Sustainability and Social Equity in the Rural Agriculture and Handicrafts Sectors in India through Design Research and Action in India

Safeguarding, Endangered, Sustainability, Sustainable Devt.

Sustainability and Social Equity in the Rural Agriculture and Handicrafts Sectors in India through Design Research and Action in India

Ranjan, M P

The concept of sustainability is usually understood in the West as a call for environmental balance and ecological considerations in the creation and management of systems and services for human consumption. However, economists have recorded a rapid shift in nations endowed with substantial wealth and those with increasing deficits and the gap is growing alarmingly. The same situation appears in the disparities that are surfacing in the urban-rural divide. The process of globalization and development seems to be leaving the disadvantaged groups in an ever greater bind than ever before. A large number of farmer suicides in several parts of the country as well as the desperate migration of demoralized rural folks to the rapidly expanding urban slums are another visible indicator of this inexorable shift in India.

This is an exodus that had already started many years ago but of late the desperation seems to have peaked with an increased evidence of violence in many parts of the country that needs to be looked at in all seriousness. This is not just to be seen as a local law and order problem that can be suppressed as easily as in the past by the use of a counterforce in the form of State sponsored violence — a phenomenon seen in the recent incidents at Nandigram and Singhur where such violence was the outcome of the land acquisition exercise by the State Government to promote new SEZ initiatives in partnership with industrial giants from India and abroad. Both these incidents occurred in the State of West Bengal; both were connected with the accelerated process of industrialization that was being planned and supported by the Governments at the Centre as well as the State level on the premise that this was the only route that could bring in rapid development of wealth and progress which would in the long run trickle down to the peasants and the disadvantaged people of the State and the Nation. These events were precipitated by an active political opposition in the State which can be accused of political opportunism, but notwithstanding these accusations we can see that the policies themselves may not be the only way forward and there may be other options that could be explored if only we used our imagination and creative explorations in the form of participatory action and test case developments using design research and action as a vehicle for these proposed explorations.

In many parts of the world this rural urban shift has almost been completed due to many reasons that are local as well as global in nature. However, in India, a huge rural sector has survived and sustained one of the biggest human settlements that has remained relatively unchanged for a very long time in the nature of its occupations as well as largely insulated from the massive changes occurring in other areas of the world. The sectors that have provided rural employment and self- sustenance have been agriculture and –running a close second– the hand crafts.

Today, this fragile but significant base which has provided livelihood avenues to the poor and marginal rural populations is being looked at as an area of opportunity for multi-nationals and major Indian corporations. Charles Handy in his paper titled “The Citizen Company” has outlined the new perceptions that have come into the question of citizenship particularly when they apply to business enterprises in transition from an era of exploitative relationships to one of stakeholder participation in a democracy. The same rules would apply to the rural poor in agriculture and the self-employed crafts sectors that today employ a very large proportion of our rural populations although these are at a subsistence level and under pressure from the rapid change in communication that is both rapid and deep in nature. In my own paper titled “The Thick End of the Wedge: Skill Building to Support Livelihoods” which I had presented at the workshop on “Education for Sustainable Livelihoods” at Centre for Environmental Education (CEE), Ahmedabad in 2005, I had called for a change in national policies to focus investments in the area of skill building across our rural population in order to nurture a creative base that could be empowering and liberating in the building of a new future for our rural poor. Urban India too is in need of ability building in addition to the usual education that is offered by our school system if we are to become a creative nation and have a population that was willing to experiment and build creative future which I call action at the “thick end of the wedge” as opposed to innovation investments only in hi-tech labs at the so called “leading edge” of our developments on matters of science and technology in our citadels of education, all at the expense of the gross neglect of the rural areas in India.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his paper “A Systems Perspective on Creativity” asserts that creativity is not an individual phenomenon, however gifted the individual may be, but an event that would occur when a person explored his interests and interacted in a field of the rich cultural system and in a domain of a supportive society if real breakthrough innovations are to occur in a regular manner. Therefore our attempt would be to examine the possibility of building such a rich cultural context as well as a supportive social climate as a catalyst for the sustainable development of the rapidly depleting energies in the rural sectors in India today. Vandana Shiva in her paper titled “Monocultures of the Mind” outlines the loss of diversity that occurs when traditional knowledge systems are replaced with so called modern knowledge and the loss of wisdom is debilitating for the social and economic fabric of the otherwise sustainable rural community and groups that are to be found all over the country even today. This is particularly true of the communities that depend on local bio-diversity to grow their food as well as meet their material needs for their economic crafts and other festive activities that are at the heart of their local culture. So the question that occurs to me is that we would need to examine the role of design in the creation of such a society and a culture in which the rural farmer and craftsman can find answers that are both sustainable as well as socially and economically equitable all the way down the supply chain in a globalised world. Can design help in such complex situations and if so what would design education have to learn by way of methods and attitudes to make this happen?

It was with the express intention of finding some answers that I had decided along with my teaching colleagues at NID to use the Design Concepts and Concerns course this year at NID to explore the whole question of sustainability as well as that of social equity, both of which have been on our educational agenda ever since the Eames India Report was drafted in 1958 based on which NID was set up in 1961. However in recent years we have been drifting to the swan song of the runaway Indian Industry which has adopted the mall culture wholesale as well as the growth first mantras that are being sung by all our governments as well as their opposition parties while the bickering is on technicalities and not on the principle that is being adopted. The National Knowledge Commission too has called for a renewed examination of the Creative Industries of the Future and on behalf of the National Planning Commission Rajeev Sethi a leading India designer has put together an approach paper and a collection of lead statements from numerous India thought leaders on the strategies and approaches that could be adopted by the Nation in this period of massive change and stress. The assignments that the students at NID are handling should be seen as an exploratory venture that could give some valuable insights to the approaches that could be followed even if they do not give complete solutions since they are after all very brief engagements bur could be a precursor of a sustained design development effort with official sanction and support if creative outcomes are to be achieved that are both effective as well as relevant to the present Indian condition.

New students at the NID Bangalore Centre have been assigned the task of exploring creative alternatives and insights towards a sustainable and socially equitable supply chain in which the intention is to protect and nurture the advantages of the rural disadvantaged, the small scale producers and the small farmer in today’s challenging environment. Their work can be seen at the Design Concepts and Concerns blog here as it unfolds and they are expected to come up with a multitude of design opportunities at the end of this course as well build visual scenarios to articulate those opportunities that they would individually feel is a priority and show us the form of their imagination for each one of the selected design opportunity. The areas of focus assigned for the supply chain research and articulation cover three areas namely, Farm Fresh produce, Dairy and Poultry products and handcrafts and Handloom produce, all to be examined from the intention of achieving sustainability and social equity in the respective supply chains all the way from the producer to the end user and these in an innovative manner. Further we believe that an exposure to real problems and opportunities within education would lead to a change in perception in the student themselves and a new focus in their career orientation to be able and willing to take on some of the complex challenges that face our country today. These explorations were also catalysed by the thoughts expressed by Tomas Maldonado a great teacher from the HfG Ulm in his book titled “Design, Nature & Revolution: Towards a Critical Ecology” (1972).


Prahalad, C.K “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” (Wharton School Publishing, 2004
Charles Handy, “The Citizen Company” in Creative Management & Development, third edition, edited by Jane Henry, SAGE and OU Business School, 2006, pp 3 – 17

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “ A Systems Perspective on Creativity” in Creative Management & Development, third edition, edited by Jane Henry, SAGE and OU Business School, 2006, pp 147-58

Vandana Shiva, “Monocultures of the Mind” in Creative Management & Development, third edition, edited by Jane Henry, SAGE and OU Business School, 2006, pp 199-217

M P Ranjan, “The Thick End of the Wedge: Skill Building to Support Livelihoods” paper presented at the workshop on “Education for Sustainable Livelihoods” at Centre for Environmental Education (CEE), Ahmedabad, 2005.

M P Ranjan, “Creating the Unknowable: Designing the Future in Education”

Charles & Ray Eames, “The India Report”, National Institute of Design, (1958) reprint 1998

Tomas Maldonado, “Design, Nature & Revolution: Towards a Critical Ecology” Harper & Row, 1972

This article has been previously published in MP Ranjan, Design for India, 7 October 2007 (http:/ and is reproduced here with the permission of the author.

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