“Indigenous Knowledge System for Sustainable Future.” by Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi (Retd)


“Had our traditional cultural practices and ceremony not been outlawed and had our information keepers been listened to over the centuries, we probably would not have found ourselves in the position we are today – with the losses and extinction and contamination we face as our global community.  This is a valuable component of being able to face not only climate change but the preservation and protection of all of our resources.”  

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais,

Chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah,


Indigenous Peoples– Are those populations that are inherently sovereign and existed prior to colonization and invasion, if any. They underwent colonization and dispossession of their lands. Here it needs to be noted that they were culturally, linguistically, and ethnically distinct from colonizing/ occupying societies. This diversity led to an intellectual conflict between colonizers and colonized/ occupied societies.  By the way, there are approximately 370 million Indigenous people in the world, belonging to 5,000 different groups, in 90 countries worldwide.

Indigenous Knowledge (IK)- Local and indigenous knowledge refers to the understanding, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. IK is held in the form of  stories, songs, place names, values and languages. It is passed down from Elders to children and from generation to generation. It is based on;  observations; temporal and place-based; living;  kinship-based, and above all it  is holistic. IK cannot be separated from the Indigenous Peoples who have developed their respective Knowledge base  over many a millennia. Some important attributes of IK are as follows:-

  • Cumulative and Holistic. It is a body of knowledge and skills developed over a period of time by living in harmony with nature. It also takes into account spirituality,  cultural practices, language, medical system and social interactions.
  • Adaptive and Dynamic.It adapts to incremental changes across social, economic, environmental, spiritual and political domain over a period of time .
  • Reverence to Nature.IK helps indigenous societies to live in  harmony with the nature with a sense of reverence and not to attempts to control the nature. This attitude leads to sustainability.
  • The collective memory is passed, within a community, from one generation to the next orally through language, stories, songs, ceremonies, legends, and proverbs.
  • It has been the conviction among the indigenous societies that their respective IK is the key to sustainable social and economic development.
  • A word of caution. One of the major source of IK is language and in their urge to compete with developed societies indigenous societies tend to ignore their vernacular language resulting into loss of traditional wisdom,  which western steered modern science cannot replace.
  • There is a morality in Indigenous knowledge because it lays emphasis on moral values. One of the important moral value is to be humble and respectful to nature.
  • Non-linear.One of the values imbibed by these communities is the respect for elders because time, and patterns are  cyclical in nature and experiences do count.
  • IK is based on the belief that a contemporary decision is valid for seven generation. This leads to the consideration that future generations are also stake holders in the current decision. 
  • Indigenous knowledge is rooted in the thought that the nature is created by the creator to sustain life, thus the mind, matter and spirit are inseparable. Spin off  is preservation of nature.
  • Indigenous knowledge is unique to a given culture or society. While there may be many similarities of IK between communities, it is the lived experience of each community that enriches IK.
  • This knowledge has evolved over a long period of time and is based on observation/ experience, as such it does not require the validation of modern theories.

UNESCO notes that there is certain sensitivity with respect to conceptualisation of gender in relation to knowledge production, custodianship and transmission. Also an important aspect about need for the preservation of indigenous languages is that it breaks the barrier of rural urban divide and line between ‘Haves’ and ‘Haven’t’ becomes blurred. Trust on IK in the society will help in faster decision making as one of the values which IK lays emphasis on is respect for elders and that would reduce the possibility of dissent by youngsters as decisions would be well informed based on experience of elders.

Correlations between Climate Change and Indigenous Knowledge

Climate change impacts are already shaping the lives, livelihoods and human rights of not only indigenous people but also that of others. Indigenous Peoples have sustained themselves through their ability to work with nature and climate variance, relying primarily based on their experiential knowledge of precipitation patterns, temperature variances, local biodiversity, vernacular architecture and seasonality in the food habits to sustain themselves over long periods of time.

To face climate based challenges, local knowledge of past incidences is extremely important, as that helps them to draw on past experiences of responses to work out the strategy to deal with environmental challenges.  Local communities are recognized by the UN system but there is not an equivalent framework for participation or dynamics of self-organization. The 2018 United Nations Declaration on Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas goes some way to strengthening such recognition. The Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was designed specifically to include the voices of local communities within the Convention’s processes.

Local and Indigenous knowledge systems contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 13[1] on Climate action by observing changing climates, adapting to impacts and contributing to global mitigation efforts. UNESCO, together with the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and international authors like B S Orlove of University of California, has produced an up-to-date summary of the connections between Indigenous Peoples, culture, knowledge and climate change, titled ‘Intangible cultural heritage, diverse knowledge systems and climate change’. The UNESCO Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) programme promotes the recognition and use of Indigenous knowledge in biodiversity and ecosystem policy and assessment at the national, regional, and global levels. Advocacy and community-based research have helped to advance recognition of the importance of Indigenous knowledge in UN instruments and mechanisms. Regrettably, voice of indigenous societies is still quite feeble in setting the agenda for response to challenges of Climate change.

The importance of Indigenous Knowledge of the local communities was lately realized in the face of growth and development which has contributed partly to the increasing environmental problems,  growing inequalities and ecological crisis of the world at large. Now it is well established that the Indigenous Knowledge system constitutes an important driving force for Sustainable Development, which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their needs. Here it is important to appreciate that the ‘key drivers’ for poverty reduction, livelihood improvement, and attaining sustainability of the given environment is accumulated knowledge of environment and natural resources among many others. It was only through United Nations Conference on Environment and Education in 1992, World Conservation Strategy of International Union and Conservations of Natural Resources in1980, Brundtland Commission, and World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, the concept of Indigenous Knowledge gained its worldwide recognition and its efficacy.

Many researches bring out that the Indigenous Knowledge provides useful framework, ideas, guiding principles, practices, and measures that can serve as foundation for effective development process for restoring social, economic, and environmental resilience of the world at large. It further flags that the indigenous knowledge are resource efficient and effective and they have been able to conserve and manage the resources much better than externally imposed, technocratic and resource intensive management systems which the global world offers today.

However, it is also a fact that in recent times, despite the significant improvement in development indicators in terms of health status, education, reduction in poverty, technology, etc, the world is threatened with current and future ecological disasters. Also there is an  increased pressure on natural resources globally to meet the demands of the development forces and agents. There is a need to come to a point in the debate on development  versus environment as to how much is too much on sustainability scale. The question of sustainability haunts developing countries of the world like India which face the dilemma to choose between development and exploitation of natural resources. Bigger issue in this regard is challenges related to deal with negotiations with unrelenting West during successive Conferences of Parties (COP).

Indian Indigenous Knowledge Systems

The Indian Knowledge Systems comprise of Gyan, Vigyan, and Jeevan Darshan that have evolved out of observation, experience, experimentation, and rigorous analysis. The tradition of validating and putting into practice after discussion has impacted positively Indian education, arts, administration, law, justice, health, manufacturing, and commerce. In Indian context some of the methods to acquire knowledge consist of; Storytelling; Personal reflection; Visiting places; Ceremonies; Art creation; music and Dance.

India is home to people belonging to different ethnic groups, racial stock, cultural background, religious intuition, social structure, etc each having their own unique indigenous knowledge systems which are believed to have passed down through several generations to make sustainable use of the given environment keeping in mind the future implications. This is especially true for those sections of population who live in close proximity with the ecosystem namely tribal societies, indigenous communities, marginalized group, rural poor and women etc in which forest and natural resources forms an integral part of their existence and cosmology. The application of Indigenous Knowledge is rich and diverse such as water management, traditional agricultural practices, land use patterns, AYUSH medicine, Animal Husbandry, food preparation/ preservation, seed storage, environmental conservation, weather prediction, human health, crop health, food security, and many other domains. But the most important one is the governance model based on Panchayat system. Existing researches in these areas have confirmed the significance of IK in environment sustainability while stressing the urgency to re-define these knowledge systems and thereafter adopt them, and integrate them into the mainstream policies and programmes to contribute to sustainable development of the country in particular and world in general.

It is well established that India has a strong and vibrant cultural and natural diversity and each cultural group or community have developed their own knowledge systems over the years which was originally passed down through oral traditions. A home to about approximately 744 ( Census- 2011) tribal communities, ethnic groups, and diverse cultural background, makes India  a storehouse of Indigenous Knowledge thereby depicting a rich yet curious intermixing of knowledge systems. According to the existing literature and research findings, it has been estimated that about 70% of the Indian population is rural based in which natural resources play a crucial role in meeting daily needs of the rural poor. The close dependency of the people on their immediate environment for their survival and livelihood, enables them to develop knowledge about the given resources through daily sojourn, experiences, and utilization of the given resource. This is especially true for ethnic minorities, tribal communities, rural populations, women and other disadvantaged groups in India who live close to nature and are dependent on forest and natural resources available for their livelihood. It is noteworthy that this close dependency establishes a kind of sympathetic relationship between the local communities and the given environment, which is visible in their harmonic co-existence and sustainable approach towards resource management. Research conducted by Parajuli & Das (2013) confirms the significant role of indigenous knowledge in environment sustainability where-in the indigenous communities across the globe are conserving biodiversity in-order to sustain themselves which eventually conserves the whole environment. However, when it comes to policy making and developmental planning of the natural resources, the most important voices of  the local communities who are the bearers of extensive ecological knowledge of the ecosystem are often left unheard.

In India the natural resources are viewed not only as a means of sustenance/livelihood but they construct their cosmology around them. As such one may come across the concept of sacred groove, sacred sites, sacred forests or trees; etc which not only conform to their religious faith and practices but also promote sustainable development by way of conserving the ‘sacred’ resources. However, today, the indigenous knowledge of the local communities stands vulnerable not only to the elements of globalization, developmental programmes, environmental threats but also to the increasing concept of private property, issues concerned with land and forest rights, power conflict in natural resource management, gender disparity, impact of modernization in traditional belief system, and non-transfer of knowledge to the younger generations, etc.

Application of Indigenous Knowledge in the Indian Context

With a major bulk of population belonging to agricultural sector in India, it is no doubt that much of the country’s land is occupied by small and marginal farmers,  herbalists, hunters, gatherers, etc who depend on forests and numerous forest products available in the given environment. Almost half of the total employment in the country’s economy is in the agricultural sector. Indigenous knowledge is multifaceted and therefore one may come across need for a wide array of knowledge system in agriculture, forest cover, medicine, human health, plant and animal life, land pattern, water conservation, food security, and so on. Although the local farmers have been applying simple measures and organic knowledge for conserving and maintaining sustainability of the environment, yet it is stressed that such age old existing practices are being discredited as unscientific and  have been ignored or side-lined to accommodate incoming modern technology especially in agricultural systems, many of those do not lend well to local conditions.

The tribal communities in North-east  India extensively practiced shifting cultivation also called JHOOM since time immemorial and it is found that these communities have developed their own knowledge system to live in harmony with the given environment.  Similarly, Soligas tribes of Karnataka use traditional knowledge of their ecology, forest conservation, agricultural system, land use pattern, and other resource management. The Soligas  practised controlled ground fire which they believe is good for the control of invasive species, regeneration of local indigenous species, dormancy of seeds, control pests and diseases and also regenerates food for wildlife. They also practice shifting cultivation to enhance soil fertility.  It is further stressed this tribal had good water management practices. Same is true in case of Tripura also. Although Ladakh also has its own agricultural practices but in its case it is more important to talk of vernacular architecture which helps them to sustain through extreme winter. Rajasthan and Telangana, normally known for water shortage These states have developed sustainable water management. Rural women of Uttarakhand through Chipko Movement ensured an improved forest cover to enhance sustainability. In certain areas of Haryana and Rajasthan Bishnoi community has helped over a period of time a greener environment within necessary fauna which helps in improving sustainability.

One of the challenges is to achieve harmony between man and animal. Recent reintroduction of Cheetah in India and enhanced population of lion and tigers in India is a step in right direction. Other challenges entail conflict between need for development and preservation of environment. This is where IK will come handy to achieve harmony. Hence need is two-fold, firstly; policy formulation for nurturing IK and secondly; make IK more scientific and research based.

In Indian context the entire knowledge is based on Vedas which are in the form of poetic hymns-

  • Rigveda- The hymns are in praise of God and nature.
  • Yajurveda- It a  guidebook for priests to perform rituals.
  • Samaveda- It is Knowledge in the form of songs.
  • Atharvaveda- It is a source for information about culture, the customs, beliefs, the aspirations.

These  texts are classified into three subgroups.

  • Aranyakas-  Meant for students in Gurukuls and mainly focus on moral science and philosophy.
  • Brahmanas-It explains the hymns in the Vedas in the form of stories.
  • Upanishads- These are knowledge given by the Gurus to their selected disciples.

Before documenting  them, the Vedas existed in oral form and were passed down from generation to generation. To simplify further Puranas were created, which are stories of religious legends and passed on through memory, one generation to another. The entire literature is categorised in the form of Shruti and Smriti. ‘Shruti’ means ‘what is heard’. The texts consists of the four Vedas which deal with different aspects of Santana traditions. Smriti is the other part of Vedic literature and is derived from Shruti. In Sanskrit, the word means ‘what is remembered’. It is a little less authoritative than Shruti. The sacred texts of Smriti are traditionally written by ancient seers and sages. The Smriti texts are modified through the experiences or the tradition over the period.

To further make it contemporary NEP was introduced in 2020. National Education Policy, 2020 (NEP) envisions a massive transformation in education through– “an education system rooted in Indian ethos that contributes directly to transforming India, that is Bharat, sustainably into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society.  The NEP 2020 is founded on the five guiding pillars of Access, Equity, Quality, Affordability and Accountability. The NEP, 2020 recognizes the rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought as a guiding principle. The Indian Knowledge Systems comprise of Jnan, Vignan, and Jeevan Darshan that have evolved out of experience, observation, experimentation, and rigorous analysis. There is an emphasis on rejuvenating the tradition of validating and putting into practice of IK. This will impact; education, arts, administration, law, justice, health, manufacturing, and commerce. Emphasis on mother tongue will help in exploiting IK.

[1] Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Every person, in every country in every continent will be impacted in some shape or form by climate change. There is a climate cataclysm looming, and we are underprepared for what this could mean.

Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi, AVSM, VSM (Retd)  is a retired Indian Army General Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, NE, Andaman Nikobar on various appointments at Command and Army HQs.  He is सर Vice Chairman of the Think Tank, “STRIVE”, and after retirement is pursuing his favourite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals, and think tanks.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the STRIVE.

2 thoughts on ““Indigenous Knowledge System for Sustainable Future.” by Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi (Retd)

  • February 23, 2024 at 1:02 am

    Nice informative write-up on Indian knowledge system. Also we call it traditional knowledge. For centuries indeginous community survived & adapted only due to their traditional knowledge system. Nicobarese might have had some traditional knowledge either passed on original ancestors or adapted/acquired over centuries of survival-example using coconut in various daily usage, making typical boats to be used in sea. Their traditional medicines from local herbs. Rajasthan Gujarat Delhi Haryana Andhra & even Lucknow traditional knowledge of rainwater harvesting existed in form of step wells बाव baoli etc eg Rani ki Vav, etc. Chola, Pandian times water management for irrigation was also famous. Making of great Temples across Bharat, Sun Temple (Konark & Modhera) palaces etc all were built based on some IK traditional knowledge? Sun dial & calculation prediction based on पंचाग, Many such knowledge system have been erased/lost and need is for documentation.

  • February 22, 2024 at 5:40 pm

    A powerful argument for traditional knowledge. Were it lost out was due to advance in technology and emergence of sciences like vaious forms of chemistry. Local knowledge ipso facto remains local and could not be universalised and therefore couldn’t be commercialised.

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