Technology for rural industrialization


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THE debate on science and technology (S&T) policy in independent India has largely taken place around the shifting role of the state in phases; ranging from the strong promotion of S&T, pursuit of self-reliance and dominant role of the public sector under the Nehruvian state, to the ongoing phase of state withdrawal, attenuation of self-reliance and indigenous research, and heightened influence of foreign governments and multinational companies on public policy, including in S&T. This analytical framework has undoubted validity, especially as regards organized industry and for the main current of scientific and technological research in institutions and universities. Agricultural research and extension too have been extensively analyzed, both within this broad framework and otherwise, and there is a vast literature available on these subjects.

In this brief essay I propose to focus on an almost entirely neglected area, namely S&T in the rural non-farm sector, or S&T for rural non-farm livelihoods and enterprises. This subject has long been like the proverbial dark side of the moon in India’s policy firmament for most of the S&T research and policy establishment, and even in scholarly work, with a few notable exceptions and the odd glimpse on quick fly-bys.

As a practitioner, observer and policy interlocutor in this terrain for over three decades, I have throughout faced a strange and persistent dissonance, a disconnect between the lived realities including technological needs of people involved in the rural non-farm sector and the discourses in policy and scholarly analyses. As I shall discuss further below, policies have been silent on, or have ignored vital aspects of, what some have described as this ‘forgotten sector’.1 In particular, technology and the infrastructure and institutional support systems it requires, have largely been ignored or taken for granted while programmes have focused attention on credit, training and related inputs.

In this overall policy vacuum, some niche yet invaluable efforts have been made at development and deployment of need based and contextually appropriate technologies, notably those by S&T capable, locally rooted NGOs supported under the ‘societal programmes’ of the Department of Science and Technology,2 about which again, more later. There have also been the many, but in my view, less successful endeavours by several national laboratories of the CSIR system.3 


Regrettably, there has been little or no rigorous effort to understand the meaning and policy implications of these successes and failures, especially in terms of the S&T content. The present essay too does not propose to take on this Herculean task. A few brave forays have, however, been made into examining processes of innovation with an emphasis on innovation ecosystems and institutional behaviour, highlighting the systemic constraints that inhibit sound technological innovation by mainstream S&T institutions, whereas more nimble non-governmental organizations get better results by building wider linkages and taking a more holistic view of how technologies articulate economically and societally.4 

Other academic analyses, mostly through a few case studies, have tended to highlight the incompatibility or even contradiction between ‘western’ science and technology and indigenous knowledge, between ‘modernist’ perspectives and those rooted in traditional and craft based systems, to elucidate the failure of new technologies to meet the requirements of their intended rural users in their lived contexts.5 


There is considerable scope for fruitful debate on these issues. Yet, these analytical frames do not fully exhaust explanations for what we are calling the ‘invisibility’ of the rural non-farm sector, especially its S&T aspect.

Rural off-farm vocations have themselves always had a distinct presence in different governmental programmes in India since independence, thanks mainly to the Gandhian movement and the evolution of various developmental schemes under the Khadi and Village Industries (KVI) umbrella, a quite unique policy and institutional framework in developing countries. Household industries and non-farm occupations have long figured in schemes of different government departments of rural development, small or rural industries, and even S&T, especially in the various avatars of rural self-employment and anti-poverty programmes such as the Integrated Rural Development Programmes (IRDP) and its successor versions till the current National Rural Livelihoods Mission. These programmes, their institutional location and mechanisms have undergone numerous changes over the decades and this is certainly not the place to cover this ground.6 


What is germane for purposes of this essay is that through all these changes, there has been a peculiar continuity. Uniformly through the decades, while the financial, institutional and demographic targeting dimensions have changed considerably, there has been no consideration of technological content and little substantive technical input into these programmes bar the odd standard tools or equipment. Even the few but significant innovations relevant to rural non-farm livelihoods emerging from different S&T institutions or NGOs have been completely ignored in the mainstream of developmental efforts targeting rural non-farm vocations under the rural development or village industries umbrellas, with none of the many field-tested technologies emerging out of the stable of the Department of Science and Technology or CSIR finding any place or role. R&D efforts under the KVIC7 have been marginal to say the least and do not merit significant mention even in KVIC’s own internal evaluation report.8 


There is no evidence, no specific report or study that may be cited here, to suggest any conscious or policy decision to explain this absence of S&T content. It cannot be anybody’s argument that S&T is irrelevant to this context. All artisanal trades embody hundreds or even a few thousand years of evolving knowledge and technical skills in India, also incorporating new learning and skills from other cultures, and a vast array of agro-processing and other secondary-sector vocations and activities have been an integral part of rural India, and all involve complex issues of S&T. If, nevertheless, all these developmental programmes targeting the rural non-farm sector have ignored S&T, explanations must lie elsewhere than in irrelevance.

One could perhaps point a finger at the notorious compartmentalization of the Indian governmental system and the apparently Herculean efforts required by different departments to synergize their not inconsiderable efforts and programmes. But over how many five year plans or how many decades? And if inter-departmental efforts have not been tried or have not taken shape, how is it that efforts at bringing in significant S&T content into the rural non-farm sector were not made either from within each department or sector, such as rural development or village industries, or through initiatives from integrative structures such as the Planning Commission or other higher levels of government?

Despite substantial investment at promoting grassroots innovation, there has been no incorporation of any of these innovations into the rural livelihoods programme. Even an evidence based and forcefully argued proposal from a high-powered committee of the government for mainstreaming of proven technologies and enterprise models for boosting rural non-farm value-addition, incomes and jobs lies totally ignored as if it were just some pie in the sky.9 


It is also significant that major, influential civil society platforms that have championed rural empowerment through guaranteed rural wage employment and other social nets have been silent on the issue of rural non-farm livelihoods or even the role of S&T in rural empowerment in more general terms.

One is therefore left to conclude that there is a systemic ‘blindness’ of the policy establishment and the state developmental system as a whole, including the mainstream S&T establishment, and also of much of academia and the ‘third sector’, to issues of science and technology relevant to the rural non-farm sector and the large class of artisans, small and marginal farmers, agricultural labour, women and others whose livelihoods are rooted in off-farm activities. This huge and persistent systemic chasm in the Indian policy ecosystem and, in the S&T ecosystem has, along with other structural biases and institutional failings, contributed to the now chronic deprivation of these sections, steep decline in the economic weight of their occupations and activities,10 worsening of the terms of trade between rural and urban industrial areas, and their increasing disconnect from the developmental mainstream.


This systemic ‘blindness’ can best be illustrated through a few examples from relevant policies. There is no available definition of ‘rural industry’ or ‘rural enterprise’ in any policy document of the government in any department!11 The Census of India, the National Sample Survey Organization, the MSME Census and the National Commission on Employment in the Unorganised Sector have all used quite different definitions of ‘enterprises’ and have totally different numbers for rural or non-farm enterprises in India.12 In effect this has meant that the entire effort of promoting sustainable rural jobs and incomes through rural enterprises and skill-based self-employment has lacked direction despite the billions spent through successive five year plans.

There is also no quantitative estimate of energy demand by rural industries or enterprises (or even for that matter domestic consumption in rural households) in any government study or policy document, including in the otherwise admirable and voluminous report of the National Commission on the Unorganized Sector,13 while the MSME Census equates electricity connections with supply and use14 which is clearly not the case and does not contain any information on diesel generator sets, the mainstay of a large number of enterprises in rural and peri-urban areas. Obviously, no planning for rural industrialization, inputs and infrastructure required, is possible or likely, or perhaps even contemplated, if even a base definition is not available, if numbers are highly uncertain and if energy requirements are unknown.


That there is urgent need to address job creation in the rural non-farm sector can scarcely be gainsaid if even the most coarse data are considered. India has around 69% rural population15 with half to two-thirds of them living in poverty.16 With all the hype about rapid urbanization, India is projected to still have around 50% of its population in rural areas in 2050.17 Employment in agriculture is declining,18 and the urban industrial sector is witnessing ‘jobless growth’, so where will the jobs come from to meet the poverty burden? If the expected trickle-down effects do not materialize, and there is no evidence so far that it will, then it seems fairly evident that substantial job creation must take place in the rural non-farm sector.19


And yet, as we have seen, that is precisely where there is a policy vacuum and a policy establishment that is blind to the needs of the actors involved. It would also seem to be self-evident that technology must have an important role to play if sustainable jobs are to be created in the manufacturing sector (and related services) related to the rural economy such as in agro-processing or other value addition to rural produce. But again, as we have seen, technology is the blind spot of the policy establishment.

The utter lack of understanding of the role of technology can also be seen in the handicraft sector, the other major sector involving rural and peri-urban artisans and other workers. Whereas handicrafts, especially exports, have often been hailed as an Indian success story, with exports rising steadily in dollar terms, it is also well known that India’s share of the global handicraft market is a relatively meager 2% approximately. Whereas many studies in India speak of needing to increase market share through export promotion drives, better designs and better targeting of specific markets, as usual the elephant in the room, technology, is mostly and in practice ignored. The flagship Ambedkar Hastshilp Yojana mandated to promote skill upgradation, improved design and market promotion for handicraft artisans, pays little or no attention to technology and only has the familiar provisioning of some ‘improved tools’ to artisans.20 


In contrast, countries such as China, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines have over the years invested in upgradation of technologies in manufacturing for high productivity and quality standards, human resources and institutional arrangements in the wider modern hand-crafted products sector, generically classified in world trade as ‘gifts and decoratives’, with telling results in exports, sales volumes, skill enhancement and employment creation. An official Indian study, acknowledging that China has a massive 30% share of the global market in handicraft items, notes that this is mostly due to the ‘tremendous mechanization [that] has taken place in China’ and the industry in China being ‘more oriented towards production of craft items by use of technology and mass scale production.’21 

Without labouring the point further in what is after all meant to be a short essay, the further big question must certainly be: if Indian development policy is indeed ‘blind’ to the rural non-farm sector and especially to its technological needs, why is this so? And this is where we enter speculative territory.

Could it be that problems faced by artisans, craftspersons and workers in other rural non-farm vocations in India are opaque to the class-caste elite that dominates the policy and S&T establishments? Total unfamiliarity with the lived circumstances of the rural artisan and crafts worker, and even more so, complete unfamiliarity with their techniques and their felt needs for improved or new technologies, would mean that the caste-class elite constituting the policy establishment is in fundamental ways simply unable to understand these needs and then address them. This caste-class elite in India is not only fully immersed in white-collar, education-based vocations and culture, persons belonging to it also have a shared distance from and total unfamiliarity with, if not an ingrained disdain for, all manual and artisanal work.


In a more general historical context, J.D. Bernal had argued that in ancient and medieval times, those regarded as philosophers and working in areas we would today term the sciences, ‘should have had very little acquaintance with practical arts… nor could they understand, because they themselves did not feel, the practical needs of common life and, therefore, …had no stimulus to satisfy them…’22 

Given the sharp socio-cultural distinctions of the caste system in India persisting to this day, overlaying class divides and perceptions in a more profound way than in other societies, the divide between the white-collar elites and the artisanal technique-based vocations in India is qualitatively different, leading to ‘blindness’ in India compared to some impairment in other societies. Such unfamiliarity and distancing from technique and manual work must surely also manifest in scientists or even engineers in India, and therefore greatly handicap them when dealing with problems of rural artisanal or other working people.


It should be clarified, emphatically, that none of the above should be taken as a postulation of some permanent, unshakeable cultural block or fundamental incompatibility between the ‘twice-born-Indian mind’ and technology or engineering. The history of modern India, as well as the prevalent industrial and technological scenario, demonstrates clearly that such is not the case. Bernal argued that the chasm between the literate philosophical traditions upon which modern science was being built and the technical crafts traditions underlying technique began to be bridged in Europe with the industrial revolution, and science and engineering began to feed into each other, closing but not eliminating the class divisions between intellectual and manual work and those who respectively performed them.23 

Arguably, in India, the gulf between intellectual and technical or manual work remains far deeper, at least partly because of deeply entrenched caste linked vocational traditions, and those familiar with engineering education in India would attest to a marked preference among students for theoretical-mathematical work as against practical hands on work. At the systemic level, though, the problem of most mainstream actors in the policy making or S&T establishments being unable to understand or at least finding it difficult to deal with technology based issues faced by artisans and other workers in the rural non-farm sector likewise, is simultaneously cultural, ideological and epistemic.

To reiterate, these limitations are of course not insuperable, notwithstanding the deep biases and limitations imposed by cultural upbringing, transmitted ideologies, a stilted educational system carrying all these biases, and the distant remove from rural settings at which institutions of S&T and of governance work in India. Conscious efforts by many practitioners over the years, especially in S&T capable NGOs along with some notable exceptions in institutions and supporting governmental departments, and on rare occasions through collaboration between such actors, have shown exceptional results in many cases in terms of application of science, development of new or improved technologies and models for sustainable rural enterprises, and evolving exemplars of alternative development trajectories.


Case studies show that where such successes have been achieved, those NGOs or others engaged in developing technological solutions have worked in close partnership with rural user groups, have based their work on felt needs of the users and their lived socio-economic contexts, have factored in institutional and other dimensions, and have built-in long-term collaborations between technology developers and rural users such that there is a resultant sustainable and qualitative shift in knowledge, skill and capability level.24 

Among several examples that could be proffered, some of which the author himself has been involved with, are technologies and pro-poor rural enterprise models in leather, red clay pottery, fruit and vegetable processing, non-edible oils, energy efficient bio-mass based stoves and other devices, fish aggregation devices, cost effective construction technologies and many others, with some of the above involving many sub-systems as well.25 

None of these have involved trivial problems of science application or technology development, often requiring re-design or even new technologies. And enterprises in each of these sectors have potential non-trivial economic value in excess of Rs10,000 crore per year, much of this accruing to the rural economy. Numerous rural enterprises incorporating these new or improved technologies are operating throughout India in a self-sustaining manner, generating significant incomes and employment in rural areas.

Regrettably, these and similar efforts by a few actors remain maverick efforts by a small minority of practitioners and are far from becoming mainstream. This is a great pity, for India of course, but also perhaps for the locus of S&T and development globally, particularly in the context of climate change, equitable and sustainable development, low carbon pathways and low entropy systems. Approaches and models such as argued for above would enable substantively new and transformative developmental trajectories through innovative application of S&T, which would of course require an appropriate policy and political-economic environment.

Given its long if chequered history of promoting rural industrialization and, for all the weaknesses of existing institutions and programmes, considerable accumulated experience and capability, India is uniquely placed among developing countries to take up this challenge. But to do so, the dark side of the moon must be well lit and many more must travel there.


* The author works on development and deployment of technologies for rural enterprises and sustainable livelihoods. This essay is partially based on research conducted under a Project supported by the Department of Science and Technology (DST/SEED/INDO-UK/003/2011/SESS and SESS-II)


1. See C.J. Johny, ‘The Perspective of the Public Sector’ in Rural Industrialization as a Means of Poverty Alleviation. UN-ESCAP, New York, 1999.

2. SEED/DST website at and various compendia and case studies.

3. Technologies for the Rural Sector, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, 2000. . Unfortunately, this compendium, other CSIR publications or the CSIR 800 website do not provide information or insight into the adoption or otherwise of these technologies or the results at deployment.

4. See Rajeswari S. Raina, mimeo, RIPWiG Reporter, January 2007, and others. See also Shambu Prasad, ‘Science and Technology in Civil Society: Innovation Trajectory of Spirulina Algal Technology’, Economic and Political Weekly, 1 October 2005.

5. For example, see Knowledge Swaraj: An Indian Manifesto on Science and Technology. Retrieved June 2013, from Knowledge In Civil Society: /Knowledge-swaraj-an-Indian-S&T-manifesto.pdf

6. For an examination of the shifting role of technologies with evolutionary changes in these developmental programmes, see D. Raghunandan, ‘Small Rural Industries in a Liberalized Economic Environment and Their Impact on Poverty Alleviation: Case From a Non-crisis Country, India’, in Small Rural Industries in the Asia Pacific Region, UN-ESCAP, New York, 2000.

7. R&D has never been seen as a KVIC mandate except in its founding years under J.C. Kumarappa at which time there were no other institutions looking at technologies for artisanal and other rural industries. Significant innovations resulted from these early efforts although, outside the textile sector, their translation into socio-economic benefit in rural areas petered out due to inherent weaknesses both technical and organizational.

8. Evaluation Study of Khadi and Village Industries Programme, Planning Commission, 2001, available at http://planningcommission. fin.pdf

9. Report of the Steering Committee on Science and Technology for Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-12), Chapter 12, Rural Technology Delivery, pp. 137-140, available at

10. Census of India 2011 shows 12% growth in the rural non-farm sector, which may appear to contradict what is being argued, but a closer look at the date shows that most of this comes from the service sectors of construction, perhaps due to works undertaken under the rural wage-employment guarantee scheme MGNREGS, and hospitality, mainly small eateries.

11. Extensive ongoing research conducted during 2011-12 under the DST Project referenced above, has confirmed this startling fact which this writer till then had only suspected.

12. See in particular MSME Census Round 4 (2006-7), available at http://www.dcmsme. edition, September 2009, which shows a decline in percentage of rural enterprises since the previous round in 2001-02.

13. Report of the National Commission on Employment in the Unorganized Sector.

14. See MSME Census, op cit.

15. Census of India 2011.

16. Poverty estimates in India are bedevilled by controversy, not least because methodologies for assessing poverty levels have changed so often. The Planning Commission’s estimation for the XII Plan based on the Tendulkar Committee recommendations arrives at a figure around 32% (see Approach Paper to XII Plan, Planing Commission of India, p.3 and ff, available at http://planningcommission. 12plan.pdf.). Other estimates, for example by the N.C. Saxena BPL Census Committee put the figure around 50% based on calorie intake (see whereas the Oxford University’s well regarded multi-dimensional Index (in its Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative available at puts it at around 53%.

17. UN World Urbanization Prospects, 2011. Revision available at

18. There is ample evidence for this trend, eg., see Brajesh Jha, ‘Employment, Wages and Productivity in Indian Agriculture’, Institute of Economic Growth, 2006,

19. For a more detailed examination of the necessity and potential of this sector, see Brajesh Jha, ‘Rural Non-Farm Employment in India: Macro-trends, Micro-evidences and Policy Options’, IEG Working Paper Series 2006, available in See also Census of Enterprises 2007.

20. See details of the Ambedkar Hastshilp Yojana in

21. Competitive Study on Handicraft Industry in China, Export Promotion Council in Handicrafts, available at

22. J.D. Bernal, Science in History, Vol. I, p. 49, Penguin Books, 1969, Reprinted with permission of Trustees of Bernal Estate by the All India Peoples Science Network.

23. Bernal, op cit., see also pp.167 and ff.

24. See V.C.Goyal et al. (eds.), Technology for Rural Development. Department of Science and Technology, New Delhi, 2008.

25. See V.C. Goyal op. cit., See also Technology Models for Rural Application, Department of Science and Technology, New Delhi, 2001 and the SEED division website at and linked websites of S&T capable NGOs and others.