National Education Policy-2020 and Indigenous Knowledge System

Written by: Bhogtoram Mawroh & Gratia E Dkhar 

A community school boy working in the school garden

One of the biggest casualties of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has been the education
sector, with educational institutions remaining shut even after the lockdown is lifted.
Concerned about the loss of a full academic session, suggestions were made to host online
classes as a solution. Results have been mixed. While the education sector was reeling with
the problem of functioning in such an extraordinary situation, the Government of India
brought out its National Education Policy (NEP) – 2020, which was the third in the series
after Indira Gandhi in 1968 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1986.

Declared as the first education policy of the 21st Century, its stated aim is the “revision and
revamping of all aspects of the education structure, including its regulation and governance, to create a new system that is aligned with the aspirational goals of 21st-century education, including Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4), while building upon India’s traditions and value systems” (page 3 of NEP-2020). In terms of rhetoric, it seems to have done its job.

But what about the substance especially as it relates to the knowledge system of indigenouscommunities which in turn is part of the Indigenous Food System (IFS) on which the NorthEast Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) has been working as part of its Rural Electrification Corporation-supported project “No One Shall Be Left Behind Initiative:Biodiversity for Food, Nutrition, and Energy Security, Meghalaya and Nagaland, North EastIndia”. On this, the NEP-2020 presents opportunities as well as hindrances.

Among the hindrances, lack of recognition of the indigenous knowledge systems is the biggest one. NEP-2020 talks about the ‘rich heritage of ancient eternal knowledge’ of theIndian civilisation to be the guiding light for the policy. Here, the Hindu tradition is  being emphasized at the lack of mention of any other, especially knowledge systems of indigenous communities who, being autochthonous, have knowledge systems predating those that came after them. Also in terms of languages, Sanskrit — which is part of the Indo-European language family — is given preference. Dravidian languages get mention but Austro-Asiatic and Sino-Tibetan languages (spoken by many of the indigenous communities in the Indian subcontinent) are subsumed under local languages consigning them to a lower status at national level discourse. The term ‘indigenous’ does get a mention but concerning tribal communities, which is not the same. Unless the knowledge systems of indigenous communities are recognized and stated, there is a danger that NEP-2020 will not be able to stop the slow obliteration of this ancient knowledge system which has sustained indigenous communities for millennia. At the same time, when one examines the Policy document tremendous opportunities exist for strengthening and promotion of indigenous knowledge systems.

An important aim of the NEP-2020 is to utilize local traditions to inform the education
system. This has the potential to allow the indigenous knowledge system to become part of
the mainstream narrative. This can be achieved through the route of experiential learning.

Section 4.6 of the NEP-2020 Policy document states that “in all stages, experiential learning will be adopted, including hands-on learning, arts-integrated and sports-integrated education, story-telling-based pedagogy, among others, as standard pedagogy within each subject, and with explorations of relations among different subjects”. Indigenous knowledge is experiential knowledge, attaining its current form based on practical experiences with its surrounding through trial and error. This knowledge is cumulative, growing through the accretion of generations of experiences which translates to wisdom. This is different from information (a hallmark of modern knowledge system) as remarked by one of the participants in the recent webinar ‘Indigenous Food Systems, bio-cultural heritage and the SDGs’ organised by the International Institute for Environment and Development. On its part,NESFAS has been working on the promotion and transmission of indigenous knowledge through its ‘Agrobiodiversity Walks and Nutritional Campaign for Children’.

Community school children participating in ABD Walk & identifying wild edibles

Recognising the role of the younger generation to safeguard the IFS and the importance of
ensuring the health of its children, NESFAS along with selected community facilitators from different areas saw the closure of educational institutions as an opportunity to strengthen their knowledge of the Indigenous Food System (IFS). Agrobiodiversity (ABD) walks, which is a transect walk through the village while documenting the food plants (cultivated and wild), is one of the activities designed to facilitate the understanding of IFS and nutrition. Several ABD walks have been held across a number of partner communities of NESFAS. The objective of the ABD walk is to acquaint the children with the crop diversity found in different production systems, to encourage the consumption of clean and nutritious local food, and to learn about the farming practices. Through the ABD walks, the children are taught about the 10 food groups, the seven food groups of plant sources that are available within their village which can be consumed to meet the minimum dietary diversity.

During one such ABD walk in Madanrtiang (a community in Ri Bhoi), children were able to identify the different wild edibles that can be foraged, their seasonality, and benefits. Wild edibles play an important role in supplementing nutritional needs and equipping children with this knowledge is crucial for the conservation of biodiversity-rich forests. Kitchen gardens with the maximal crop diversity and agroecological practices in the village were also identified and selected for the ABD walk. During the program Custodian Farmers, who are members of Agroecology Learning Circle (ALCs) and Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) groups along with Anganwadi workers taught the children how to grow their food and engaged them in: Preparation of the soil: This includes the process of clearing land, tilling, preparing beds, adding manure and compost to fertilise the soil; Selection of Crop: This includes sharing the importance of saving good quality seeds and process of storing seeds; Planting of Crop: Crops like potato, peas, beans are planted in the prepared soil, where the spacing between seeds and soil depth was taught; and Pest management: This includes the process of controlling the pest that can attack the crop that has been planted. The use of ash to deter pest infestation in bean seeds was demonstrated.

Again Section 5.6 of the NEP-2020 states that ‘Schools/school complexes will be encouraged to hire local eminent persons or experts as ‘master instructors’ in various subjects, such as in traditional local arts, vocational crafts, entrepreneurship, agriculture, or any other subject where local expertise exists, to benefit students and help preserve and promote local knowledge and professions’. These ‘master instructors’ are the custodian farmers who have been helping NESFAS in many of its activities across the communities.

What NESFAS has done is pre-empted the aims of the NEP-2020 and has created a module that can be integrated with the revamped educational set-up as and when the Policy becomes operational. With some persuasion from NESFAS schools in five villages, viz., Nongtraw,Dewlieh, Laitsohpliah, Mawmihthied, and Nongpriang have already introduced lessons on Indigenous Food Systems as part of Socially Useful Productive Work (SUPW) curriculum.

To date, 1,773 children have taken part in 70 ABD walks over the last two years. More are
planned for the future. The initiative has got a shot in the aim knowing that similar aims,
promotion of indigenous knowledge systems (implicit not explicit) are also enshrined in the NEP-2020.

On October 2, FAO launched the ‘Global-Hub on Indigenous Food Systems’ officially
endorsed by the members of the 27 th Committee on Agriculture. The aim is to ensure research and scientific knowledge respects indigenous and scientific knowledge, and give them the same level of respect, recognition, and validity. There is increasing recognition of indigenous knowledge systems as one of the solutions to the global ecological crisis. The NEP-2020 has the potential to contribute to that vision and the ‘Agrobiodiversity Walks and Nutritional Campaign for Children’ developed by NESFAS can be an important tool in that.

About the writers

Bhogtoram Mawroh is a Senior Associate, Research and Knowledge Management at
NESFAS and can be reached at bhogtoram.nesfas@gmail.com  

Gratia E Dkhar is a Lead Associate, Agroecology at NESFAS and can be reached
at gratia.nesfas@gmail.com

This article has also been published in The Shillong Times. 

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