserve energy!!

Level and tilt of the grindstone too is measured with rudimentary methods but are surprisingly accurately done by master masons!

We (at Gram Disha) are planning to start using this also to use the organically grown produce (Wheat, Barley, Maize, Millets etc) to create village driven products for surplus sale in markets to enhance incomes of these farmers. Loose sale locally will avoid plastics for packaging, but surplus sale may still require it since there no known alternative which works with the principles above for smallholders.

Gram Disha Trust – Creating Sustainable Value for Smallholders in India and Himalayan Ecosystems

Needless to say – much more has to be done yet and uncountable number of challenges lie in the path of smallholders.Yet they function to the best of their abilities. Problems exist and continue to do so in our case too, we simply look past them and continually find solutions with or without external assistance. Perhaps this too is one element of self-reliance which creates social capital!

If one were to think about it – if this water mill were ever to be dismantled in future, what will happen – the mud plaster will go back to the soil perhaps to grow crops again, the rocks used to create the structure will be rocks, the metal parts will be reused by the blacksmiths, the wood will be re-used too or used as fuel, the spindle rock will be reused by the potter on his wheel and so on. We will have to bear the sins of having used Cement, in whatever little proportion since there is no use of the wasted aggregate at rural level. Thus a so called modern material of technical advancement lies of little or no use, at the end of it all!! The end of life of this rural technology is mostly sorted making it close to net carbon neutral in any manner of systems thinking.

So this brings about a question – is this an appropriate technology for small holders or is this rather backward in a time and age of photons and Quantum Computers? (BTW one wonders – how much carbon was pumped up in the atmosphere to create these high-tech experiments today and what will happen to the world when say a million are created – is it even worth it?)! One computer takes the life energy of perhaps 100 humans (conservative estimate one would say – if one were to start considering rare earth ores mined for one laptop) and no one knows what its carbon impact and end of life of just one laptop is! I am not yet convinced that ‘Hi’-technology is reducing climate change, if it all, its the cause! These words typed on my laptop, the power used in the fiber cable, so many routers, monitors and screens – using such amount of power (electrical) – how can this be climate friendly at all? There was a time when none of these existed and then causality took ITS time. Was then a more carbon efficient time?

What is appropriate technology for smallholders and climate change? I think I am close to my answer in working with the small holders of Himalayas. Are you?

Watch a video depicting the functioning of the traditional water mill (Gharaat / घराट) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=78&v=EsnJX2rRH9I

First published by LinkedIn on 3 Nov. 2019 under the title Traditional Knowledge – What are appropriate technologies for Smallholders? – Water mills of Himalayas – A troubling question!

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