The value of traditional solutions

"A plant in the backyard has no value," says an Indian proverb. This attitude, which has been the bane of Indian society -- and that of the nations of the South -- repeatedly tends to overlook the traditional in pursuit of the modern. These societies often forget that modern technology, applied appropriately to traditional materials, can benefit the people immensely.

The subjects touched upon in this issue -- mud and neem -- are about as traditional as can be. Their continued neglect, or, at best, a sporadic interest in them, is an excellent example of our "scientific" attitude towards our own resources, which tend to be recognised only after the West begins to talk about them. Both mud and neem have an enormous potential, yet very little research and development have been undertaken on them in this country. This is despite the fact that Mahatma Gandhi was perhaps the only major political leader in the world to live with pride in a mud house.

Even the simplest calculations will show that steel, cement and bricks cannot provide shelter to all in a country like India -- at least in the foreseeable future. Both the energy and financial costs of such forms of shelter are extremely high and the fact is that the majority of households in the Third World cannot afford to purchase even the cheapest modern house, whose cost, in any case, is bound to increase as fuel prices rise.

On the contrary, mud is not only cheap but also a beautiful material. It has none of the hard lines of a cement block. Mud buildings can literally be sculptured -- as the richest of the rich do in southwestern USA and the relative poor, in Iran, Rajasthan or Sinkiang. Mud has only one problem -- it cannot withstand water. Surely, modern science can find a realistic answer to this problem and thereby provide housing for the millions. One solution is to use stabilised mud bricks in place of burnt bricks, which would also save energy. There would be many more, if scientists apply their mind to this problem. It is heartening that at least in recent years, there has been an increasing awareness of the use of mud for housing. However, much of this work has been done by NGOs; public institutions have never shown a concerted and sustained interest in mud as a building material for the rich and poor alike.

The same can be said of neem (Azadirachta indica), whose medicinal and other properties have been known for ages. Modern scientific interest in neem began early in India, but typically, it faded away. Abroad, it grew with much more vigour as environmental concerns made products like synthetic pesticides undesirable. Neem has found numerous admirers abroad, who feel it is possibly the most promising of all trees. Commercial interest in the wonder tree is increasing steadily. India, meanwhile, has relegated the neem to the back-waters of the moribund Khadi and Village Industries Commission -- an organisation that never received its due. Chandrashekhar Mahadeo Ketkar of Pune, among others, has had to persevere almost single-handedly to promote neem in the country of its origin. The first report on the pesticidal property of neem was available in India in the early 1920s, but it was only towards the end of the 1970s that the National Chemical Laboratory began to look seriously into this aspect. Even then their response was lukewarm and patchy.

Scientists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute also have the satisfaction of being among the first in the world to conduct studies into the effects of neem. But, again, there has been little zest in their work. The public sector in agricultural research also followed the trend abroad -- production and the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

D Balasubramanian, who heads the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, rightfully asked in a recent article in The Hindu, "Why don't we do research on neem?" The neem has been referred to in India folklore as the kalpavriksha and the chemistry of the Indian neem should have been a major Indian contribution. But it has not been so, and Balasubramanian is justified in insisting, "It would be worthwhile to look into the reasons for this."

The articles on mud and neem that we publish in this issue show that things can change, if there is sufficient will and vision. Today, Indian researchers are looking to neem for solutions to many of the problems relating to agriculture, health and family welfare. In housing, mud is being popularised by official agencies such as the Housing and Urban Development Corp and centres such as the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the Society for Development Alternatives, New Delhi. But there is clearly need for much more zeal and excitement. Only sustained efforts will tilt the balance in favour of traditional resources like mud and neem.

Political leaders also would do well to realise that religion is possibly the least important aspect of culture and traditions; natural resources and techniques are much more.