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Local Knowledge, Social Movements and Participatory Research: Indian Perspectives, PRIA@40 Conversation

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Date(s) - 30/11/2021
3:00 pm - 5:00 pm

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When women in Uttarakhand ‘hugged’ trees to start ‘chipko’ movement, they were struggling to protect not just forests, ecology and livelihoods, but also their world-views and indigenous knowledge. Myriads of protests by tribal communities against plantation of eucalyptus trees (mono-culture) in name of social forestry were an expression of their wisdom and knowledge about tree variety, water and ecological diversity. Struggles of local communities against large dams in mountainous regions and hilly terrains were not just ‘anti-development’ but an articulation of their practical, historical and experiential knowledge that such structures cause severe changes in water systems and ecological balance.

Likewise, many farmers, mostly small and marginal, continued to practice chemical-free agriculture and cattle-rearing, despite the massive government promotion for ‘modern’ agricultural practices with chemicals fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides, etc. Now, that agricultural practice is named ‘organic’ farming, not necessarily recognizing the knowledge of such farmers evolved through generations of trial-n-error and oral transmission.

Despite enormous contextual and seasonal variety of seeds for all crops, fruits and vegetables, based on local knowledge, systematic promotion of ‘mono-culture’ of seeds and patenting of indigenous varieties of herbs and medicinal plants has been attempted over the years. Such knowledge of Indian farmers, evolved through generations, is now being ‘captured’ through privatization of intellectual property.

Therefore, local and regional social movements for protection of human and planetary well-being in India have been struggles of different knowledge systems, rooted in contradictory world-views. Workers’ movements on occupational and environmental health, movement for primary health care (‘where there is no doctor’), for local nutritional food, for system of water harvesting and distribution…these movements and struggles have been expressions of indigenous, local, experiential knowledge and related world-views.

When PRIA began to practice and promote participatory research methodology, it argued that people’s lived realities, experiential knowledge and indigenous world-views are expressions of alternative epistemologies. Such knowledge systems have existed in our history and practiced by millions. In arena of health, for example, siddha, unani, Ayurveda and related systems evolved in different regions of the country as a part of local practice and disseminated through local culture and languages.

Such indigenous knowledge systems were devalued through colonial occupation. In the name of ‘modern science’, oral traditions, field practices and cultural evidences were negated in the name of ‘untested woodoo science’, and local practitioners were discredited and hounded. ‘Modern science’ (the so-called western cannon of lab experimentation) evolved only five centuries ago, but archaeological evidence shows widespread scientific/industrial enterprise in Indus valley, north Africa and elsewhere.

Deliberate suppression of local knowledge systems, embedded in local culture and languages, has been a part of colonial, and post-colonial, occupation and hegemonic control. As has been clearly demonstrated, social justice cannot be achieved without epistemic justice. In PRIA’s own work now, we argue that respect for multiple epistemologies and diverse forms of local knowledge systems are essential for addressing challenges of climate impacts and pursuit of sustainability. Inclusive democratic practice can be advanced through knowledge democracy.

As a part of PRIA@40, Building a Knowledge Democracy (https://www.pria.org/priatheme-building-a-knowledge-democracy) is one of the six themes we have chosen to reflect upon. This Samwad on “Local Knowledge, Social Movements & Participatory Research: Indian Perspectives” was organised by PRIA in partnership with UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education on November 30, 2021 at 3-5 pm (virtually) to reflect on the following questions:

  1. What forms of experiential and indigenous knowledge has been deployed in local social movements to advance their struggles?
  2. What forms of contestations during struggles to protect people and planet have increased respect for local knowledge systems?
  3. What lessons can be derived from such practices for integrating knowledge and culture in re-constructing inclusive, healthier, safe and sustainable futures for all in the post-pandemic era?

Program Agenda:

03:00- 03:10

Welcome and Introduction to PRIA@40 Program and Conversation


  • Sh Mohan Hirabai Hiralal (Mohan bhai), Founder, Vrikshamitra, Gadchiroli, Maharashtra
  • Sh Ashish Kothari, Executive Director, Kalpvriksha, Pune, Maharashtra
  • Padma Shri Dr Suman Sahai, Chairperson, Gene Campaign, New Delhi
  • Sh Gaya Prasad Gopal (Gopal Bhai), Founder, Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan, Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh


Open discussion/ QnA


  • Dr Mira Sadgopal, Managing Trustee, Tathapi, Pune, Maharashtra
  • Dr Vaidya G G Gangadharan, Founder President, Centre for Innovation in Science & Social Action, Bengaluru, Karnataka
  • Dr Mira Shiva, Director, Initiative for Health Equity & Society, New Delhi
  • Sh Jagdish Patel, Director, Peoples Training & Research Centre, Vadodara, Gujarat
  • Dr Indu Capoor, Founder Director, Chetna, Ahmedabad, Gujarat


Open discussion/ QnA


Key takeaways, Vote of thanks and closure

Ms Sumitra Srinivasan, Lead- Knowledge Management and Communications, Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), New Delhi


Dr Rajesh Tandon, Founder President, Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), New Delhi

Dr Anshuman Karol, Lead- Local Governance, Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), New Delhi

Ms Niharika Kaul, Research Associate, Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), New Delhi

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