Myths and Realities

Sanjeev Sabhlok

The term "appropriate technology," as commonly used, connotes labour-intensive, very small-scale technology, allegedly appropriate to conditions prevailing in the Third World. This interpretation is seriously at odds with the meaning of technology. Technology, by definition, is labour-saving. It can never be otherwise. By enabling us to do many more things in the time available to us on this planet, technology -- embodied in the latest discoveries and inventions, latest machines, the latest software, the latest management tools -- multiplies the power of the labour that we possess, improves the quality of our life, and increases our life span by destroying disease. Its economic effect is seen through lower costs, such as in the case of USA where it costs 20 times less in real terms to produce a bushel of wheat today than it cost 150 years ago. Ayn Rand very aptly called machine "the frozen form of intelligence" (Atlas Shrugged, Part 3, Ch. 7).

This does not necessarily mean that the use of latest technology is optimal for each situation. In the case of private goods, the most labour-saving technology chosen -- and the availability of this choice is of the essence -- by a self-interested individual facing a personal budget constraint can be defined as optimal. If all technology, of all vintages, is freely available, then all individual decisions made in the marketplace of technology are optimal and thus appropriate, making the term appropriate technology tautological, merely representing free choice. It then does not possess meaningful content for a policy maker, leaving no scope to interfere with the forces of the market.

The problem arises essentially when people hold a myopic attitude toward technology itself. "We are destroying the matchless living machines, i.e., our own bodies, by leaving them to rust, and trying to substitute lifeless machinery for them," said Gandhi in Young India of the 8th of January, 1925. In such a view, machines do not represent the creativity, genius and living vitality of this species. Machines are allegedly lifeless, as if they were created by powers independent of human existence, and therefore to be discarded and replaced by the so-called "living" labour of hands. This interpretation, which finds much support at the national policy making level and in the common discourse in India, leads to the diversion of scarce national resources toward propagation of primitive high cost technology -- for example, khadi -- under the mistaken notion that our illiterate masses would somehow become better off by this promotion. Unfortunately, this method often worsens the plight of our poor.

This if I as a peasant decide to weave khadi or other crude cloth entirely based on my preferences, then I am doing the best I can and that cannot be questioned. However, if precious public resources are being spent to provide an economic incentive to me to choose to weave high-cost, low quality khadi cloth which I would not have chosen to weave otherwise since it lacked a market at its real price of production, then that is not only not appropriate, it is a serious national waste which we can ill afford. It also hurts me since as I cling on to my unmarketable skills instead of learning new skills that the market is demanding.

It is clear that in the area of private goods, a policy maker’s role should be limited to encouraging the wide and competitive availability of various alternative technologies, to enable each decision-making unit to arrive at the choice best suited to that unit. Research into new technology is sometimes a good public investment, but if the product so created is good, it should be able to stand up in the marketplace on its own.

Technology for public goods

For public goods, the choice of appropriate technology is not quite as obvious. It is difficult to choose between hand-made roads (labour-intensive) and machine-made roads, for example. Since social cost-benefit analyses have serious shortcomings, I suggest that human dignity, safety and standardisation of quality be considered in making these decisions.

Using manual labour for tasks such as collection of garbage in cities, cleaning public drains, breaking large stones into gravel and carrying bricks up bamboo scaffolds, is inhumane. These activities are almost always carried out without concern for the safety of the citizens involved. Since labour is cheap, the life of these temporary workers, often hired newly each day by contractors, is itself felt to be cheap, and little is heard of their injury, disease, and consequent lay-offs in government sponsored projects, except when a major accident takes place and tens of them are crushed to death here or there.

Machines provide dignity and also standardise quality. The construction of roads by machines leads to durable roads, permitting the use of larger trucks of higher quality to operate, reducing the cost of maintenance of roads as well as the cost of transportation of goods across the country.

As a very important spin-off, machines demand and indeed compel, the development of indigenous skills, both to handle them properly and to build and manage them. So long as unskilled or semi-skilled labour is able to get jobs relatively easily within the current governmental system, there is little scope for truly vocationalising education. We do not see a quality tools industry in India because none are demanded. We may produce high quality engineers in IITs but we also produce some of the world’s shoddiest technicians. The answer is to professionalize the vocations of plumbing, masonry, electricians and such others. Vocationalisation of education will become meaningful if government insists that contractors employed by it should employ only licensed technicians empowered with the best tools.

Paradoxical though it may appear, societies which set incentives for the best technology generally enjoy a low rate of unemployment. The compulsion to use the best technology forces an entire society to become intellectually competitive over time. Competitive societies in turn overwhelm other countries with their exports and ability to lower costs internally. Japan did not become a great competitor on the foundation khadi and pot-holed roads.

Gandhian economic thinking in some areas such as co-operatives can be combined with the best technology to harvest powerful results, as in the case of Anand. However, ideology-driven paradigms such as swadeshi and the chant of "appropriate technology" will render us increasingly uncompetitive globally, and give us a high-cost economy internally.

As a nation, only the world’s best technology is appropriate for us. We have to put an end to the annual sacrifice of thousands of citizens at the alter of our Temple of Low Standards.